Early last month, I spent a chilly week in the Spode Factory working with the hot. hot, fresh-from-the-kiln ideas of David Booth and Sun Ae Kim. It was a brilliant week, full of forays into the mould stores and red-nosed encampments at the Factory Refectory – a pop-up cafe at the BCB exhibition. The week-long residency was also the beginning of a collaborative project between the three of us, which will involve further residencies and workshops in Stoke-on-Trent and the West Midlands.
We will be developing a piece of work based on our visit to the Historic Wedgwood Institute, our initial concept of the ‘Key to Inspiration’ and the Portland Vase, as it is reshaped and resolved by our immersive experience of working in the empty factory and offices on the Spode site. Over the next few months we will be working on narratives gleaned from a day trip to the Gladstone Museum and research into the ceramic industry in Stoke, past and present.
There are some great photos of this strange, deserted industrial complex. It’s not usually open to the public, so I hope you enjoy having a little peek at the things we found, here and about.
The original Spode Factory finally closed its doors in 2008, ending the site’s 249-year association with one of the foremost names in fine ceramics and industry in the Potteries.
Spode was bought by the Portmeirion Group in 2009, which continues to operate only a few hundred metres away from the original Spode site. The Spode Factory, however, remains empty, available for alternative use as an exhibition and museum space. In 2011, the British Ceramics Biennial took place under the vast and undulating ceiling of the Spode China Hall, providing a historically-appropriate context to the vital dialogue between the work of emerging ceramic artists and local Stoke industry exhibited in the space.
Outside of the China Hall, though, the original Spode Factory continues to exist as a great 10-acre sprawl of industrial heritage and reminders of the recession’s legacy: 18th-century mould stores, kiln rooms, design departments, exhibition halls, decal presses and administration offices, all with their calendars and clocks synched permanently to 2007.
We even found pot plants and mugs of tea, left exactly as they had been when the employees were told they’d lost their jobs.
And some in a bit of a state after, I assume, liquidators paid a visit.
We were confronted with a huge number of discarded multiples, fragments from years of large-scale production. Knife handles, old moulds, tea-pot lids, record sheets of kiln temperatures, tester pots and lithographic transfers presented themselves in their thousands; sometimes in separated small pockets, sometimes in singular enormous piles reaching up to the rafters.
The pieces we found were always incomplete; just as we found a key cupboard with no keys, a found key with no label, we uncovered lids with no pots, handles with no knifes, moulds with no date, labels for Spode ranges we couldn’t identify. We started collecting matching pieces, which had been displaced through various scavengings, including previous artists’ visits and installations.
We are looking forward to continuing our research at a future residency at the Burslem School of Art in 2012. If you want to talk to any of us about what we’re getting up to, or where this project might be heading, I’d love to hear from you – so just send me an email. I’m really keen to hear from anyone who worked at Spode before the factory closure, or in the ceramics industry in Stoke.