Albert Edward Gray was a visionary in his quest to improve the quality of design as applied to the staple products of north Staffordshire’s potteries. It was his experiences at his first employer, HG Stephenson of Manchester, which set him on a life-long path associated with design, art and industry. He became a salesman with that company, with pottery and glass among his principal lines. Although without formal art training of any kind, he began to feel doubts about the artistic quality of the pottery that he was selling, doubts which were echoed by many of his customers.
His ambition became clear: to establish his own factory to produce high quality, inexpensive pottery of good design. It was a goal that he achieved within twenty years of arriving in Stoke-on-Trent.
Though an ‘incomer’ to the Potteries, a community once renowned for its parochial attitudes, A E Gray developed an influence and respect which was to earn him a place on local and national arts-based organisations. Both he and his company received regular positive Press coverage on their activities:
Professor RW Baker ARCA, School of Ceramics, Royal College of Art, was one of six lecturers on a Pottery course for Retailers.
In a talk ‘The Effect of Groups on Design’, to the question posed: ‘What influence have the many small potteries in existence today on the general culture?’, Professor Baker replied: “I think it is far better when you get someone like Susie Cooper or AE Gray, for instance…”
Design in Pottery the fourth in a series of lectures about ‘Design in Daily Life’ at Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution. Given by TA Fennemore (Director of Central Institute of Art & Design):
… the standard of design in industrial pottery … there have been firms who from the beginning have held the torch high and whose names are world known. Wedgwood, Moorcroft, AE Gray, Bourne of Denby, and indeed many others…
Mr Gray chose or modelled his shapes and then devoted his energies to creating the most apt and pleasing decoration to enhance the beauty of the ware.
Success depended on a high standard of skill and artistry in the firm’s painters and paintresses. Mr Gray took his operatives straight from the elementary schools and gave them six months’ training before they undertook productive work. He believes that children in the Potteries have an inherited aptitude for the work, and the aim of his training is to encourage the flowering of this inherent skill and feeling for design. All the apprentices and many of the operatives attend art classes and Mr Gray speaks very appreciatively of the work done by the Stoke-on-Trent Art Schools. The success of the training at the works and in the schools is evident in the high quality of the hand-painted ware.
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’, nor 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. When restrictions on decorated pottery are removed we shall see a change from pre-war patterns. The English spirit, which showed some traces of anaemia, has been roused by events into full-blooded energy; and taste will have been invigorated. In Mr Gray’s own words, “colour is courage”.
His keen interest in young people has led him to the position of chairman of the Education Committee’s Joint Advisory Committee on Art.
Few industries are so highly specialised or so strictly localised as pottery. It is a considerable achievement for a newcomer to have established himself so firmly and successfully that it seemed natural for Malcolm Osborne to inscribe beneath his portrait of AE Gray: ‘Potter of Stoke-on-Trent’ (the portrait can be seen in the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent). It is also very healthy for the industry itself. It may be that there are young men today with an original contribution to make to the development of pottery. If so, the career of Mr AE Gray provides them with an inspiring example. But before undertaking a major enterprise they should be sure that they have Mr Gray’s vision, his energetic spirit and his unquenchable enthusiasm.
…several small units which have, without question, played a valuable part in raising the prestige of British pottery in the past two decades. …Forsyth at Pilkington’s, Moorcroft, Susie Cooper, Gray, and Poole, have all helped considerably to advance the reputation of British craftsmanship and good taste, at home and abroad.
“National Register of Industrial Art Designers”:
Among those eminent designers who have already been registered without submitting the work for adjudication in the normal way: (a long list including) Reco Capey, Michael Cardew, Susie Cooper, Keith Murray, Eric Ravillious, Victor Skellern, SC Talbot (designer of pottery for Gray’s Pottery).
Mr AE Gray has been in the pottery trade for 50 years and has a wide experience of manufacture and salesmanship. …He came to the Staffordshire Potteries in 1907 and has since devoted great attention to the art side of the industry. He did valuable pioneer work in connection with the Ceramic Art Society, of which he became Chairman, and generally did a great deal towards stimulating interest in the movement for a higher standard of ceramic design. At the present time, Mr Gray is one of the leading figures in the industry and his advice is eagerly sought for on all important problems confronting manufacturers.
Last month Mr AE Gray … spoke in the series of Corporation lectures on ‘Industrial Art’, in which he surveyed the association between art and industry since the Industrial Revolution and urged the need for instilling into the minds of young pottery students an appreciation of fine quality in design.
Among the members of the Committee set up by the Board of Trade (‘the Gorell Committee’ see facsimile Illustration below) to consider the desirability of organising exhibitions of ‘articles of everyday use and good design, of current manufacture’ is Mr AE Gray. … Mr Gray is one of the ‘live wires’ of the pottery industry and is connected with the General Committee of the British Industries Fair, the Industrial Art Committee of the British Industries Federation, the advising Committee of the Royal College of Art etc. He is also Chairman of the Ceramic Art Society and a valued member of the British Pottery Manufacturers’ Federation.
(Reference to a conference on pottery held prior to closing the exhibition on Industrial Art held at the north court of the Victoria & Albert Museum from September 29 – October 29).
Various speakers were secured to deal with views of manufacturer, retailer, the Press and the public. Mr AE Gray spoke, discussing the pleasure once obtained by craftsmen in the production of pots and the way in which commercial decisions had ‘high-jacked’ this simple pleasure. … “The grave responsibility on the manufacturer was that he had the art training of every child in the kingdom, because the first thing a child handled was its mug, plate, or whatever it may be.” … He also suggested that “we must aim at the development of good taste in the ordinary articles of today”.
Mr AE Gray, the managing director of AE Gray & Co Ltd, Glebe Works, Hanley, is the Chairman of the Art Section of the Ceramic Society, and is a staunch supporter of a truer and more genuine expression of feeling in pottery decorations. It was practically through the advocacy of Mr Gray that the Art Section came into being; and, though the views which have been expressed by this body during the last few years have given rise to no small amount of contention, it is generally admitted that a great deal of good has eventuated therefrom. Mr Gray loses no opportunity of expounding his views on the need for improvement on the artistic side of modern pottery, to keep pace with the advancement that is consistently taking place on the scientific and technical side, and he certainly puts his ideas into practical effect by showing, at every important exhibition that is held, a collection of remarkably good commercial pottery designs, produced in the daily routine of his factory. Mr Gray has not always been connected with the productive side of the pottery trade; he was, we believe, at one time associated with the distributing section of it; but that his advent into the Potteries has been all to the good of the trade is generally thought and admitted. Mr Gray also holds the position of Chairman of the Arts and Designs Committee of the British Pottery Manufacturers’ Federation.
AE Gray & Co Ltd … are a firm who … have been steadily pushing forward into special prominence in the china and earthenware trades, and have recorded considerable progress, mainly by reason of the reputation which they have built up for themselves in the direction of providing neat, sensible decorations, of a type that one might aptly describe as free and fresh. The name of Mr AE Gray will be well-known to many of our readers in connection with that remarkable art movement which was initiated in the Potteries a few years ago, and which has given rise to so much interest and enthusiasm. Mr Gray is certainly nothing if he is not an enthusiast in pottery art, and his enthusiasm is amply revealed in the productions of the firm with which he is connected. One of the main ideas which Mr Gray has striven hard to inculcate is the idea that decoration is rendered ineffective, meaningless and inane wherever it is over-elaborated, and wherever it does not actually serve a specific purpose in rendering an article more pleasing to the eye. … Certainly one cannot inspect the various patterns presented by this firm without being struck by their simple freedom and their fitness for their purpose. … There is never anything in the nature of over-elaboration; not an edge or a shoulder line is wasted (see Illustration 1 below). If the pattern is just sufficient without the addition of an edge or shoulder line it is left at that. It must not be inferred from this that the productions of AE Gray & Co Ltd are such as any and every pottery-producing house can give for the mere asking. Simplicity of ornamentation in regard to pottery is not so easy as it might appear on the surface. To tackle the problem successfully is something in the nature of a cult. … The designs throughout are quiet and dignified, capable of appealing specially to people who are artistically minded; at the same time the prices are always remarkably reasonable, for the reason, probably, that the degree of ornamentation resorted to is never beyond what is really necessary, and consequently the maximum efficiency of decoration is combined with the maximum economy.
AE Gray’s efforts were also noted and praised by his peers. At the time of concentration of pottery activities during the Second World War, Josiah Wedgwood (the Vth) wrote to the Head of the Board of Trade, Sir Cecil Weir, in September 1941 outlining the potential loss to the industry if Gray’s Pottery was forced to close (Illustration 4).