Among the miscellaneous objects on my rather messy desk is a brown mug, with a broken handle, decorated with a frieze of dancing rabbits. This mug has sat on every desk I’ve ever sat at: I appropriated it for a pen-holder (in its already broken state) when I was a teenager, and it has travelled everywhere with me since I left home at the age of 18. There were many similar brown mugs in our house when I was growing up: one was decorated with elephants, one with chickens, one with a Welsh dragon, and one with a partridge in a pear tree. The mugs were made by Hornsea Pottery and, since the turn of the 1970s (when she got married) my mum had purchased them one at a time, when money allowed, from Ivesons, the department store on Drake Street “that furnished half of Rochdale”.
I’ve always had a fondness for my rabbit mug, and for Hornsea pottery in general. Hornsea is a seaside town in East Yorkshire, and the pottery there is of relatively recently ilk, being founded in 1949 by Colin and Desmond Rawson. In difficult post-war economic circumstances, the Rawson brothers slowly built up their business making novelty items, (such as Toby jugs and sentimental animal figures) in a kiln at the back of their house. A couple of decades later they had expanded to factory size, and achieved considerable success mass-producing interesting and attractive tableware (with the help of their innovative designers). By the late 1960s, Hornsea pottery sat on the kitchen tables of countless ordinary British households, with their “Heirloom” and “Saffron” ranges among the immediately recognisable icons of the period’s popular design.
Last year I began reading about British ceramics in the 1950s and 60s, and discovered a new interest in Hornsea pottery. I looked at my broken rabbit mug with new eyes: I had always liked the movement, character, and simplicity of its jolly repeating figures, but to me it now seemed to epitomise what Lesley Jackson said about the democratisation of post-war design through the use of familiar motifs and mass production.* I began looking for for other Hornsea mugs. It wasn’t hard to find them.
This tankard from 1970, commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower and holding exactly a pint, rapidly became my favourite tea-drinking vessel . . .
. . . I found saffron and fish mugs . . .
. . .mugs decorated with ‘newsprint’ owls . . .
. . . and another jolly rabbit mug, without a broken handle.
Then I discovered that the Hornsea designs I most admired were the work of one man, John Clappison.
The brown mugs and tablewear were familiar to me from my childhood. But the work Clappison produced for Hornsea pottery earlier in the 1950s and 60s was new to me, and I found really liked it.
Clappison’s early work for Hornsea had clean, curving lines and a simple (but innovative) use of texture and colour. In 1962, he travelled to Sweden, where he met Stig Lindberg and Gunnar Nylund and visited Gustavsberg. The designs he produced on his return to Hornsea seem to display the influence of popular Swedish ceramics, coupled with the quirkiness and economy of line that seems distinctively him.
“chicken” ashtray, 1965
When I look at what I like and admire in mid-century popular design, and indeed at what I most like to design right now myself, I think perhaps that John Clappison, out of whose mugs I drank throughout my early childhood, has somehow exercised an unconscious influence. I like simple repeats and folky motifs. I like fine lines and bold curves and blocks of colour on a background of another single colour. I also like designs which clearly have a sense of fun and vim. Clappison’s surface designs for Hornsea have all these things in spades, and I think perhaps that the influence of him and his design milieu is there somewhere in Ursula, in Peerie Flooers, and perhaps in Neepheid too. Consciously now, I am working on a design that explicitly recalls one of the lovely, simple pieces of Hornsea pottery I now own (of which more soon). John Clappison died in 2013. I wish I could have thanked him for the inspiration.
*Lesley Jackson, The New Look: Design in the 1950s (1991)
For more on Clappison see Pauline Coyle, Gone to Pot: the Life and Work of John Clappison (2007). This book is the most reliable guide to Clappison’s work (which I’ve found frequently misnamed and misattributed in other books about Hornsea Pottery)