Passion For Porcelain
Produced in China for more than a thousand years, fine white porcelain became highly sought after by the Western world from the sixteenth century onwards. English manufacturers struggled to discover the secrets of making porcelain – from the late 1740s to the 1760s, without access to the primary ingredients, china clay and china stone, English factories were only able to develop formulae that created a range of soft paste porcelains.
The manufacture of true porcelain in Britain for the first time was due to the discovery of china clay and china stone in Cornwall in 1746. English chemist William Cookworthy discovered china clay at Tregonning Hill, and then better quality clay in St Stephen’s, near St. Austell. It took him another 20 years of experimentation to patent his recipe for making true porcelain. He established the Plymouth China factory in 1768; it was the first place in the UK to manufacture true porcelain.
The St. Austell deposits emerged as the largest in the world. By 1910, Cornwall was producing some fifty per cent of the world’s china clay. The region became a thriving melting pot of trade and industry. Increasing transoceanic trade had a global impact on the exchange of technology, shapes and designs in porcelain. It enjoyed prevalence across the world until the advent of bone china in 1810.
To create a family-friendly exhibition that examines the role Cornwall and its people played in the production and trade of porcelain and the part it played in ceramics internationally.
The aim was to develop, create and install an exhibition, running from September 2016 to June 2017. The Passion for Porcelain exhibition focused on the use of china clay in porcelain manufacture and the important role that Cornwall played in the development of British porcelain and its global trade. It celebrated the beauty of, and fascination for, porcelain, emphasising the significance of Cornish china clay to the local area and beyond. Drawing on British and internationally-made items, the displays explored themes of experimentation, technique, material, purpose and style. There were opportunities for research in, and shared knowledge of, the production of British porcelain, together with its global impact, as well as opportunities for artists’ responses. The vital role played by William Cookworthy in the manufacture of true hard-paste porcelain for the first time in England, and his pioneering experimentation, was emphasised and explored.
The majority of items on display were on loan from Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery’s (PCMAG’s) extensive decorative arts collection. The exhibition also offered a rare opportunity for items from Wheal Martyn’s reserve collection to be shown.
The displays within the exhibition produced a high visual impact, with each of the cabinets having a strong colour theme and key items being used to tell a series of inter-linked stories and themes.
The design and display of this exhibition appealed to a wide audience; people beyond our traditional visitors, particularly young people and families, with family-led learning opportunities being integral to the exhibition, through light-touch interactives and related activities. Hard-to-reach groups, such as participants at the museums regular Memory Café, also benefitted through activities inspired by the exhibition. Existing volunteers at the museum had the chance to extend their skills and new volunteers were attracted by this broader subject matter to get involved with Wheal Martyn.
Building a relationship with PCMAG benefitted the workforce at Wheal Martyn, enabling them to gain new skills and knowledge in developing exhibitions which will be important for the future. A wider benefit of this collaboration is that access to artefacts which would have otherwise been in storage during a period of major refurbishment at PCMAG will be maintained. Wheal Martyn’s sustainability will be strengthened by an increase in the number of visitors.
Studying students also benefitted; leading up to the exhibition, Wheal Martyn hosted a Heritage Management MA student from Bath Spa University for a placement, focused on working on the exhibition development. She had the unique opportunity to work with a range of museum professionals and have real impact on an important project, by helping to research, develop and promote the exhibition. The student also accessed valuable learning through our collaborative work with PCMAG and Cornwall Museums Partnership.
The exhibition was a catalyst for further projects around ceramics, helping to extend the future benefits of this work both at the museum but also in partnership with St. Austell town, which has ambitions in the coming years to become a centre for ceramics. Wheal Martyn and Kernow Education Arts Partnership (KEAP) have a literacy programme, “From Pit to Porcelain and Paper”, exploring the local clay industry’s heritage.
Alongside this project, we hope to secure additional funding so that local potters or artists can be involved to produce creative responses to the exhibition working with visitors and schools and providing demonstrations and workshops.