Gone to Pot: The rise and fall of Hornsea Pottery / from the archive / issue 3

In the late 1970s I often shopped in Lancaster. I might treat myself to a new vinyl LP or a bottle of Yugoslavian Lutomer Riesling. I usually ended up in Midas – a Habitat-style shop in Market Street – stuffed with coconut matting, Scandinavian glassware and the latest groovy products of Lancaster’s new Hornsea Pottery factory. Should I buy a Contrast cup and saucer, a Saffron storage jar or another commemorative mug?

At that time Hornsea’s Contrast tableware and other ranges were the epitome of contemporary popular ceramics. Martin Hunt’s and John Clappison’s designs won Design Council Awards. Sales were booming: over 50% were exported mainly to Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia. In 1977-78 Contrast was the best-selling tableware range, especially in the USA. It featured in British Government design exhibitions overseas. Yet by the early 1980s the Lancaster works had closed and Touche Ross were appointed receivers in January 1984. An attempt to revive the firm failed: in 2001 the site in Hornsea was sold for a housing estate. From boom to bust in a few years: what happened to Britain’s leading successful modern oven-to-tableware manufacturer?

Hornsea Pottery beginnings were humble. The firm was set up by Desmond and Colin Rawson in 1949 in the small Yorkshire seaside town. Desmond Rawson, the elder and most creative brother, had trained as a textile designer before the war. His right hand was shattered by a bullet – he had only a thumb and two fingers on his right hand – and he learnt to handle clay and model in plaster during his remedial exercises. The Rawson brothers’ early products were twee novelty giftware: bunny rabbits by tree stumps, doggies in boots and ickle baa-lambs. You may find cheap pieces of the Fauna range in charity shops, if they survive, if you insist. In the mid-50s the range expanded into slipware and designs became more Contemporary: polka dots, elongated slip-trails and snow crystal motifs. The shift came in July 1955 when John Clappison, on summer vacation from the Royal College of Art, designed the Elegance tableware range: Contemporary style with glazed yellow interiors and striped exteriors made by applying and removing narrow masking tape strips into the biscuit before firing the external glaze. Elegance sold well; it was the first of Clappison’s innovative and stylish designs.

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John Clappison trained at Hull College of Art and the RCA. His parents were friends of the Rawsons and invested in their company. Whilst at the RCA Clappison experimented with screen printing ceramics – then very innovative – partly because Hornsea lacked the skilled workers of the Potteries. In March 1959 the Rawsons and Clappison visited Denmark touring the Royal Copenhagen and other potteries. He also visited Sweden in 1962 and was impressed by Stig Lindberg’s designs at Gustavsberg’s. By the early 60s Desmond Rawson was Hornsea’s Design Director; Clappison, and his talented colleague Alan Luckham, were full of Scandinavian designs; and, most importantly, Hornsea switched from fancies to tableware.

Social changes were influential. Increased car ownership meant that car customers could collect whole dinner services from the factory. Coach and rail visitors bought only small portable items like cruets and cream jugs. Open plan kitchens encouraged the display of attractively designed storage jars and dishes. Ash trays were widely used. Mugs, without saucers, ceased to be ‘common’ and became trendy, filled with ITV-advertised instant coffee.

Hornsea’s first full range of tableware, designed by Clappison, was the popular Heirloom design of 1966. It used Colin Rawson’s lucky discovery that a relief effect in a black pattern was possible by partially glazing some screen printed pots. Heirloom was a sensation when launched at the fashionable Ceylon Tea Centre, Haymarket, London. Heirloom was followed by Saffron (1968) and Bronte (1972). Saffron featured a caramel coloured pattern with orange and brown accents. It sold widely in Harrods, Selfridges, John Lewis and Debenhams. The range included pasta and utensil jars: Elizabeth David’s influence reaching suburbia. Bronte, also by Clappison, had a darker embossed pattern. Copper oxide was used in the print mix creating a subtle green design of dots and scrolls, finished on a brown glaze.

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In 1974 Sara Vardy designed Fleur: a green-brown floral pattern resist-printed on a cream ground. Fleur sold very well in America where it was distributed by Kosta Boda USA. The best-selling Contrast range of 1974 was designed by Martin Hunt. It won a Design Council Award and every piece was placed in the Design Index. A new factory opened in Lancaster to manufacture Contrast but this was to be problematic. Contrast needed skilled workers to glaze and polish the unique Vitramic finish. The unskilled Lancaster workers made many costly rejects. The National Westminster Bank lent in 1976 to cover the losses.

Palatine (1974-6) by Mike Walker used the Contrast shapes and Vitramic glaze but its floral pattern was less severely masculine. Martin Hunt’s Concept range (1977-81) was the ultimate Hornsea modern tableware design. It had an elegant contoured and ridge shape with spot glaze applied to the vitreous body. The finish – a rich cream colour – was unique. Many pieces had swan-shaped finial knobs. Concept won design awards. It was produced on licence at Upsala Ekeby’s Rorstand factory in Sweden. With Contrast and Concept Hornsea’s stylish tableware easily competed with contemporary Scandinavian ceramics.

So what went wrong? Desmond Rawson, Hornsea’s dynamic but creative President, retired in 1981, aged 60. He had bouts of anxiety and depression and, frustrated with financial worries, his criticisms were resented by some directors who asked him to retire. Upset, his rejection played on his restless mind. On December 10, 1984, he was found dead from an overdose of pills mixed with whisky.

Hornsea struggled on but in 1984 the firm had debts of over £1 million and NatWest pulled the plug. There’s still a lot of Hornsea in use. You can find it on eBay or in car boot sales. Maybe there’s a fine piece of Contrast or Concept in your nan’s china cabinet?

© Aidan Turner-Bishop

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST