Artist films launched!

Filmmaker Emma Crouch has produced three short portraits of the Bow Porcelain artists, and the Made in Bow project:

These short films (each 5-6 minutes) provide a beautiful and rich insight into each artist’s practice through documenting the approach they have taken towards producing work for the Bow Porcelain project.

These are also on view at the Nunnery as part of the Made in Bow exhibition, where they sit alongside the artists’ works and original Bow Porcelain objects which they feature.


Updated: Meeting with Phil Mernick

I met with Phil Mernick, who is a member of the East London History Society and a resident of Bow.

I was primed to quiz him on the rumour he knew the site of the original chemical experiments Thomas Frye was involved in to develop the recipes he later patented for Bow Porcelain.

Phil told me the original factory would have been just beyond Bow Bridge, but the site of the first experiments was possibly in the backyard of a house. We know from other records (British History Online) that Heylin and Frye did not have a factory of their own and carried out experiments with a skilled workman in Bow. The Bow Porcelain factory opened in 1747/8. The original patents were filed in 1744/5 so they must have been experimenting throughout this period- with lots of trial and error- to get the process right.There is speculation that this may have been happening in the backyard of a rectory opposite Bow Church. By the late 1740s the rectory was apparently converted into a workhouse. Today this could be the equivalent of the Three Tuns Pub on Bow Road, next to Bow Arts. It is known that one of the people involved in the early patents did live there at the time.

As we walked past a house close to the Nunnery Phil said ‘The odds are its just probably out in the back there- houses at that time had quite extensive back gardens.’

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Phil Mernick

‘I would like to have a better idea of where it was. It’s a shame- I would like to be able to say it was this building rather than this one.’

Phil pointed out that you can tell this building (below) was an older house than the others on the street as it is lower. If it had been more modern it would have been the same height as the buildings it is adjacent to. The rectory behind which Thomas Frye’s experiements took place would have been similar to this, but with a Georgian front.

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Very little is known about the immediate area in the mid 1700s. Michael Peet who used to be the rector at Bow Church wrote Seven Parishioners of Stratford Bow which is available from the church. Phil told me there are paintings in the vestry of the Bow Road area in the 1830s which are an amazing resource in terms of records of the history of Bow. Bow Church was built as a chapel- of- ease so parishioners could have a service there rather than travel to the parish church. Later it became its own church. During this period the Gascoyne survey of Stepney was carried out, but Bow had become a separate parish by this point so was not included.

Any number of people have written about life in the eighteenth century, but the almost exclusively they wrote about were the well- off business people.  The East London History Society have published books on London in the eighteenth century in particular on Mile End and Stepney Green. People generally think that east London ws poor but atually there were lots of wealthy people involved in shipping and trading, exporting to the West Indies. The Sun Insurance company kept records of insurance policies in the 1700s, so today we can see what people were insuring. However there is nothing recorded about poor people- possibly they were too transient. Due to the amount of industry in the area there was a constant need for immigrant labour. London at this time was heavily polluted and with the smoke the native population were rarely healthy enough to do the hard labour required.

Lastly I told Phil about Felicity Hammond’s fascination with the foliage typically depicted on Bow Porcelain wares and her act of ‘Guerilla Gardening’ when as a perfomance she bought Chinese- style house plants and planted them along the canal close to the original Bow Porcelian factory site to recreate the flora which appears on the porcelain produced.

Phil explained that in the first half of the eighteenth century with the expansion of the empire people were more used to seeing exotic plants and demand for them grew. As the city expanded there were more and more nurseries in the fringe areas of London area- for instance Mile End- as in comparison to the centre these were more suburban areas with less pollution. As we saw in an earlier post Artist interests: Felicity Hammond the area surrounding the New Canton factory landscape of fields, trees and windmills. It was fascinating to be told these stories in the context of the present Bow Road, close to the Stratford flyover and recent Olympic Park developments. London continues to change.


Since meeting with Phil he has contacted me to say he has now found the Bow Workhouse on a map of 1799.


You can see the Work House is located east of the Nunnery gardens, with a vacant plot in between. At that time it still had a long garden going back to what is now Grove Hall Park.

By 1870 what seems to be the same house had been divided into two properties and the gardens built over.


Using the fixed position of The Three Tuns pub Phil has worked out that, if numbered at the time, the workhouse would have been 209-11 Bow Road. Today this location is immediately west of Unity Tyre, which is 213-217.
So, amazingly thanks to Phil’s dedication and reseach we now have evidence of the exact location of Heylin and Frye’s first experiments to into the correct recipe for porcelain- literally just a few doors down the road from the Nunnery, where the Bow Porcelain project is on display today!

Exhibition planning

After our visit to Newham Archives and with a clearer idea of the Bow Porcelain artefacts that will be loaned for the exhibition Mathew, Lizzie, Felicity, Rosamond and myself returned to the Nunnery to look at the spaces and plan where the elements- artwork, artefacts and documentation- will be placed.


Lizzie, Felicity and Rosamond, artwork © Ben Washington

We needed to think about how and where information is placed to enable visitors to understand and feel welcomed into the physical space, as well as the content and themes of the exhibition. We also want to create a ‘visual resonance’ between artwork and artefacts- so that visitors can see similarities between the aesthetic apearance or feel (emotions evoked) between the contemporary artwork and 250 year- old ceramics. We aim to plan the space so that visitors build up an overall and underlying ‘sense’ of how the artists and curator are inspired by Bow Porcelain.

As well as the obvious things like how artworks will attached to the walls, and what colour the plinths will be painted this means for instance thinking about how people are drawn into the space. It is important that the wall opposite the doorway (which is the first thing you see when entering through the cafe) is bold and exciting, and welcomes visitors into the exhibition.

Felicity is using the corridor space which you first enter, and is planning to include some research material alongside a tray of wasters from the factory site in her display. There are a few considerations in how these will be presented including whether they will be behind glass or uncovered (in terms of balancing security and visibility), and what kind of shelving they will be displayed on. In the same space there are shelves that the exhibition information leaflet is displayed on, which is for visitors to pick up and take away. If research materials and artefacts are similarly displayed visitors may well assume these items are also to take away, when in fact they are hugely valuable and irreplaceable.

It is really important to make sure we are looking after all the artworks on display, and in particular take care of antiquities which sometimes need to be in a controlled environment. This means for the Bow Porcelain artefacts we need to use archive lighting that will not fade them, or deteriorate their condition. We also need to use heavy metal- based cabinets with toughened glass to protect the objects from being touched (which would damage them) or stolen. The cabinet acts as a deterant through making the things it contains seem precious and valuable. It also helps differentiate visually between archive objects and artworks.

There are access issues to think about in the space. With the two large metal- based display cabinets coming on loan from the Newham Archive we not only need to think about the objects they contain being in proximity to the artworks they relate to, but whether they restrict the movement of people in and around the space- especially wheelchair users or people with buggies. This is particularly important as the objects they contain are so valuable we need to avoid any possible damage through the cabinets being knocked into.

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Mathew, Felicity, Lizzie and Rosamond, artwork © Ben Washington

As well as movement in the space we need to consider the pace of movement through the space and how the placement of information interrupts this. This will affect things like where the film is placed and whether the volume is up or headphones are used. Amongst artists and curators there is an ongoing debate about how much textual information visitors should be given, and whether this should be on the walls of an exhibition alongside artworks. We all have a tendency to give text information priority over their aesthetic intelligence and it is often this instinctive visual or emotional response artists aim to elicit. For Made in Bow the issue has been resolved through creating a leaflet which visitors will pick up detailing information on why objects were selected and how artworks were made.

We need to think about the visual effect of the height of different displays- Lizzie has three different levels of plinths for her sculptures, the cabinets from the archive are two differents sizes, shapes and heights and we will also show Mathew’s sculpture on a plinth which has much larger proportions than Lizzie’s. These elements need to be placed so that they work together without creating a visual jumble.

We also need to consider invigilators in the space as they have an important role in interacting with visitors and therefore make a huge difference to their experience of the space, and the safety of the exhibits. For the exhibition previous to Made in Bow the artist had created sculptural seating for the invigilators- so that they became part of the structure of the artwork. For Made in Bow we need to plan where the invigilators will be based and what furniture will be used. Would this furniture integrate into, or make itself distinct from the content of the exhibition?

So… these are just a few of the many consderations, and the beginning of a conversation which will be carried on over the course of the next week in preparation for the opening of the Made in Bow exhibition. If you want to see how these issues were resolved, and experience for yourself the overall effect the conversation between artwork and artefacts creates in the space then come along to the Nunnery on Thursday May 16 from 6pm. After this the exhibition will be open from Friday May 17 to Thursday July 25, 2013. The gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am – 5pm.

Visit to Newham Archives

On a sunny Friday morning the Bow Porcelain artists- Felicity, Lizzie and Mathew, Rosamond Murdoch, Director of the Nunnery and myself visited the Newham Archives. The many rooms are packed with amazing artifacts from museum and archive collections in the borough of Newham. This building which in the past housed school furniture for the entire borough is now contains countless boxes, suitcases, desks and even a dolls house.


We were warmly welcomed by Sue Gosling, Collections Officer at London Borough of Newham. Sue led us up two flights of narrow wooden stiarcase to firstly look at two Mezzotint portraits believed to be of Thomas Frye (founder of the Bow Porcelain factory). These are fairly large monotone prints (around 50 x 90cm) portraits made through a fairly unusual process:

‘A mezzotint (in the Italian sense ‘half-tone’; French manière noire; German schabkunst) is a print made using a copper plate which has been worked over (‘grounded’) using a semi-circular fine-toothed tool (‘rocker’) so that the entire surface is roughened. In this state, when inked the plate will print solid black. The design is then created by scraping down and polishing areas of the plate. These will hold less ink and so print more lightly than the unpolished areas. ‘

National Portrait Gallery:What is a Mezzotint?


These portraits had been brought out of the collection for us by Sue to view and discuss their inclusion in the upcoming Bow Porcelain exhibition at the Nunnery. We unanimously gave them the thumbs- up and then went to look at ceramic objects from the collection.

On the way up the next flight of stairs Sue mentioned another project she had seen which  brought together the heritage of porcelain production and contemporary society. She had seen a teaset made to comemorate the Chinese cockle- pickers who drowned off Morecame Bay in 2004. I later found an image of this set on the V&A website and an interesting description on the maker, Paul Scott’s blog.


Felicity, Sue and Rosamond

On the third floor we gathered around a long viewing/ handling table covered in large black foam mats to lessen the risk of damage to these precious objects which had been brought out of storage. Each artist had previously had the opportunity to make a selection from the catalogue of the Bow Porcelain artefacts in the Newham archive. Laid out in front of us in their boxes it was an unforgettable experience to see these items ‘in the flesh’ after reading about, and looking at images of them for so long. As Mathew said, it was surprising how much more beautiful and delicately crafted they were than we were expecting. These were lustrous and vibrant and spectacularly old.



The items selected by the artists included a wooden tray of wasters from the Bow Porcelain factory site, and a blue and white decorated bowl and saucer which Felicity had chosen as they link directly to the research behind, and aesthetic of the work she is producing. Mathew had chosen two figurines- of an exotic black woman, and a shepherdess. We also looked at a shell- shaped pickle dish which had been chosen by Lizzie.


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As Sue has years of experience of handling items as precious as these we discussed with her the best way to transport and display them. For the Made in Bow exhibition we will be loaning two large metal- based glass display cabinets, and using black foam sheet inside the cabinets to display items on, and help keep them secure. We talked about using a mirror under the shell pickle-dish as Lizzie’s interest is in the contrast of the finished quality of the shell dish, and the roughness of its support.

I think we all felt it was a priveledge to have this experience of looking at and handling these items face- to- face instead of behind glass in a museum. The Bow Porcelain artists were able to make a seletion of the items that excite them most, and make a strong link with the interest that leads the direction of their work. The task now is to consider where to place these items in the gallery in relation to the artists contemporary work to exacerbate the visual links between them.

All images © Newham Archive

Bow Porcelain project with Park Primary

This week I spoke to Helen Watson, Art and Design teacher at Park Primary School in Stratford. She has been working with two classes of year 5 pupils linking in with the Made in Bow project, with an aim to produce their own contemporary ‘Bow Porcelain’. Over the course of last term (January to March) Helen led sessions every other week, covering curriculum areas of history and art in a range of activities involving research and design, making and decorating.

Pupils began by looking at the history of the Bow Porcelain factory, which was actually just around the corner from the school. Lots of the pupils live near the former site, so the idea of the factory 250 years ago was quite literally brought home to them. Helen then introduced these 9 and 10 year- olds to the actual wares the factory produced, in particular the blue and white glazed items. Pupils then began the process of making their own work- either a bowl or a plate (most chose a plate) using white clay. They were shown how to roll out flattened clay on top of a mould- in this case a plastic plate. As there is no kiln at the school, they used white air- drying clay and blue ink.

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Pupils spent a long time researching and developing their designs. As a class they discussed the fact that at the time of the factory people would have valued things differently. Bow Porcelain was very expensive and very precious- it would have been put on display and only used for special dinners and parties, to show off to guests. Pupils then thought about what they value now. Ideas ranged from the Olympic Park to their own families. Graphic images pupils created were adapted into a Chinese style to make it look like Chinese porcelain, as was done in the original Bow Porcelain factory.

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The next task was to develop an individual symbol or signature- their maker’s mark, to go on the back or bottom, and then varnish their finished ceramics. I loved the idea of these young people not only coming up individual decorative designs, but a symbol representing qualities of their very selves.

This brought back to mind information and images I had seen about maker’s marks which are used to verify where ceramics were produced, and therefore their worth.

‘Many marks have been attributed to Bow..The commonest is the anchor and dagger in red enamel…The monogram of Thomas Frye, in capitals, sometimes in italic and sometimes reversed, occurs on some pieces. These must be attributed to an early period of the Bow works, and were probably painted by Thomas Frye himself.’

British Histories online- Bow Porcelain

BP Maker's Marks for web

Makers’ Marks- Bow Porcelain

Rosamond Murdoch, Director of the Nunnery visited Park Primary School to show them some wasters found during one of the archaeological digs on the site of the Bow Porcelain factory, which are part of the collection at Newham Archive.

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Helen said she was fascinated by these remnants as she found it incredible to look at and handle objects that are really that old. Helen also really enjoyed learning about the mythology- the classes were told a story that originally Bow Porcelain wares were wrapped at the factory in Chinese papers to make them seem more authentic, and were ‘flogged’ as genuine Chinese products. Helen was also enthralled by the thought of the conditions in the factory:

“To think that was happening right in Stratford makes that quite fascinating”.

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In preparation for display pupils also wrote a description of their design.

Farah 5B

Farah 5B

‘This plate symbolises charity, for example the rich giving to the poor. I like giving things to people and helping them, so I thought why not do a picture of a rich woman giving a drink to a poor boy in the village.

The big house in the background is the rich lady’s, but unfortunately the boy has no home so if this went into the exhibition hopefully somebody will think “Maybe I should give to the poor.” ‘

The example above was chosen as in true Bow Porcelan stye it depicts an aspirational lifestyle. Yet jarringly it is a lifestyle of altruism and philanthropy as opposed to opulance and extravagance which is being promoted.

To see more documentation of the workshops have a look at filmmaker Emma Crouch’s blog:

Bow Porcelain sessions at Park Primary School

Originally these wares were produced as part of a competition- Rosamond was going to make a selection of those produced to go on display at the Nunnery. However once she saw them changed her mind and decided to show all 60. All of the plates made are going to be on display in the Carmelite Café as part of the Bow Porcelain exhibition from 17 May- 25 July.