A decorative ceramic plate
Purchased on eBay
The house depicted on the plate is Brantwood, one time home of eminent Victorian John Ruskin, the foremost art critic and opinion-former of his era. Lawson Park, Grizedale Arts’ base, latterly became part of Ruskin’s estate and was part of the local infrastructure in which Ruskin involved himself.
Brantwood became Ruskin’s headquarters following his retreat from public life aged 52 in 1872. At the house he suffered a series of mental breakdowns and to some extent refocused his energies on local concerns, developing craft, agricultural innovation and small-scale production. Ruskin quickly became a tourist attraction in the same way that Wordsworth (in nearby Grasmere) had before him, a tourist attraction based on national celebrity. Wordsworth gave public audiences over his garden gate, which despite his complaints he, in reality, seems to have enjoyed. Ruskin did not follow suit but did entertain extensively and involved himself in Coniston village life.
The item is an early example of tourist giftware, probably sold locally as a memento of a visit to Coniston and the home of the celebrated John Ruskin. Although Victorian in style the plate could have been produced well into the Edwardian era and may have been sold through the Ruskin Museumin Coniston, established 10 years after Ruskin’s death in 1900 and still operating today,
The manufacturer relies on the Ruskin brand to sell the object. However, the plate itself has little merit, being cheaply and badly made, and woefully retro in its styling - a knick-knack to rival anything currently available in the gift shops of Coniston.
Ruskin himself would have abhorred such objects, representing as they did the mass production industry that he worked so assiduously against. But like most tourism-led initiatives the profiteer had no concern with the exploited, neither the subject (Ruskin), the workers or the purchasers.
The plate - against all of Ruskin’s ideals - is analogous with contemporary tourism, where we still see the exploitation (for financial profit) of everything from natural disasters to cultural customs to indigenous peoples’ health and welfare. A striking illustration of this equation is illustrated in the film 'The Cannibal Tours' which should be essential watching for anyone going on holiday. The film's director Dennis O'Rourke comments 'If we really want to understand the world in which we live, we must oppose simplicity and slogans and seek meaning in chaos and complexity' Cannibal Tours ￼
Thomas Ford founded Ford & Sons in 1865. His main activity concentrated on the small town of Burslem in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. Burslem, once a small village, has a recorded history of a pottery industry from the 13th century which developed into the 16th century when farmers diversified and built kilns onto the sides of their houses. By the early stages of the Industrial Revolution other well known potteries such as Wedgwood and Minton helped the town gain the status of 'mother of the potteries'.
In the surviving trade directories, piecing together the little information available on Ford, he appears to be somewhat of a speculator, buying and selling potteries that are going down the pan. In 1863 he bought Hill Top Pottery, an industrial factory with a neoclassical façade on 'The Sytch' - a hill overlooking the town, which was originally founded in 1839. In only one year, Ford turned the pottery into a successful business producing coloured earthenware, china and Etruscan-ware only to sell the Pottery in 1864. As a consequence of Hill Top’s liquidation in 1867 Ford bought it back, setting about sectioning the building off into a china works (which R. Alcock bought) and an earthenware pottery (which Burgess & Leigh purchased).
In 1868 Ford acquired the surviving parts of The Fountain Place Works that had been demolished to make way for new infrastructure. Turning the ruins into a thriving pottery which was in production until 1938 as Ford & Sons.
Interestingly on the 13th October, 1881 (approximately nine years before the Ruskin plate was made) William Morris (a follower of Ruskin’s ideologies) came to Burslem to deliver a stark lecture called Art and the Beauty of the Earth, in which he implored the manufacturers of town to “turn this land from the grimy back-yard of a workshop into a garden”. With it's mass produced form and naturalistic decoration the plate completely illustrates this tension between the differing philosophies of the arts and craft movement and the industrial revolutionaries.
Art and the beauty of the earth: A lecture by William Morris in the Potteries 1881, Adult Education & Society series; documentary no.7, H.P.Smith, 1962