State Of The Union: Why One British Pottery Will Be Producing A More Ambiguous Coronation Tribute
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State Of The Union: Why One British Pottery Will Be Producing A More Ambiguous Coronation Tribute

Rye Pottery marks a new direction for the company and for the country with ‘State of the Union’ launch

With the Coronation fast approaching, there’s plenty of commemorative crockery to get your hands on – but if you’re looking for something a little less traditional, Rye Pottery has produced a more unique tribute, says Lucy Cleland

State Of The Union: Why One British Pottery Will Be Producing A More Ambiguous Coronation Tribute

Intricately decorated blue and white bookends with old books in between.

Rye Pottery has had a long tradition of producing commemorative Royal pieces. Based in the  eponymous, picturesque East Sussex town, the Pottery is one of just a handful of production potteries in the world that continues to produce everything by hand, using a 17th-century decorating technique known variously as Faience, Majolica or Delft. Over the years, they have celebrated each Jubilee and every significant Royal birth and, for the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981, they were selected as the official suppliers for St Paul’s Cathedral. However, under the new direction of brother and sister team Josh and Tabby Cole, this time they will not be producing the traditional commemorative plate or mug which some of their customers have come to expect. They believe that, as well as their own company, the country and the monarchy have both changed too. 

‘The many royal pieces we’ve produced in the past made an important contribution to the company and we won’t airbrush it out,’ says Josh. ‘But, rather like King Charles, we feel it’s time for a change.  The sad death of our parents in 2019 and 2020 combined with time to reflect during the pandemic made us feel able to make this change in direction without hurting anyone’s feelings. This is a chance for the company to make something beautiful that’s a more genuine reflection of who we are.’

Josh and Tabby are the third generation of the Cole family to run Rye Pottery, which was originally established in 1793. When their father Quin experienced a heart scare in 2012, Josh was set on an acting career, having appeared in TV and film productions including The Beach, Daniel Deronda and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, while Tabby was established as a journalist, researcher and producer in current affairs and drama for broadcasters including the BBC and Channel 4. It was clear they had to act in order to prevent the Pottery being either sold or closed down. ’Josh got me drunk in his garden and persuaded me effectively that it was down to us now,’  admits Tabby. 

Josh swiftly got up to speed, shadowing the Pottery’s thrower of 25 years, Stephen Russell, discovering a natural aptitude and realising how much he already knew about something that had always been a part of his life and which also ran through his blood. As Creative Director, Josh brought a fresher eye to production, reintroducing and adapting shapes and patterns that tapped into the Mid-Century revival trend. Tabby, meanwhile, took over the business side and forged important relationships which highlighted the new direction of the Pottery with partners including Margaret Howell, Soho House, Gusbourne and Darwin & Wallace. 

This same fresh thinking, coupled with a mindfulness of the Pottery’s heritage, has been brought to bear in the creation of ‘State of the Union’, Rye Pottery’s playfully ambiguous commemorative pieces produced to mark the coronation of King Charles. The Lion and Unicorn bookends are a cultural collage giving the Pottery’s commentary on the state of the United Kingdom today. They are a modern, perhaps warts and all, interpretation of 21st-century Britain with motifs that relate to the history of the United Kingdom, contemporary culture and to the Monarchy. Combined with motifs inspired by the company’s archive, the figures play with themes from the eponymous children’s poem and the heraldic figures as found on the Royal Coat of Arms. Designed by Josh, with illustrator Laura Gill and sculptor Neal French, and with intricate, freehand brushwork inspired by tattoo art, the animal figures highlight both the company’s craftmanship and some of the questions currently facing the monarchy. 

Details of Rye Potter's coronation bookends: unicorn hooves inscribed with the words 'book' and 'love'.

Do the tears or the chains on the Unicorn (which traditionally represents Scotland) hint at the Union’s troubled past, or current debates over independence? The Order of the Garter also makes an appearance, as do the flowers of all four nations. Are they a light riff on traditional tattoos or is there more to it?

‘There’s a dagger, a revolver and a snake motif too,’ says Tabby. ‘Some elements might seem more traditional and heraldic to one person and pretty or funny to another. We’re not trying to be enigmatic or prescriptive – I’m inclined to see politics and social commentary everywhere I go, so featuring the flowers of the four nations, rather than the three on the Royal Coat of Arms, could easily speak to levelling up or the history of the UK. THUG LIFE might refer to royal infighting or our Imperial past, but it’s also just an iconic hiphop tattoo. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder.’

Josh adds: ‘As a team we don’t all share the same politics or passions, but what we do share is a sense of humour and, we hope, a lightness of touch that’s reflected in all our work. These two figures are produced to coincide with the Coronation and to mark our shift in direction. We believe they stand alone as elegant, beautiful, hand-made home accessories that can sit happily on the bookshelves of Monarchists and Republicans alike.’

Rye Pottery bookends

At the Pottery, which has historic pieces held in important collections including the V&A’s Ceramics Collection, The Fitzwilliam and the British Museum’s Museum of the Home, Josh and Tabby are continuing to look to their celebrated Mid-Century designs with a new colourful collection of vases for the summer and a smart new lamp base design for release in the autumn, a development of their highly successful recent partnership with Soho House. 

‘We may well continue to produce pottery that marks important events in the UK,’ Josh concludes, ‘but we hope they will be a bit more fun and perhaps a bit less deferential in the future – a more candid reflection of us, and a new era.’

‘State of the Union’ bookends, £197.50 each or £395 per pair, are now available from ryepottery.co.uk