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Jessie Tait A natural ceramic decorator

March 12, 2014

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Jessie Tait was born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, the youngest of three children.

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At the age of 13, she began studies at the Burslem School of Art, in Stoke, where she remained for five years. Perhaps someone as evidently talented from a more privileged background would have ended up at the Royal College of Art; for Tait, the child of a working-class family, the route lay directly into the factories.

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After a brief and unsatisfactory stint as assistant designer to Rhead, she joined the family firm of WR Midwinter in 1946. Like much of the pottery industry, Midwinter took time to find its feet in the immediate postwar period.

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A turning point came when Roy Midwinter, the son of the boss, William, took a research trip to the west coast of America, where he observed the sales success of the new, fluid, modern forms by designers such as Eva Zeisel. Chintzy patterns and fussy florals were on the wane. The public wanted something more streamlined, stylish and in keeping with the fresh looks emerging in furniture and fabric design.

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Roy designed a new set of shapes, called Stylecraft, with television-screen-shaped plates and neat, unfussy cups. The range was launched in 1953. Tait took to the new look immediately, creating such patterns as Homeweave, an all-over design resembling a gingham tablecloth laid over the ware, and Primavera, with an exuberant design of abstracted florals. Red Domino, its red rim dotted with white, became one of the most recognisable pottery designs of the 1950s. Innovative abstract designs included Fantasy, which had a central design of swirling lines and spirals recalling motifs by Joan Miró against a grey cross-hatched ground.

I loved her sensitive eye for nature and natural forms.

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The next year a yet more radical shape, called Fashion, was introduced by Roy – it dispensed with the rather nugatory rim on the Stylecraft plate and was even more neat and streamlined. Tait’s skill at finding just the right design motif for a particular shape could now flourish – despite her initial fears that the new shape might be too radical. Festival nodded to the Festival of Britain, its all-over design reminiscent of cells seen under a microscope; Flower Mist is a neat, simple floral design recalling the textile designs of Lucienne Day. Zambesi is one of Tait’s most striking designs of the period: a chic zebra-stripe that on some shapes was enlivened by a splash of red. Aside from the commercial rigours of the mass-produced ware, Tait continued to attend evening classes during the 1950s, making her own tube-lined ware in terracotta and throwing pots. She also made work for the studio pottery Clayburn.

Tait continued to produce accomplished work for Midwinter on a range of new shapes introduced in the 1960s. The Fashion shape had begun to look outmoded: in its place came new, cylindrical forms with straight-sided cups. On the elegant, fine shape designed by the Marquess of Queensberry, Tait created chic striped patterns such as Mexicana and Sienna. Her Spanish Garden became a bestseller, its attractive design based on a pattern for a Liberty tie. Her last design for Midwinter was Nasturtium, a brightly orange floral pattern on the Stonehenge shape that was introduced in the 1970s – another range redolent of its time, it evoked a homespun, wholemeal feel.

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Midwinter was taken over by Wedgwood in 1970. In the same year Tait married Albert Hazlehurst, a train driver. In 1974 Tait moved to Johnson Brothers, another division of the Wedgwood empire. The creative freedoms of the 1950s would never be replicated in the more corporate environment at Wedgwood, but she continued to produce extremely successful designs.

After her retirement in 1993 she worked as a freelance designer. A deeply modest, practical woman, she never lost the desire to make fresh work. The recognition given to her early designs – which included an exhibition at Richard Dennis Gallery in London in 1997, and Steven Jenkins’s book Midwinter Pottery: A Revolution in British Tableware – gave her great pleasure.

Credits for the text from Charlotte Higgins at the Guardian, and equally for the images from Rob Mc Rorie and Dee Beale.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2014 10:13 am

    The tube lined ware is yummy- such a surprise, didn’t know she produced such pots as well as all the other lovely stuff.

    • March 12, 2014 3:56 pm

      Thanks no 54, I didn’t know the term tube lined. When I did A level ceramics I’m sure it was called slip trailing or slip painting. You see we do learn something everyday : )

      • March 12, 2014 3:59 pm

        P.S. Is your name Kate ? as I never know what to call you. : )

  2. March 13, 2014 11:31 am

    It is indeed Kate, unless you are my Mother and I have DONE SOMETHING WRONG. Then I am Catherine.

    • March 13, 2014 11:55 am

      I promise never to use Catherine then…. unless of course you do something wrong : )

  3. March 31, 2014 7:55 pm

    You have done it again fishink… or can I call you Craig here… I have a couple of the ceramics you’ve shown in the post but I had no idea they were both by the same designer… or who that designer was for that matter. We sure do ‘learn something new every day’ as you said! I save up my trips to this blog and when I do eventually drop by there is always plenty to pour over… I take off my hat at your research and posting skills once again!

    • March 31, 2014 10:36 pm

      So happy that we’re still in tune Matt, you’ll be getting a Lurcher next… unless that is you have one already : ) Hope all is well with you.

    • March 31, 2014 10:37 pm

      Please feel free to call me Craig by the way, it is my name after all lol

  4. December 15, 2015 6:05 pm

    Lovely page, well laid out. One piece of Terence Conran has slipped in, ‘Chequers’, just above the cruet in the wire stand. ‘Mosaic’, the one in the wire stand, was a derivative design after ‘Chequers’ – Jessie was a commercial designer so it wasn’t all about original ideas but what would sell and be cost effective to make.

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