Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A weekend of culture in Stoke on Trent.

Needing a few days of proper culture, I spent the weekend in Stoke-on-Trent, where Culture is never hard to find, despite what some of you London/New York/Paris inhabitants might mutter into your flat whites. If you don't believe me, here's visual proof.

On Friday, I went to the New Victoria Theatre for Northern Broadsides' in-the-round production of A Winter's Tale, that trickiest of Shakespeare comedies. It's a hard one to perform because it feels like two plays rammed together. In one story, the jealous king suspects his virtuous wife of infidelity with his best friend, so he orders his new-born daughter to be left outside to die and his friend King Polixenes to be poisoned. His wife dies of horror in prison, and his other son dies too. It's all very Othello - claustrophobic and vicious.

Then in subsequent acts set 16 years later, we have a lot of rustic songs, yokel humour and lusty gags as we watch unpoisoned Polixenes spy on his son, who is wooing a gorgeous peasant girl. It's all good fun until the boy tells his disguised father that he's going to marry the girl whatever Daddy might say. They have to flee…back to jealous Leontes's kingdom. It soon transpires that not only is the buxom wench his supposedly dead daughter, but his wife Hermione is alive and well: she'd only 'swooned' all those years ago. Now Leontes feels bad about killing his family and has suffered enough, he gets them all back, marriages are arranged and they all live happily ever after. So as I say, structurally a bit lumpy, but they made it work magically at the New Vic. Look out for it on tour.

The next day, I took a wander around the British Ceramics Biennial, which displays the very best in art pottery to trendy cosmopolitan types slumming it in The North. It's held in the rotting carcass of the Spode pottery works, soon to be transformed into something or other as part of the endless regeneration efforts to which the city is regularly subjected. Some years the ceramics on view are astonishing, sometimes they're banal or irrelevant. This year they were a very mixed bunch. But I took some photos of the venue and a few of the more interesting elements. Click on these to enlarge or see the whole lot here.

Molten clay churning in a bowl

The crockery vending machine, with a stone in the bottom to make sure your choice is properly smashed. I liked this one a lot.

Afterwards, I wandered over to the Minton Centre, a high Victorian piece of municipal beneficence. Building on the local Athenaeum Club which provided a library and museum, the Centre added a free library, baths and other civic amenities for the public, funded by the local pottery owners and decorated to display the best of the city's skills. Over the years its function changed – the basement became a canteen for Minton's workers at one point – before the council abandoned it, then sold it for £128,000(!) to a private investor who hasn't quite decided what to do with it but is well-disposed to the place. I've always wanted to see inside, and this was the first chance ever. 

It was fascinating. The old canteen was decorated with tiles from various Minton ranges designed to Improve the Mind: Biblical, Shakespearian, Tennyson's Arthurian Idylls of the King and Spirit of the Flowers scenes (as you'll see, the flowers are all topless women: those Victorians) and the Rustic Humours series, most of which are seriously rare (and valuable) now. More of them here. Many of the external reliefs have been wrecked by acid rain, while the internal decoration has suffered too - some of the tiles even have drill holes through them, having been hidden under layers of wallpaper for decades.
The Minton Centre

Free Libraries


The tiles uncovered in the old potters' canteen

A selection of commercial china makers' marks

The state of Stoke's cultural heritage 
Ignorance, from the Rustic Humours series

The slightly disturbing pixies series

The Frog Prince from the fairy stories series

Water Lily. Your interpretations are entirely your own problem

Isolt (Isolde, Yseult etc.) from the Arthurian Idylls of the King series

La Morte d'Arthur

A young Joseph Chamberlain - an early piece of political memorabilia

It turned into an expensive afternoon: I bought six beautiful and interesting books for £1.20, then dropped my camera, breaking my 50mm lens. Argh. Still, it meant I could in all good conscience but the f/1.4 lens to replace the f/1.8…

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