Albert Edward Gray FRSA 1871 - 1959
The following text is largely that written by AE Gray’s son-in-law Ronald Bailey for the book produced in association with the exhibition ‘Hand-painted, Gray’s Pottery’ at the Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent, in January 1982.
The text has been brought up-to-date in the light of extra information gleaned over the years since 1982, particularly a small Notebook owned by AE Gray and which came to light in 2016.
Albert Edward Gray was a man of high ideals and a man with a purpose. This was to bring well-designed, attractive pottery to ordinary people at a price they could afford and would be pleased to pay.
Born at Brightlingsea, Essex, on Queen Victoria’s 52nd birthday, 24th May (Empire Day) 1871, he was named Albert Edward after the Prince of Wales. His father, Robert Doughty Gray, was a sea-going officer in the service of Her Majesty’s Customs. At the outbreak of the Crimean war in 1854, Robert Gray was serving in HM Revenue Cutter ‘Active‘ and was then transferred to the battleship HMS ‘Nile‘ for the duration of the war. Before the ship sailed he proposed to Elizabeth Griggs, who came of an old Brightlingsea family, and their engagement was announced. He saw service in the Baltic and was awarded the Baltic Medal. The Treaty of Paris signed on 6th March 1856 formally brought the war to a close and Robert hastened to Brightlingsea to marry his Elizabeth, then aged 21. Her father was a Freeman of the River Colne and one of the founders of the Swedenborgian Church at Brightlingsea in 1816.
Following their marriage, Robert was first stationed at Great Yarmouth and later moved to Killybegs, Donegal, then within the United Kingdom. Elizabeth must have been staying with her parents in Brightlingsea when Albert Edward was born there in 1871. He was their seventh surviving child. Five years later, in 1876, whilst in command of HM Revenue Cutter ‘Fly‘, Robert died suddenly of a stroke. The Londonderry Sentinel of 16th May 1876 records the event as follows:
DEATH OF CAPTAIN GRAY OF H.M.CUTTER ‘FLY’
It is with feelings of deep regret that I have to announce the death of Mr Gray, commander of H.M.Cutter ‘Fly’ which sad event took place on Saturday morning last, by the bursting of a blood vessel at Foynes, to which place he sailed on duty a few days before, and from which he was expected to return to this station, Killybegs, in the course of next week. It was only on Friday morning that Mrs Gray had a letter from him in which I believe he stated he was as well as usual. He was in a delicate state of health during the spring season, but was so far recovered as to be able to resume his duties. Unfortunately for him his gunner (Mr Coleman) was promoted and removed from his vessel some time ago and not being replaced for some time, this worthy officer had to perform more duty than he was physically capable of doing, which it is to be feared was the means of hastening his death.
He leaves a wife and seven children to deplore his loss. The whole community deeply sympathize with his afflicted family. The announcement by telegraph on Saturday of his death cast a gloom over the whole neighbourhood.
This report correctly states that he left a wife and seven children. Their eight child, Florence, was born posthumously the following month on 30th June 1876 in Killybegs.
The ‘Transactions’ of this Society point to the extremely exhaustive character of the research work done on the scientific side of pottery manufacture, but one finds very little indeed that has been done by the Society in the interest of the artistic or decorative side. Science and work must work side by side if English pottery is to take its proper place in the world’s markets … It is, I feel sure, the artistic side that the buying public is most interested in. Comparatively few are able to judge the merits of body or glaze, and it is open to question whether the mechanically perfect piece is not too metallic in its perfection, and has not lost some of the plastic properties of pottery …. Of the artistic merit of modern pottery one can say with confidence that there is room for much improvement, particularly in the cheaper goods, and that is the class of goods I think we ought to direct our particular attention to. …
With no financial resources of his own, it was not until he was 36 years old that his enthusiasm and evident capacity inspired two friends to support him by investing in his new venture. They were Alfred Royle and John Wilkinson, two Manchester businessmen. In 1907, he took over a warehouse in Back Glebe Street, Stoke-upon-Trent and, as a first step, set up his own wholesaling business. By 1912, he had moved to works in Mayer Street, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, to which, in the interests of continuity, he gave the name Glebe Works. His pottery decorating business was in full swing. In that year he registered the firm as a limited company, trading under the name of ‘A.E.Gray & Co.Ltd.‘. The registered capital was £3,000 in £1 shares “to take on the business of porcelain and earthenware carried on by A.E.Gray and J.Wilkinson at Glebe Works, Hanley”. The Directors were A.E.Gray, J.Wilkinson and A.Royle. The Pottery Gazette, 1 November 1912, page 1217.
In Gray’s 1920 company registration documents, John Wilkinson was listed as a Corn Merchant living in Sutton, Macclesfield and Alfred Royle as a Baker & Confectioner living in Pendleton, Manchester.
The Design and Decorating Manager was John Guildford, who remained with the company until 1922.
In 1917, fifteen years after the death of his first wife, Edward Gray, as he was then known to his friends, married Rosa Burton Hassall and they had a daughter, Joan (1918-2001). It was not long afterwards that Rosa developed cancer. Following a long series of operations, she died in 1928.
The business inevitably suffered a setback during the 1914-18 war., but with the coming of the Twenties, a new spirit was abroad and the demand for new designs was high. Since his plan was to concentrate on decoration, and particularly freehand decoration, he selected and bought-in shapes made by other manufacturers, decorating them within his own Works. To find operatives with the required level of artistry and skill was not easy. He believed that there existed much inherited talent in The Potteries. He selected young people straight from school and gave them six months’ training, partly in the Works and partly at Art School, before they undertook production work.
The table below shows some of the entries in the Burslem School of Art Register, held in the Stoke-on-Trent City Archives. The names highlighted in yellow are known to have worked at Gray’s Pottery at various times and other names show individuals who gained acclaim in a number of fields such as art, architecture and pottery.
He felt at first that the Art Schools did little to train students for the practical application to industry of what they had learnt there. In 1920 Gordon Forsyth (1879-1952) was appointed Head of Burslem Art School and later Superintendent of Art Instruction in Stoke-on-Trent. An understanding soon developed between the two men. Not that they always saw eye-to-eye, but it was an important friendship based on mutual respect for each other’s ideas. Gordon Forsyth produced a number of designs for A.E.Gray & Co.Ltd, probably all of a lustre style, in particular the elegant lion rampant used for their wall-plaques and bowls (Below). In 1920 also, Robin Gray (right), Edward’s son, joined the company and in 1923 was appointed a Director.
These are examples of Gray’s lustre designs created between about 1923 and 1926. They may or may not be Forsyth designs because there is no written documentation extant to prove it either way. However, they are very much in the style of Forsyth’s work, epitomised by his earlier designs at Pilkington Tile & Pottery near Manchester.
As a basic principle, Mr Gray takes simplicity and restraint. A well-made plate can be a thing of beauty before it is touched by the artist’s brush. The decoration is not just ‘something added’, not camouflage for imperfect potting; it is a means to enhance an already existent virtue. Better design, says Mr Gray, does not mean an increase in cost – it means an increase in thought. The flow of ideas is based on a knowledge of traditional ornament; but the designer must use tradition, he must not be controlled by it. Modern pottery should not be cramped by the influence of the eighteenth century; building on tradition and evolving from it, design should express the spirit of the age.
Writing in a personal Notebook, perhaps in the 1920s or early 1930s, Edward wrote in a reflective mood on his approach to his business:
The Victorian industrial drive had seen the introduction of lithography and roller printing into the pottery industry to meet increased world demand, to the detriment of good design and the neglect of craftsmanship: the machine and the technician were beginning to usurp the place of craftsmanship, quantity seemed more important than quality. Mr Gray’s knowledge of the technique of pottery manufacture being small, he had much to learn and directed his mind to the decoration and designing of pottery. His knowledge of the cotton industry, which was divided and subdivided into separate processes by separate firms and put on the markets in the Manchester warehouse, led him to concentrate on designing and decorating, selecting his shapes from those already in manufacture or getting his own shapes made for him. Nor did he confine his interest in design to his own business but constantly cried the cause of good design and designers in the pottery and other industries, believing in the inter-relations of all industries in the creation of the home in the question of design, pottery being only right in design when it harmonizes with the background of the home. In this way pottery design must always be affected by other industries and cannot inaugurate a new motif in design. The firm was content to grow slowly but never lost its sense of good design.
With this philosophy in mind he engaged and encouraged young designers. In 1922, Miss Susie Cooper (1902-1995) joined his staff and began that brilliant series of designs which have since made her a national name. Some of her early pieces with Gray’s Pottery show that heraldic style ‘antelope salient’ in which she combined shape, colour and design in the most pleasing harmony (Below). She left in 1929, partly due to the strictures imposed by a company that bought-in most of the products that it decorated: Miss Cooper wanted control of shape as well as of pattern. Another young designer was Dorothy Tomes who worked at Gray’s Pottery in late 1929/early 1930. Susie Cooper had joined Gray’s on the suggestion of Gordon Forsyth, the objective being to gain practical industrial experience of design prior to going to London’s Royal College of Art. Miss Cooper joined from Burslem School of Art and her ultimate successor, also born in 1902 and a product of The Potteries’ Art Schools, was Samuel Clyde Talbot who became responsible for Gray’s designs right through into the late 1950s. SC Talbot joined the company in 1925. He was responsible for many of the designs that made the company famous. He created these new designs by having one of the top paintresses paint directly on to a specimen of each piece, thereby showing a sensitivity to the shape which would not be possible by designing on to a flat surface. He was appointed a Director and, in 1947, Joint Managing Director.
Examples of designs likely to have been created by Susie Cooper. The bowl was produced for an anniversary in 1923 but is also backstamped with the 1924 British Empire Exhibition mark.
Amongst Gray’s freelance designers was Nancy Catford (1905-1992), married name Stone, who modelled in wood. Edward Gray so liked her owls, animals and country characters that he reproduced their shapes in pottery and sold them, undecorated and decorated, as ornaments.
A nephew by marriage, Lieutenant (later Major-General) G (Jack).A.Bond contributed numerous designs in the 1920s and 1930s and in 1932 redrew the company’s trademark of the ship. Until then it had taken a wide variety of forms but, using the Brigantine ‘Emily’ as his model, he produced the definitive pattern intended for non-lustre ware. Another design was prepared for lustre items, but the distinction was not rigidly maintained. Later, Edward Gray’s daughter Joan (subsequently Mrs Ronald Bailey) modelled and designed for the company.
Edward Gray once remarked: “Colour is courage”. He was a man who lived-up to his concepts and was prepared to see them through to fruition. He believed in the clear, bright colours of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet, with clear, warm browns a great favourite. With the development in the early 1930s of ‘push-banding’, as it was known on the Works, the hand-decoration of shaded bands in these colours became a characteristic feature. Because by using this method of painting time on each piece was comparatively short, yet producing a dramatic result, it enabled him to achieve his objective of high quality and artistic decoration at a reasonable price. Another speciality of the company was its lustre ware, notably: gold/bronze, purple/pink and silver.
This colour can be described as copper, bronze or gold. In addition to conventional decoration, many copper lustre patterns incorporated, or exhibited exclusive, ‘resist’ decoration: a clay compound is applied to parts of the pot before covering all over with the lustre pigment. After firing, the pot can be scrubbed and the areas which have resisted the lustre bond reveal the natural clay body beneath. The small jug and the tray (rear left of the photograph) both exhibit this ‘resist’ technique.
Gray’s Pottery products having a print plus copper bands and lines will be found in the ‘Print only’ classification.
This generic colour may have been one of the first to register in AE Gray’s mind during his regular visits to see the ceramics at Manchester’s Art Gallery in the 1880s and 90s. Early examples of Gray’s Pottery pink/purple lustre exist marked with backstamp B, indicating production during the first fifteen years of the company’s existence. This may have been the pre-curser to the wide range of colours developed, culminating in Gloria Lustre.
Silver lustre, or more accurately, platinum lustre, featured in Gray’s Pottery products for a very long time. It was used by itself, as a ‘resist’ decoration (see ‘Lustre – copper’ above for an explanation), in combination with enamel colours and on top of coloured bodies, yellow in particular.
In a trade circular he explained that the metal used for silver lustre was actually platinum, because silver itself oxidises so easily. The oldest known lustre work is Persian of about the first century AD and the art was brought to Europe by the Arabs in the Middle Ages by way of Spain, in the manner known as Hispano-Moresque. Lustre decorated pottery was manufactured commercially from the early nineteenth century but, with the introduction of electro-plating in 1838, demand for silver lustre soon died. Gray was a leader in resuscitating this form of decoration and the company produced most attractive lustre tea and coffee sets. Several individually produced commemorative bowls of great beauty in gold or silver lustre were presented as gifts and could not be bought (Below).
This bowl is fully hand-painted in lustre colours, produced as a presentation gift to Haslemere Educational Museum, an institution well-known to Edward and Elsie Gray when they retired to West Sussex. It is available to view by appointment at Haslemere, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01428 642112.
Image credit: GP
I must write you on this day, for it was a rare May 24th that produced you, and you have made your fine contribution by your good life, to Home & Empire.
Other firms with whom Gray’s Pottery co-operated in compatible designs included Harrods, John Lewis, Maples, Peter Jones, Thomas Goode, Waring & Gillow and William Whiteley (see the website section Retailers).
In the 1920s, Gray’s Pottery was promoted in London at the showrooms of Mr J.W.Stonier, 13 Charterhouse Street, EC1 (More info). In December 1929 Gray opened a London showroom of his own at 29 Hatton Garden: this provided an excellent base for local and overseas sales (More info). John Gray, Edward’s nephew, was in charge of this until he joined the Navy in 1940. In October of that year, following the heavy bombing of London, it was decided to close this showroom and it was not re-opened. Gray’s Pottery exhibited at all but the last British Industries Fair throughout its existence from 1915 to 1952. The British Royal Family regularly visited the stand and made substantial purchases. King George V ordered outsize cups for his breakfast coffee.
By 1933 the Glebe Works site in Hanley was too small for the volume of production and in that year more modern and spacious works in Whieldon Road, Stoke-upon-Trent, were purchased. At the same time the company adopted the style of Gray’s Pottery as its trading name. A new extension (More info) was added to these works in 1952 which provided a dignified entrance and showroom. An imposing blue & white mosaic of the Gray ‘Clipper’ backstamp, designed by Geoffrey Corn of Johnsons Tiles, was incorporated in the upper section of the north wall (More info).
In order to ensure supplies of pottery for A.E.Gray & Co.Ltd., Edward Gray purchased an interest in the Kirklands Pottery at Etruria, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1936.
The Pottery Gazette, 1 March 1938. Company Notes: Kirklands (Etruria) Ltd – Registered No 336,235 – Private company. Registered capital £12,500 in £1 shares. Objects: to acquire the business of an earthenware manufacturer carried on by H.S.Kirkland at Albion Pottery, Etruria, Stoke-on-Trent, as ‘Kirkland & Co’.
In normal times the workforce of Gray’s Pottery totalled about eighty, the vast majority being female. Edward Gray knew them all personally and he was very much of a father-figure. He took a personal interest in each one and many went to him with their problems. Concerned at one stage with the number of colds, which he thought might be due to a vitamin deficiency, he purchased a large quantity of malt and cod-liver oil extract, which he distributed. He was much loved for kindly eccentricities such as this and which showed how much he appreciated and cared for those working so conscientiously for the company. Photographs of Works’ outings reveal the happy relationship between himself and those who worked with him. It is not surprising they were known as ‘Gray’s Angels’, a name coined by Lady Cripps during a wartime visit to the Works.
Edward Gray was a very ‘clubbable’ man, with a strong sense of duty to society. He was in the first place an active member of every association connected with the pottery industry. When he had been established in The Potteries for less than ten years, he addressed The Ceramic Society on ‘The Encouragement of Art in The Potteries’ and proposed that a central art gallery and a central museum should be set up in Stoke-on-Trent, the five museums then existing being ‘too small and cramped, and altogether too scattered’. This museum, he maintained, should be directly connected with the Schools of Art, with easy access for students. To have one single museum to visit would be much more convenient for pottery and other designers who lacked the time to visit one small museum after another. This dream was realised in 1956, with the creation of Stoke-on-Trent Museum and Art Gallery, now called The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, based in Hanley. At the same time, he urged that an Art Section should be formed within The Ceramic Society. The printed record of this lecture and of the discussion which followed, concludes in these terms:
As the result of this discussion an Art Section of The Ceramic Society has been formed, of which Major Frank Wedgwood has accepted the Presidency.
The Transactions of The Ceramic Society, Vol XVII, Session 1917-18, pp159-180.
In addition Edward Gray was appointed Chairman of a Committee which established the Stoke-on-Trent Art Gallery. The original Art Gallery was organised by Edward Gray and Dr John Russell, who contributed the original pictures, and it was then known as the ‘Russell Gallery’ and was based in Pall Mall, Hanley. The family connection continued with Robin Gray becoming a member of the Works of Art Sub-Committee of the Museum and Fine Arts Committee.
A.E.Gray & Co.Ltd. was a member of the British Pottery Manufacturers Federation and Edward Gray, in addition to being Chairman of the Arts and Designs Committee for many years, was the Federation’s representative on the Industrial Arts Committee of the Federation of British Industries (now the CBI), working closely with both the Board of Trade and the Department of Overseas Trade. He was invited to be a member of Lord Gorell’s Committee which was set-up in 1931 and whose recommendations led to the formation of the Council of Industrial Design in December 1944 (now the Design Council). Gray’s interest in and promotion of Art and Industry extended to many organisations: Gray’s Pottery was consistently present at the annual British Industries Fairs and he was a member of the Exhibitors Advisory Council; he was a Governor of the Register of Industrial Art Designers; a Committee member of the British Colour Council; a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the Society’s Adjudication Committee on Pottery. As an acknowledged authority in this field, he was in constant demand for lectures and was one of the early broadcasters on the new BBC television service which opened at the Alexandra Palace in 1936.
But Gray’s interests were not limited to the pottery industry. Throughout his life he was deeply concerned about the welfare of young people and regarded his appointment as a Justice of the Peace (More info) and Chairman of the Juvenile Court as an opportunity to assist young people who had come into conflict with the Law, to reform their ways and become good citizens. Once they had served their sentences, he invited them into his home and listened to their problems. He then endeavoured, by his undoubted capacity for persuasion, to help them to sort themselves out. He was always delighted with his many successes, but could never understand why he did not succeed in every case.
In the First World War, already well into his forties, he was Chairman of the Longsdon Rifle Club (Longsdon is a village near Leek in Staffordshire). In the Second World War and after, he was Chairman of the Stoke-on-Trent Executive Committee of the National Savings Movement, a member of the War Pensions Committee and Chairman of the Toc H Services Club (More info). He was a moving spirit in the foundation of the Rotary Club of Stoke-on-Trent in 1927 (see the website section Rotary Clubs). Major Frank Wedgwood, a descendant of the famous potter, was its first President, for the year 1927-28 and Edward Gray its second, for the year 1928-29. In 1932 he was appointed one of the Rotary Club representatives to assist the YMCA Unemployed Workshop Scheme. He designed the Club’s banner and this was expertly embroidered by the Ladies section in 1938. His daughter Joan was a member of a Rotary Goodwill Mission which visited the United States and Canada in 1938-39.
In 1939, after the sad loss of two wives, Edward married for the third time. He and his new bride, Elsie Mackenzie Lamb, enjoyed twenty years of happy married life until his death in 1959.
The Second World War proved a particularly difficult period for the British pottery industry and Gray’s Pottery was no exception. Severe restrictions were placed on the production of decorated pottery…
In 1941, British pottery production was subject to a Concentration Scheme whereby individual firms were classified as: nucleus, concentrated or closed-down. In 1942, maximum retail prices were set and letters such as A, B or C incorporated in the backstamp. The Scheme was revised in 1945 and additional letter groups BY, CY and CZ created. For full details, see Ten Plain Years: The British Pottery Industry 1942-1952, Kathy Niblett, Journal of the Northern Ceramic Society Volume 12 1995, pp175-213.
…and it should not be forgotten that when war broke out, Edward Gray was already 68 years old, an age when most men have retired, and 75 at the end of the war. Throughout this period he continued as Chairman and Managing Director. Immediately the restrictions were removed (and completely by 1952), Gray’s Pottery resuscitated some of the pre-war designs, and with the aid of Art Director Sam Talbot developed many new ones. Soon his workforce was fully restored to its normal level and once again production was in full swing. As soon as this had been achieved, Edward Gray decided to retire from the arduous post of Managing Director, while remaining Chairman of the Board. Robin Gray and Sam Talbot were appointed Joint Managing Directors in 1947. Edward and Elsie Gray then left The Potteries and settled in West Sussex in a charming oak-beamed cottage virtually unchanged since Tudor times, with its own well and clematis round the door.
This cottage in the depths of the country enjoyed dramatic views across the fields to the towering height of Black Down, and was some four miles from Haslemere. Many of Edward’s childhood holidays had been spent at a nearby farm and personal friendships had been maintained. He enjoyed to the full the peace of the countryside, but it was within easy reach of London and he remained as active as ever. As Chairman of the Board, he continued to go regularly to Stoke-on-Trent and attended numerous committee meetings in London. He travelled extensively to Egypt, Cyprus and the United States of America. It was only on reaching his 85th birthday that he began to reduce these activities and to resign his membership of the various committees. The replies expressed deepest regret that he was doing so – even at that age – and underlined the very great contribution he had made over the years and the esteem in which he was held. At Easter time 1959, just before his 88th birthday, whilst at West Wittering on the Sussex coast, he appeared in bathing trunks ready to go for a swim! He was finally persuaded that the sea really was cold, and settled for a long paddle instead!
In 1959, Mrs Susan Cooper-Willis, daughter of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, the founder and architect of Portmeirion and an old friend of Edward Gray, made an offer to purchase the business of A.E.Gray & Co.Ltd. After much anxious deliberation and consultation with his fellow Directors, he agreed.
It was the last decision he was to take. He suffered a severe heart attack and died peacefully a fortnight later on 29th July 1959 at the age of 88. He had kept the spirit of youthful zest to the end and, as his sister remarked at his funeral: “What a pity he died so young!” He is buried in the churchyard at St Laurence’s, Lurgashall, West Sussex and, appropriately, a mosaic marks his grave.