The wonderful thing about collecting antiques is the constant learning process the hobby generates. Every visit to an auction sale, antique shop and flea market brings to light new objects, manufacturing techniques, names and dates that previously were a complete mystery.
Having said that, dopes like me still manage to forget to engage brain before opening mouth. Let me explain. If you’ve heard of Stoke-on-Trent’s so-called Pottery Ladies – doyennes of their trade Clarice Cliff, Susie Cooper and Charlotte Rhead – you’ll know that the trio were arguably the most innovative and exciting commercial pottery designers of their age.
Some months ago, I was lucky enough to meet a former pot bank girl, now well into retirement, who not only once worked for Charlotte Rhead, but was one of Clarice Cliff’s Bizarre Girls as well … and I put my foot in it!
My gaffe involved the ceramic term ‘tube-lining’. Never heard of it? Read on and I’ll educate you. Perhaps then you’ll never make the mistake of comparing it to icing a cake. There, I’ve said it again.
Thankfully, though, Miss Rhead, perhaps the most prolific designer of pots decorated with tube-lining, will not be turning in her grave. Apparently, she described the technique in exactly the same way.
Point is, the simplicity of the technique and the way it is explained belies the enormity of the task. So skilled were these women at the art of tube-lining that dismissing it as simple culinary chore is an insult to their ability.
There is, however, some ground common to the two techniques. Like icing, the liquid clay, or slip as it is termed, is held in a small bag and applied to the object being decorated by being squeezed through a nozzle.
The similarities end there, though. The nozzle, in fact, was a tiny glass tube made to the correct diameter by the girls themselves by heating and stretching it over a burner.
Tube-lining was introduced in the Potteries in 1895 and was used for a short time, notably, by Wedgwood and Moorcroft. However, it died out in the 1950s because it was so time-consuming and, therefore, costly.
When applied, it produced a thin, raised line, usually in a clay of contrasting colour to the rest of the pot, which followed the outlines of patterns or pictures, forming a frame into which, after firing, enamel colouring could be worked subsequently without the colours running together.
Patterns were applied occasionally freehand, the tube-liner either working to sketched designs or from a model made previously by the designer. Charlotte Rhead had been taught the skill by her father and was extremely accomplished.
Alternatively, she would pencil the design onto the actual pot to be decorated or onto tracing paper from whence it would be transferred to the pot using a pounce.
This latter technique involved perforating the paper with dozens of tiny pin holes along the outline to be tubed. The paper was then attached to the piece to be decorated and dabbed with a cloth or pad dipped in soot.
When the paper was removed, the soot left a series of dots where the pin holes had been for the tube-liner to follow. The soot was burnt away during firing.
Each method could be used either on pots that had simply been left to dry out and harden, or on biscuit ware that had already been once through the kiln.
In either case, any mistakes in the tube-lining were costly ones because so much work already done would be wasted. Complicated patterns or pieces on which patterns appeared front and back would have to be pounced several times, each one adding to the likelihood of an error.
In the 1930s, girls started working in pot banks as 13 and 14-year-olds. Those who showed aptitude progressed to become tube-liners only a few years later. They were important artists in their own right and permitted to sign their work with their own mark.
Interestingly, pieces bearing the Charlotte Rhead signature, so eagerly snapped up by today’s collectors over those that are unmarked, were probably signed not by her but by the tube-liner who decorated them.