wed 17/07/2019

Handmade: By Royal Appointment, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Handmade: By Royal Appointment, BBC Four

Handmade: By Royal Appointment, BBC Four

New series examines the renaissance of the artisan artefact

Susan Green, a 45-year veteran of the Wedgwood company

The accelerating glorification, in the West at least, of the handmade is a fascinating phenomenon, perhaps a subliminal fight back against overwhelming industrialisation and the age of the robots. And perhaps nowhere is the admiration and commercial possibility accruing to the handmade artefact more evident than in British companies who can label themselves as By Royal Appointment. Four such enterprises, ranging from a two-man band in a country manor to a full-scale factory, are the subject of this series, with the silver and goldsmithing of The House of Benny, Steinway pianos and John Lobb shoemakers yet to come.

The first programme looked at Wedgwood, the maker of fine pottery and porcelain par excellence founded in 1759. The genius of Josiah Wedgwood, from a family of potters, was displayed not only in the neoclassical wares that he persuaded the aspirational middle classes to buy from his firm, but in his methods. His newly fledged company was a catalyst for the Industrial Revolution in terms of production methods, distribution and marketing, and even the notion of the loss leader, selling below cost to persuade buyers of the quality of the product. It is even arguable that he invented the idea of branding. But the eponymous firm fell prey in the 1990s – as did the Potteries and Stoke-on-Trent itself – to cheap Chinese competition, among other factors, and was bought by Waterford in Ireland, also doomed to fail.

Panther WedgwoodThis initial programme therefore, deliberately or not, was a subtle essay on the possibility of rejuvenation of a heritage brand. It is a neat irony that Wedgwood is no longer British. As of last year Wedgwood (not to mention Waterford, Royal Doulton, Arabica, Littala and Royal Copenhagen) was folded into Fiskars, a global design company founded in the 17th century near Helsinki and still headquartered in Finland. A charmingly resolute Finn, Ulrich Garde, turned up to tell us that Fiskars aimed to blow away the dust from the Wedgwood image. 

The best way was the most challenging way; the bread and butter, so to speak, was the Wedgwood plates, cups and saucers (much of it outsourced to southeast Asia), but the luxury items also defined the brand. In between visiting the Staffordshire factory and watching dedicated employees deploying hard-learned skills, we saw tourists from Japan and elsewhere visit the splendidly over-the-top Wedgwood showroom and tearoom, to see the displays, sample a wide variety of teas and eat wonderfully oozy cakes, presided over by an equally delicious maitre d’.

The solemn narrator remarked that the past was meeting an uncertain future, as we were introduced to several specialist craftsmen working on aspects of the Panther Vase (pictured above), a Wedgwood design from 1775. Now as a limited edition objet d’art it will set the buyer back some £4,000. We watched as Neil Burton, the turner (pictured below), in a uniform of Wedgwood blue, actually made the shape of the vase on the wheel with split-second co-ordination. He told us that 44 years ago, everyone leaving school in Stoke could expect a job. Back then, 70-plus people could do what he was doing; only two were now so employed.

Susan Green, with finesse, made tiny ornamental leaves, setting wisps of wet clay in moulds, and told us that younger employees did not have the patience nor the wherewithal to withstand the tedium. However, one young apprentice said he was thrilled with his job and what he was learning. And we watched the final moments as the vase was put in with other objects to be fired at 1180 degrees for 18 hours, followed by a 14-hour cooldown, when anything can go wrong and sometimes does.

Wedgwood is a national institution attempting to reinvent itself, but the quartet of older employees, modestly conscious of their own abilities, voiced concerns at the lack of a new generation of artisan potters. The new Wedgwood aims to position itself as a luxury super-brand, from cups and saucers to a lifestyle experience. The phrase "By Royal Appointment" proved to be little more than a teaser for the programme, because we learned nothing about what that branding means. Instead we witnessed a complicated choreography of specialist skills, each contributing to the recreation of an 18th-century object for a 21st-century market.

The new Wedgwood positions itself as a luxury super-brand, from cups and saucers to a lifestyle experience

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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