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.
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.
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.’
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.
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”.
In preparation for display pupils also wrote a description of their design.
‘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:
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.