Interview: Emma Bridgewater

Nice north Oxford girl that she was, Emma Bridgewater probably never imagined that she would have a centre in Stoke-on-Trent named after her. Indeed, when she first visited the town in 1984 to find expert help in making her now famous pottery, she had no idea that such places existed.

‘It was unbelievable my taxi took me through a strange landscape of collieries, foundries and bottle kilns. It was hellish, but I loved it in a morbid way.’ She always intended to be an entrepreneur, and the pottery was secondary to that. ‘I had big ambitions when I happened on the idea of pottery. I was looking for a present for my mum, as I think it’s perennially nice to give pottery.

It struck me that what was being sold didn’t speak to her, with her boho North Oxford life of rush-matting and informal non-stop kitchen life. I have tried to recreate the feeling of that kitchen.’

Emma Bridgewater pottery now has a turnover of £7 million a year and has become a cult. I called on one of her sales days in Aldborough, a north Norfolk village, to find what she describes as ‘a feeding frenzy’ in the village hall. Smart cars all over the village green, local VIPs willing to queue for at least half an hour, each hauling a large box overflowing with seconds. Success has come, she thinks, ‘because we have never dropped the principle of making what we really, really like’.

Her modeller in Stoke ‘made the shapes in dental plaster, turned on a lathe. I knew exactly which shapes I wanted and he could make 100 of each in biscuit form. I was living in a former squat in Brixton with a photographer who had a collection of old spongeware. I learned how to glaze and had a kiln in the bathroom. I sold them in the Jubilee Market in Covent Garden.’ Here, she was talent-spotted and took a stall at the Top Drawer trade show. ‘I took two cases of Champagne to have a party. Buyers found us because of the noise.’ Her partying instincts are still good.

I’m co-opted into offering bourbon biscuits and marshmallows to those patiently waiting customers (very gratefully received) and she explains that her swimming pool in the garden of The Old Rectory, up a very bumpy track, is always kept above blood heat, so it’s filled with partying swimmers. Her kitchen is just as benevolent as that of her mother’s and is, of course, filled with Emma Bridgewater pottery on a dresser. There is also a piano, played by her husband (and Country Life contributor) Matthew Rice, who is a major influence on the business. ‘He comes from a family of designers, Peter Rice, the theatre designer and Pat Albeck [who created those wonderful National Trust teatowels]. He’s musical, loves gardening and shooting… a polymath, but he’s very distract-able.

It’s hard to tie him down.’ In an effort to do so, the family is now moving from its remote garden, filled with old farm carts and baby bantams, to North Oxford. ‘It’s much easier to get to Stoke or London from there and we’re thinking of it as a chapter of eight to 10 years, then we’ll be back here full-time.’ But, she adds, they have a holiday cottage on the Norfolk coast. ‘It’s an awful thing to do, but there’s too much driving and staying in B&Bs.’ One of her staff is too upset by this to help at the seconds sale, which may be the last. Back in Stoke-on-Trent, the Emma Bridgewater development is gathering pace. It’s based on three acres of Victorian factory in Hanley, which they bought 16 years ago.

‘This developer kept writing to me about it and I kept chucking his letters in the bin, unread.’ When they finally did connect, the result was that she sold the area to him, staying on as a tenant in the old factory and major attraction in the town, where avid Bridgewater fans go on Collectors’ Days to visit the factory, pottery museum and shop. ‘We’ll recycle the heat from the kiln, turf over the roof and have sheep (or perhaps tomatoes) on it. The new houses may also be heated via our kiln. It’s so exciting.’