We stumbled into each other in the unlit warren that now stands for the Historic Wedgwood Institute, once a factory and later a college of further education in art and ceramics. With no electricity and the evening light fast fading, we roamed about with torches and hard hats, into accidental spaces carved out by years of alteration and extension to the original Brick House pottery works that Wedgwood rented from 1762. The building has been named as one of the top ten endangered buildings in England and Wales.
It was disorientating but, man, oh man!, it was thrilling to be allowed to move about a building that, through so many architecturally impossible twists and turns, could transform itself from staffroom to living room to lecture theatre – now with birds nesting under the benches – to store cupboard to grand hall, with holes in the floor and ceiling that revealed inaccessible caverns below and above.
Doors seemed to be a recurring problem: we walked into doors that had been bricked up and almost walked out of doors that opened out into thin air, halfway up a wall, the floor having been removed at some point to usher in some new Escher-inspired renovations.
After we dispersed to explore the building separately, I met David Booth. I was in a store room, picking over a key cabinet, with labelled keys for rooms we still hadn’t found. Earlier that evening, he’d also met Sun Ae Kim, upstairs, looking at a similar, but empty, key cabinet, puzzling over the empty hooks. We realised we were looking at the building in the same light, and got together to talk about what we’d found.
The key cabinets’ role in the buildings suggested themselves as motifs of access and closure. In recent years big names in the Stoke ceramics industry (including Spode and Wedgwood) have been badly affected by the economic downturn, leading to factory closures, and, in some cases, the transfer of production overseas.
The key cabinets’ shape reminded us of the strange story of Wedgwood’s Portland Vase copy, that shadows the later history and restoration of the priceless Portland Vase in the British Museum. The little key cabinet echoed an elusive box of lost fragments from the ancient vase. The story of the two vases is arresting – and something to look forward to in my next ceramics-related post. Oh boy. But this story of lost originals/lost copies seemed appropriate to the current state of the Institute and the regeneration efforts by the local council in Burslem, in particular Town Centre Manager Julian Read. Julian, along with Fred Hughes, local historian and journalist, showed us round and provided us with the kind of deeply-researched historical context that makes a nest of eggs under a lecture bench seem all the more weird. Really weird.
We’re really interested to hear from anyone who used to work or study in the Historical Wedgwood Institute. If you have a story to tell us, get in touch.