Monthly Archives: May 2013

Charlotte Rhead, Susie Cooper & Flog It!

I have a story to tell. It involves Charlotte Rhead (surprise surprise), her fellow pottery designer / contemporary Susie Cooper and the long running BBC antiques program (with a terrible title), Flog It. It’s a mysterious tale, and one that doesn’t really have a definitive ending, but it will hopefully provide further evidence, if indeed any is needed, that not everything you see on TV should be believed…….

For those of you who haven’t seen Flog It, here is a brief outline of the format:

  • Member of public brings an antique or collectable item to a valuation day.
  • An expert tells them it is worth something / not worth anything (delete as appropriate).
  • Said ‘expert’ advises those with something of value to go and sell it at auction – i.e. Flog It!

It really is that simple, and it has been a staple of daytime television in Britain for around ten years or so now. I should say at this point that I actually like the program – I think that it is well made and informative in the main. This story however illustrates how even an experienced expert cannot possibly know everything about everything when it comes to antiques!

 

Earlier this year, an episode of Flog It (filmed in Hertfordshire) was broadcast and one of the items brought in was the large wall plaque shown above. The member of the public who owned it told the valuer that she had had it for over fifty years, having bought it on a Hemel Hempstead antiques market, and had kept it on her wall all that time. She had bought it mainly because she liked it, but also because it carried the name of Susie Cooper, who was a well known pottery designer. She had always believed it was by Susie Cooper – and to be fair, why wouldn’t she? It has the stamp on the back after all.

The Flog It expert had recognised that it was a quality piece and said that it was unusual for a Susie Cooper design, suggesting that it was therefore a particularly rare find. The plaque then went forward to auction, which was also filmed in Hertfordshire. When it came up, the presenter, Paul Martin, had it suggested to him by the auctioneer that it may actually be a Charlotte Rhead design, although he couldn’t be 100% sure. It went on to be sold (for around £180), although it was never really made clear whether it was a Charlotte Rhead or a Susie Cooper piece.

After watching this, I was cursing my luck that I hadn’t been at the auction that day. It isn’t far from where I Iive and is somewhere that I regularly go to. I had even had a copy of the catalogue in advance, but as the lot was listed as being by Susie Cooper, I must confess that I hadn’t paid it much attention. I had spotted it was definitely a Charlotte Rhead piece early on when watching Flog It, but of course the filming was all recorded and it was too late for me to get my hands on the plaque. Or was it?!

Around a month later, I was at a general sale at the same auction house when the same plaque reappeared – it was listed again as a Susie Cooper piece. This time when the (same) auctioneer sold it, he made it clear that he actually thought it was by Charlotte Rhead, saying that it must have somehow slipped through the net and had the wrong stamp put on it. He also said that a film company had bought it at the last auction to use as a prop and had now finished with it, so it had been re-entered for sale. Sometimes you just get lucky I guess!

The reason I knew it was by Charlotte Rhead was the four-figure pattern number that was also on the reverse of the plaque – 1550. A simple look up in the Bumpus book confirmed that the pattern matched this number; it is a Bursley Ltd pattern from the late 1920s. Why the auction house (or the Flog It people) hadn’t checked that is a little strange, as they are normally thorough in their research.

My theory as to why it has a Susie Cooper stamp – and it is only my opinion – is based on the fact that Susie Cooper’s ‘Crown Pottery Works’ had taken over the factory site of the old Bursley Ltd, which had been damaged by fire in 1926 and subsequently closed. Perhaps this plaque had been left lying around, with it’s Bursley pattern number on, and was just given the Susie Cooper stamp before being sold. Some of the Charlotte’s decorators will also have stayed to work for Susie Cooper in the new factory, so it may even have been a cheeky bit of skulduggery on their part to continue producing Rhead designs whilst actually working for someone else!

The moral of this tale then, is that the TV programs don’t always get it right. Doing your own research is always worthwhile in addition to getting the advice of an expert. Now, has anyone else out there got a large wall plaque with a Susie Cooper stamp on it?

 

 

The Charlotte Rhead Signature Myth

This is the first Rhead Pottery blog post and I’m going in hard! I think it is about time to illustrate a few misconceptions around the issue of ‘signed’ Charlotte Rhead pieces, since despite the best efforts of many, the myth continues that a piece with her signature on it is more worthy than one without it.

Any glance at the current eBay listings for Charlotte Rhead will show that sellers often use ‘signed’ in their item titles & descriptions. Some even go further and claim that ‘it is signed by Charlotte herself’. I’m fully aware that many people selling the odd item here and there are probably not familiar with how the marks were created – and I don’t want to criticise them for that. There are sellers, however, who have no such excuse; those who regularly include specific detail in their descriptions, such as the name of the tube-liner or the date of the backstamp, as well describing it as signed. They must be using some form of reference, so bumping the price up by claiming the signature is authentication of a genuine piece is misleading to ad hoc buyers or people wanting to build a collection from scratch.

I can understand why the myth exists, naturally, as the signatures on most of the relevant items (i.e. Burleigh & Crown Ducal), are clearly done by hand. One could assume therefore that as it is a Charlotte Rhead piece, it was signed by her. Where it falls down is with the logic that she personally signed every item that left the factory – she wouldn’t have had much time to do any actual designing if that was the case!

So, a few facts around the processes used – and my apologies if I am preaching to the converted:

  • Charlotte Rhead was the designer of the patterns, but a number of paintresses or tube-liners were employed to actually decorate the items. She may well have completed the painting herself, especially on early items, but it isn’t possible to identify which ones they were conclusively.
  • The Bursley Ltd (Wood & Sons) pieces weren’t signed at all – they just had pattern numbers or names. If you find a piece with her name on it, don’t buy it!
  • Richardsons (Crown Ducal) and Burgess & Leigh (Burleighware) pieces did carry a signature, however they were ‘facsimile’ signatures – or an appropriation of Charlotte’s own handwriting. These were applied by the decorators and they also (usually) marked the item with their own code, so that we can see who actually did the work. This would also have been been useful if they were being paid by piece-work, as the factory would have been able to quickly identify who was owed what.
  • The most popular (and therefore mass produced) Ducal patterns often had no signature. It was felt to be a waste of time marking them as they were churned out a fast rate and the decorators being paid by the piece simply wanted to get on to the next one. Stitch & Patch are good examples of this.
  • The marks for HJ Wood (Bursley Ware) were all pre-printed stamps – i.e. not done by hand.

Any comparison between the facsimile signatures make it obvious that they are different versions of an original, as the images here shown.

 

Of course, there is an argument to say that this should not be talked about and the status quo should remain; if people wish to only pursue items that have a ‘signature’, it leaves less competition in the market for the other pieces that have no such mark. My problem, though, is that as someone who sells these things all the time, I regularly have potential buyers who turn their noses up at a lovely piece of Charlotte Rhead pottery ‘because it isn’t signed’! I don’t like an argument, so I just let them walk away – perhaps they’ll go round the corner and find what they’re looking for, (and pay through the nose for it).

The bottom line then, is that buyers looking for Charlotte Rhead pieces made for Burleighware and Crown Ducal should not be concerned if there is no signature. An attributed pattern number, the pattern itself and the factory mark should be proof enough that it was designed by Charlotte. Bernard Bumpus mentions this whole issue in his book, and even goes as far as to suggest that the unsigned items are the ones that collectors should look for. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.