Crowan Pottery pin tray (7cm diam)

 

Home

Harry Davis

May Davis

Gallery of Pots

Crowan Pottery
    Apprentices
    About Prices
Crewenna
   2013 Fire
Nina Davis
Publications
Lecture Tours
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Phil Oliver

12 November 2013

 

             Harry and May Davis  -  Crowan Pottery

 


'Simplicity! What a hard thing to achieve.'

Crowan Pottery stoneware dessert plate with wax resist iron glaze over celadon
Crowan Pottery stoneware dessert plate

Harry and May Davis met at the Leach Pottery, St Ives, and were married in 1938.

They set up Crowan Pottery in the mill house in Crowan in 1946, and stayed until 1962, when they left for New Zealand and opened the Crewenna Pottery near Nelson.

They were eccentric, idealistic and immensely practical, producing functional pottery of great beauty out of very fine stoneware, or porcelain, often decorated with brushwork or wax resist.

All of Crowan and  Crewenna output was marked with the same pottery seal shown here, but not always as clearly! The Davises saw their potteries as workshops - not studios - so to them the whole concept of signed work was inappropriate, and only the workshop seal was used.

On some Crowan porcelain we have seen the impressed 'P.' mark, shown here, next to the pottery mark. This indicates the piece is porcelain. Perhaps necessary as from the pottery, porcelain had a 25% price mark up over stoneware.


Unknown to us are the impressed 'II', '12', '22' and 'B' marks shown here. We have found these on stoneware plates and bowls made at Crowan.

Please get in touch if you have more information on these marks.

Sometimes, painted glaze marks (C21 here) and body mixture marks (59 here) can be found on (mostly Crewenna) pots. These handwritten numbers mean that the glaze or the body of the pot was a test. Only test pots had this numbering and every firing would include a few tests so that the constant experimentation with different glazes and bodies was continued to improve the aesthetic, strength, and crazing properties. Some of these test pots were then sold.

Harry and May never used personal marks on their work.

In the words of Harry and May Davis

"When we were setting up the pottery at Crowan in 1946, we wanted to broaden the current concept of quality with regard to pots and to couple this with something which has since acquired the name of an 'alternative life style'.

We were looking for rewards and forms of income which were not connected with money. This led to the digging and processing of a large proportion of the raw materials, which greatly added to interest in the doing and also to the quality of the pots.

Quality, we felt, must be extended beyond the narrow obsession with aesthetics which so dominated the craft potting scene at the time. We also intended to take a more integral view of the potter's role, so that plate making, for instance, became a normal part of a potter's function. Today few people realise what a novel idea this was in the 1940s and 1950s, when potters neglected plate making altogether.

Crowan stoneware dinner plate with simple cobalt brushwork decoration
Crowan stoneware dinner plate with simple cobalt brushwork decoration

The stimulation at the back of all this came from our awareness of the fact that traditional potters in numerous cultures and at many different periods had been able to make pots of a highly inspiring and imaginative quality for the simple purpose of domestic use.

We had a strong preference for a rural situation because of the many economic alternatives which country life offered. In this context 'small' was seen to be beautiful, even in 1946. A more creative way of working tended to raise the cost of production, and to offset this we endeavoured to give the pots the maximum durability. Indeed, the strength of our pots became something of a legend.

The 'alternative living' side offered its rewards in producing the family milk supply from goats and in using the water-wheel to process the raw materials and to provide light and heat. It made possible the production of hay to feed the animals in winter, and provided packing material for our pots the year round. A supply of garden produce goes without saying. The material and psychological satisfaction of all this was considerable.

Apart from tiles, we limited our pots to those which could be made on a wheel. The bulk of our work was stoneware with some porcelain, and the preferred decoration was wax resist, with more recently a good deal of incised decoration."

Craft New Zealand - The art of the Craftsman
By Doreen Blumhardt and Brian Brake
Published by Reed, 1981

Harry and May Davis taken after their arrival in New Zealand, August 1962
Harry and May Davis taken after their arrival in New Zealand, August 1962

 

Some extracts from May Davis's autobiography

Crowan mill and house in 1953. Photo from "May"
Crowan mill and house in 1953

Crowan mill had seen better days. In 1946 it was milling just cattle fodder and that only once a week, but the water-wheel turned; it worked.

The big stone mill building and the house adjoining it were solid indeed. In true Cornish style, the house walls were about two feet thick and the roof was slate.

At the front was a hoist powered by the water-wheel for taking the sacks of wheat (and later clay) up to the fourth floor.

There was no electricity or water. Candles and oil lamps were fine and water from the stream was good for washing. Drinking water we fetched from a spring at the vicarage down the road.

Crowan Pottery celadon tea cups and saucers in porcelain
Crowan Pottery celadon tea cups and saucers

The old mill made a wonderful workshop. The clay went to the top floor via the outside hoist, powered by the water-wheel. Here it was processed, mixed and passed through the floor to the level below.

 

As well as the four storey mill there was the throwing room, glaze room and a very big kiln shed.

The kiln we built was large. To load it we would walk in carrying the saggars. These are fireclay containers which we stacked up in piles called 'bungs'.

The glaze firing lasted 48 hours and contained some 3,000 pots.

A lot of the pots went out by post to retail customers, and for packing we used to collect hay from the churchyard. It was cut by hand with a scythe, or in difficult places a sickle, a laborious business, so the churchwarden was only too glad to have someone turn it and take it away.

As a packing material it was excellent and smelled lovely, so that our customers often thanked us not only for the pots but for the lovely country smell of hay.

Celadon butter dish. Top by Crowan Pottery, replacement base by Nic Harrison
Celadon butter dish. Top by Crowan Pottery, replacement base by Nic Harrison

Cornwall, or our little bit of it, had all the rustic charm of the English Countryside. A few yards below our gate a little local railway line crossed the bridge between Helston and Camborne.

The increase in traffic in Cornwall over ten years was fantastic, and to go to Camborne in the car, even in June 1962 was a nightmare.

Cobalt blue decorated cruet in stoneware
Cobalt blue decorated cruet in stoneware

The pottery flourished and Harry put his geological knowledge and experience to good use.

Cornwall is full of old quarries, mostly abandoned, and it became quite a regular Saturday event to collect rocks and stones. We located the quarry where William Cookworthy first found, and named Cornish stone.

We found abandoned tin workings and scraped the erythrine off the flue walls. Erythrine is an impure form of cobalt used in pottery to give a blue colour and it gave us a supply of cobalt pigment of a lovely quality. It was far superior to the pure substance sold on the market and it was enough to last us all our working lives. A huge pegmatite dyke in the cliffs on a beach on the south coast was another find. We never went back to buying refined glaze materials.

A stone crusher was bought for a few pounds which had previously been used for making road metal by Cornwall County Council. We later took it with us to New Zealand.

Crowan Pottery pin tray (7cm diam) with wax resist decoration
Crowan Pottery pin tray (7cm diam)

Crowan Pottery covered cheese dish
Crowan Pottery covered cheese dish

The house and its character… the Crowan tiles in the bathroom*… the Pendarves sand-faced bricks in the sitting room fireplace… the garden with the newly planted trees… the whole thing was created by us, from a rather derelict and neglected property, and just as one made a pot, even a special one, and then it went to someone else, so with the house.

 

* These tiles are no more. They have been removed, and presumably lost, in a modernisation of the house.


"There was, is, satisfaction in the making and completion.

Permanent possession is not essential.

We made pots for others just as an artist paints pictures for others.

Fortunately, money is not always a prime motive;
rather, the work is done because it is worthwhile in itself."

Stoneware Crowan jug with wax resist decoration. Photo from the owner
Stoneware Crowan jug, 16.5cm high

Photo from British Studio Ceramics (The Crowood Press) with the kind permission of the author Paul Rice
Stoneware, iron-glaze, wax-resist decoration, c.1955, 16cm wide

Two examples of Harry and May Davis' wax resist decoration

Dick Smitham worked for May and Harry Davis in the 1950s
as handyman, gardener etc.


He has many memories from his time spent at the pottery. Here are a few.

"All the electricity in the mill house was driven by the millwheel.

Harry got a lot of his clay from the disused clay works near Nancegollan.

When the clay reached a certain depth in the huge container at the back of the mill, Harry (wearing shorts) would get in with bare feet and 'stank' about in it. As Harry was well over 6' and had a bushy, dark red beard, this was something of a sight!

When Harry lit the oil-fired kiln that they had built, he would sit in a deck chair beside the warmth and would not go to sleep until the firing was over. When the kiln was opened there was great excitement and Harry could hardly wait until the pots were cool enough to handle".

Dick remembers helping with the glazing.

"Once I was chatting and laughing with one of the students and I dipped an eggcup in the wrong glaze. I quickly dipped it into the right glaze before anyone noticed. When it came out of the kiln Harry wanted to know who had done the glazing. I owned up. Luckily I did not get into trouble because; quite by chance it had turned out to be very beautiful indeed. But I did get quizzed on how I had done it so that it could be reproduced."

Harry ran his pottery on socialist principles, and every April we all got a share of the profits.

May and Harry liked the children to run about with no shoes on - they also collected stinging nettles to eat, grew all their own vegetables and kept goats.

Harry told me that he often biked from Plymouth to St Ives.

Before he left for New Zealand, and as a farewell to Cornwall, Harry planted a row of Sorbus on the road leading into Camborne from Praze. (On the opposite side of the road to the new Cemetery). They are covered in red berries at this time of the year, and look very beautiful".

Crowan Pottery pale celadon lidded jar in fluted porcelain
Crowan Pottery celadon lidded jar in porcelain

Click to go to the top of the page

Jill Williams and her husband lived in Stream Cottage, Crowan during the 1950s.

Jill remembers May and Harry.

"When we were first married we bought Stream Cottage. There was a lot of re-building work to do; it was also full of fleas!

May and Harry lived in the Mill House opposite. They were an unusual couple and very, very hardworking. May did as much work in the pottery as Harry did, and managed to keep house and bring up four children as well. We used to share baby-sitting. May would often look after my children if we went into Redruth for a concert. Her children led a very free life, and could wander wherever they wanted to. They grew so fond of the goats they kept that they used to bring them over to my garden 'on strings' so that they couldn't eat all the plants. May made yoghurt from the goats' milk; she often gave me some, but I didn't like it very much!

Small footed bowl with cobalt blue brushwork decoration
Small footed bowl with
cobalt blue decoration

We used to go 'rock-hunting' around St Agnes, returning with armfuls of stones for Harry. He took some of the glaze that he had made from our stones with him to New Zealand.

Stoneware vinegar bottle with incised lettering      




Crowan stoneware oil, vinegar and sauce bottles

I knew nothing about pottery when I first met them, but they showed me how things were made - how handles were put on, how the kiln worked, and how to work at the wheel. It was only after they left Cornwall for New Zealand that I began to attend evening classes and I have really enjoyed making pottery."

Click to go to the top of the page

Ted Lay was the Davis' family doctor while they were at Crowan.

Colleen Lay's very special jug. A gift from Harry and May when they left Crowan for New Zealand
Colleen Lay's very special jug.

When they were leaving for New Zealand, May rushed into Colleen's house with this very large jug and shouted 'Give this to the Doc to say thank you'. It is still cherished after all those years. And sometimes used for flowers!
 

Click to go to the top of the page
 

Front cover of May's autobiography. Cover drawing by Bernard Leach

Many of the extracts on the Crowan Pottery section of the site are taken from May's autobiography...


This was published in 1990 in New Zealand
ISBN NO 0-473-01000-3

Copies are not easy to get hold of now.

Front cover drawing:
May Scott, aged 22  by  Bernard Leach

 

 

Harry Davis also published a book in the later years of his life.  This is not an autobiography*, but is aimed at potters who would like to be more self-reliant with raw materials, tools and machines.

The original version is well out of print, but Gentle Breeze Publishing have re-published it as part of their 'Pottery Classic Brought Back' series.

ISBN NO 1889250341

Copies are available from AXNER OnLine

* Although he wrote his autobiography it was unfortunately never published.

 

Click to go to the top of the page

Phil Oliver