Starting up a business has never been easy and historically much harder if you are a woman. Doubly tough if you were a single woman in the 1920s like potter, Dorothy Watson, who, having lost her fiancé, Arthur Prichard at Vimy Ridge during WW1, found herself single and in great need of work. An inheritance of £50 from her godmother gave Watson the impetus to create a new life for herself. But the war had changed her. She no longer wanted to look after other people’s children (she had been a nanny abroad and had learnt French and German). She wanted to do something artistic.
In William Barham’s memoir Forty Years a Potter, Dorothy Watson and The Bridge Pottery, 1921-1961, Dorothy writes in her diary: ‘By 1919, disillusioned by the futility and destruction of war, I looked around for a career of a creative nature, by which I could earn a living’.
The result was ‘The Bridge Pottery’ but before setting up her studio, she had to learn the craft.
The photographs in Barham’s book really bring the era of the nineteen-twenties alive. One picture of Watson being coached at the wheel by independent potter, Dora Lunn is particularly telling. As apprentice to Lunn, Watson is completely transfixed by the potting process – her excitement is palpable. Dora Lunn’s father was well-known in the art world. He taught ceramics at the much-respected Camberwell School of Art and helped inspire what is now known as the ‘studio pottery’ movement, where unique or short-runs of pottery were produced by artists and artisans. All stages of the process were carried out by the artists themselves. By setting up their own potteries, Lunn and Watson encapsulated this movement.
By then Watson was already thirty. Hardly the age of an apprentice but she didn’t let that hold her back. Through the author, we follow Watson’s career journey from her tiny house in Sumner Place Mews Kensington, which served as studio and residence, through to a small cottage complex in Hampshire, to larger premises in Hole Park, Rolvenden, in Kent. As her studio space grew so did her responsibilities and pressures.
The book is the story of how she built up her operation and her ingenuity in getting noticed. She attended the usual fairs but also took advantage of the railways. The Great Western Railway transported holiday makers to beautiful resorts, made famous by writers such as Wordsworth. She focused her efforts on Devil’s Bridge in Wales. Dorothy would follow her would-be clients on the train with her wares, setting up a stall in front of a hotel with pottery wheel to attract attention. From Devil’s Bridge she got her pottery mark – a bridge – and her company became known as The Bridge Pottery.
In time, Heals began to stock her pottery. A wonderful photograph of Heal & Son horse-drawn delivery vans at the Tottenham Court Road Depot, really takes the reader back in time. The horses would trot to Dorothy’s studio in Sumner Place Mews to pick up the weekly consignment of pottery.
Interestingly we learn that Heals’s director, Sir Ambrose Heal, championed the Art and Crafts movement and was supportive of small producers. To encourage customers to explore every level of his department store, he created an exhibition space on the top floor, for artisans to display their work and create interest. Watson’s wares obviously were popular as her relationship with Heals continued for years.
Watson’s wares were remarkable for their bright glazes. Dorothy used beautiful turquoises, greens and bright orange for the interiors of her pieces. Bands of colour animated the rims. This was an era of breakfast sets, soufflé or custard dishes, crumpet dishes with lids and of course plates of every size and use, dishes, vases and bowls. Dorothy wanted her pieces to be used and to be attractive. She attached great importance to the design – it had to work for the woman who kept house. Whilst doing her most to promote her wares, Dorothy was always wary of over-commercialisation. Each piece was individually made. Hours were spent fashioning, firing and glazing it. Her business model was labour-intensive and profit-margins slim.
As an entrepreneur, Watson battled to keep her pottery going for forty years. She never married (nor did her three sisters) which creates an intriguing subtext. Why did the four sisters not marry? They would have had an easier life. The author suggests that an exacting mother might have had her role to play in fending off suitors.
The book shows the impact of war on people’s livelihoods. Dorothy had to wrap up her business for the duration of WW11. To start out again in 1945 was a struggle. But looking at the pieces she produced then – I think they are her best.
In writing about her, Barham seeks to reintroduce her artistic talent to a new audience and to establish her rightful place in the studio pottery movement of the 20th century.
If you would like to know more and see Dorothy Watson’s work – There is an Art Exhibition with her pottery on display at Rolvenden Flower Festival, Kent. 28-30 August 2021.
The book is already on sale and can be bought online, in bookshops, and directly from www.youbyyou.co.uk