Margaret Thompson- tile artist (and other pottery pixies)

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Fairies at a Christening

Back in October, we were out of lockdown long enough for a short holiday, which took us up to the West Midlands. We stayed near Ironbridge and visited the Jackfield tile museum there. Of all the early industrial sites amongst the complex of museums in the Ironbridge Gorge area, Jackfield is my favourite simply because it’s the most attractive- especially the reconstructed pubs and shops which were entirely tiled in Victorian and Edwardian times.

A new exhibit was the mural by Margaret Thompson shown above. It was very common in the early decades of the twentieth century to decorate children’s wards in hospitals with large, colourful tile pictures- bright, cheerful and very easily kept clean. Often they were themed on nursery rhymes and fairy tales; this design derives more from the artist’s imagination alone- at the same time, it is fairly typical of faery designs of its time.

Margaret E. Thompson trained in applied design at Goldsmith’s Art Institute in the late 1890s and became an artist and designer working in the Art Nouveau style. Her background was that of an artist rather than a commercial designer, but she was quickly recruited by Doulton’s pottery at Lambeth, London.

Thompson’s specialisms were faience murals and vases with fairy tale motifs. Her initial output for Doulton comprised unique vases with designs exhibiting many similarities to those of Arthur Rackham and Mabel Lucy Attwell (see below). In due course she moved on to work on ceramic tiles for children’s wards in hospitals across the world, for example in the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UCL Hospital, Bloomsbury, London and St Thomas’s Hospital, London. Other examples of her faery themed work are illustrated below; a number of Thompson’s works are held in the Victoria and Albert museum collection- most date from the period 1900-1905.

Mabel Lucie Attwell

Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964) is perhaps one of the best known and popular artists of the inter-war period. In part this was due to her very keen business sense; in part because she diversified across a range of products. She is best remembered for her book illustrations and other graphic materials, but she also produced a range of pottery items, which is why she’s featured here.

I discussed Attwell’s career in my recent book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century. She was born in the East End of London and attended several art schools before launching into her commercial career. She started out supplying work to magazines and, because this proved very popular, was soon contributing plates for children’s books such as The Water Babies and Peter Pan, as well as designing postcards.

Attwell was a rapid and prolific worker and quickly became a household name. She honed her ‘brand’ further still when she devised the toy-like characters called ‘Boo-Boos.’ These were round little pixies in green, with pointed caps, antennae and ears. The Boo-Boos first appeared in story books, but Attwell went on to produce a range of themed products- pottery figurines, wall hangings and plaques, night lights, jigsaws, bed linen, dolls , biscuit tins, money boxes and such like.

Attwell was much influenced at the start of her career by the work of her close friend, Hilda Cowham, another fairy artist. Between 1924 and 1935, both women were both employed by Shelley Potteries, Stoke on Trent, who were producers of Art Deco style fine china. They provided the company with images and designs for nursery ware. The standing of these two artists is attested by these commissions, because previously potteries had relied solely upon their own in-house artists for designs. 

The cute and cuddly babies, little girls and pixies that Attwell churned out are not to my taste, but they are a significant example of mid-twentieth century perceptions of Faery, alongside the flower fairies of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and the sometimes more sinister designs of Arthur Rackham. Whether we like them or not, and whether we regard them as great art, it can’t be denied that they shaped contemporary attitudes to fairies and made a significant contribution to the process in which our perceptions of our Good Neighbours shifted away from a dangerous and independent presence to a far more saccharine and approachable image.

A cup from the Attwell range for Shelley

As I’ve argued before, fairy art has been very influential upon us in the way we visualise every aspect of fairyland. See too my posting on the Wedgwood designs of Daisy Makeig-Jones and the details of my 2020 book, Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.

Wedgwood Fairyland

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I have argued before that faery has had a profound influence on many aspects of culture, especially in the visual arts.  I have illustrated my posts with a wide range of images, from oil paintings to postcards, but not previously ceramics.  However, pottery also proved a popular vehicle for fairy imagery, from the ‘Boo-Boos’ of Mabel Lucie Attwell to some very high quality pieces produced by the famous Wedgwood company.

‘Fairyland lustre ware’ is one of Wedgwood’s best-known (and most highly collectable) ceramic ranges. It was the project of one designer, Daisy Makeig-Jones.  The contemporary fashion was for geometric Art Deco designs, but Jones’ work seemed  to  appeal to a public wearied and depressed by the First World War.

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The Artist

Susannah Margaretta ‘Daisy’ Makeig-Jones (1881–1945) was born in Wath-upon-Dearne near Rotherham, Yorkshire, the eldest of seven children. As a child, she was taught by a governess at home before attended a boarding school near Rugby, where her artistic talent was identified and encouraged. When her family moved to Torquay, she entered the town’s school of art. She then moved to London to live with an aunt whilst attending Chelsea art school.

Jones wanted to develop an independent career as an artist but had to wait until her late twenties to realise this.  An introduction from a relative to the managing director of Wedgwood encouraged in Jones the hope that she might train to become a ceramic designer. She was immediately enthusiastic about this idea and wrote to Wedgwood, who were at first reluctant.  To become a successful designer she would first have to learn the basic principles and processes of ceramic manufacture, which would mean working on the factory floor. The long apprenticeship and the social gulf between Jones, a doctor’s daughter, and the factory hands were both concerns to the company’s management. Nonetheless, she was not to be discouraged and her persistence secured her a position. In 1909, at the age of twenty-eight, she travelled to Staffordshire to begin training as an apprentice pottery painter.

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Jones showed great promise and was promoted to the permanent staff in August 1911. For a while she designed nursery ware in the studio of the company’s art director (using illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen as a model) but in January 1914 she finally achieved her ambition to become a designer with a studio of her own.

Jones was attracted to fanciful designs and began to produce imitations of Oriental dragon patterns in 1913 in what was called ‘ordinary lustre ware.’ She moved on to her signature Fairyland Lustre design in 1915. In creating these new patterns on bone china (also new to Wedgwood), Jones was influenced by illustrations in children’s story books, such as H J Ford’s pictures for Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books, which she had loved as a girl, as well as illustrations by Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen.  She rarely drew fairies herself, using other artists’ figures within an overall decorative scheme of her own devising.  Jones also drew upon the rich colours and designs of old oriental porcelain. Daisy produced fantasy landscapes peopled by magical figures such as fairies and elves, all in glowing, jewel-like colours picked out with gold.

Jones’ promotion within Wedgwood was unusual not only because she was a woman, but also because she rose from within the company’s ranks, an exception to their usual practice of bringing in well-known and established designers from outside.  Apparently, this rapid success was not good for Jones’ character.  She became self-important and domineering and would not take advice from her employers; this personal trait was compounded by her higher social standing and family links to the Wedgwood family.  Some staff alleged that she seemed more interested in fairies and elves and mythical worlds rather than the real one of harsh economic facts.  She was not prepared or able to change her way of working and, eventually, in April 1931, she was asked to retire.  She initially refused and carried on working in her studio.  A confrontation followed, of course, and Jones left Wedgwood in a fury, having had all her designs smashed.  Her career was over and she returned to Devon to live with her family.  Jones died in 1945.

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Fairyland Lustre

The Fairyland line was a boon to the Wedgwood company, as business had fallen off with the outbreak of war, a loss of revenue compounding a range of pre-existing financial difficulties.   The new Fairyland Lustre series proved extremely popular because, New York antiques dealer Nicholas Dawes has surmised, “Many Europeans were looking for something to escape from the horrors of war,” and Jones’ designs were “escapist [and] fantastical.”  This may be correct: we have seen previously how artists responded to the Great War: some by taking shelter in fairyland (such as Algernon Blackwood and Edward Elgar,  Bernard Sleigh, Estella Canziani, Robert Graves, J R R Tolkien, Rose Fyleman and Francis Ledwidge), others by confronting it and recruiting faery to the war effort.

A large part of the success of the Fairyland lustreware range was the beautiful effects that Jones achieved by combining modern technical innovations and an ancient glazing technique that mixed gold, silver and copper metallic oxide pigments in oil before painting them onto the pottery. After firing, the metal melts into a very thin, lustrous, reflective film that produces an iridescent effect. The complexity of the process and the cost of the raw materials meant that, at the time, the pieces were considered expensive, but were still a commercial success for the company.

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A trade booklet titled Wedgwood Fairyland Ware from 1921 described the line in these terms:

“The doors of Fairyland are many but hard to find. Some are hidden in hollow trees or caves, others are in wells or lakes, or at the bottom of the sea. It’s possible to get there by climbing up a rainbow, a sunbeam, a moonbeam or by getting a leprechaun to make you a pair of fairy shoes.”

Fairyland Lustre line proved immensely popular across in the United States during the 1920s, providing Wedgwood with a popular and expensive product with which to penetrate the lucrative American market. Soon, however, Jones’ Art Nouveau fairies faded from fashion as tastes changed and the line was progressively discontinued from 1929.  Wedgwood hired a new art director and moved on to more austere modern styles, abandoning the expensive multi-coloured glazes as the world entered economic depression.

The range comprised sixty-two patterns made until 1931 or available by special order until 1941.  Its contemporary popularity is attested by the fact that it was quickly imitated. Besides its artistic significance, it is highly collectable today and can command very high prices.

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Further Reading

For more information, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century