Victorian House of Arts and Crafts - Episode 3 - The Dining Room

In episode 3 we faced our biggest room challenge to date, to recreate elements for the relaxed, but meaningful Arts and Crafts approach to dining with real social message and purpose.

At Wyndcliffe Court (the house where the show was filmed) the dining room was known as the "Oak room". This wonderful space consisted of Jacobethan-style paneling and one of the most extravagant plasterwork ceilings of its period anywhere in the country (funnily enough created in gesso!), The beautiful ceiling in this room depicted hops and roses, combining the early brewery roots of the Clay family with the Yorkshire rose of Mrs Clay and became a heavy influence in the conceptual work of some of the other crafters this week. Particularly that of Bryony and Niamh who were teamed together with the task of creating curtains to fill the whole room! (More about that later).

Rod had the biggest challenge this week, working alone to recreate elaborate firedogs involving wrought iron forging for the frame and hours of brass piercing and detail work employing chase and repousse. It was clear that he would need help with this and it was Abi's job to help organise it as episode 3 project manager.

Meanwhile I was paired with Stephen to create a set of 3 "tondino plates". The idea of working with Stephen made me smile, he is such fun and his relaxed approach is generally a calming influence on the house. We also had a shared hobby - drumming! As the focus for this weeks "relaxation" was the performance of Edward Lear's "Owl and the Pussycat", music and the richer joys of the various artforms that life had to offer became a point of interest for us in concept development for both the form of the plates and the decoration. Abi came to life with his harmonica to be our personal alarm clock and keep us on track, whilst also entertaining us with his guitar and many renditions of the song he wrote "pussy my love" at various intervals throughout the day.

Initially, when the task was unveiled, I was confused by the plates themselves. As a product designer who normally (in the 21st century) strives to realise innovation based on purpose and function of a three dimensional object, I was unsure where to begin in generating imagery when I was told by experts that the plates "don't really have a use, they are merely for decoration". I interpreted this statement as, decorative objects that must therefore convey a message as their function through the decorative elements themselves.

Above are some examples of the original tondino plates designed by William De Morgan. (first two show the front and the third shows the reverse). In these images, it is clear that concept played a huge role in the pattern design and themes relating to both lifeforms and existence (animals and fish) and also the greater fruits of life itself (travel) were acutely apparent.

Some initial research into the work of William De Morgan and his influences led me through a hefty thought process around what the message in the imagery might therefore be...

The three main points I highlighted as important through this early reading were the fact that De Morgans designs had a heavy social message as I suspected, he often used humour in his imagery and he worked the form of his items in conjunction with the development of the message in the pattern. I decided that these three points formed a strong basis for a purposeful outcome.

The first ideas came from Perry our Victorian cook, this week for breakfast she served us "Florence Nightingale Kedgeree", I was interested in the origins of the title for this dish and so she loaned me her cookbook which informed me that it was often served to invalids as a restorative health dish. I began to wonder whether this could be a starting point for the story of the tondinos. Also inspired by the Edward Lear performance I got to thinking of humour, absurdity and storytelling and thought about the Goldilocks and the Three Bears - "this one is just right" and how balance is sought between too much and too little in life...

At the same time, Bryony and Niamh were taking their inspiration from the roses on the ceiling of the Oak room (as mentioned earlier) and Niamh remembered a socialist poem entitled "Bread and Roses" associated with textile strikes and the idea that we need more than simply sustenance to survive this life, more than just food, water and sleep, we need joy and engagement and ideas and art! Perfect for the dining room and a similar thread to mine and Stephens thinking around physical and mental health and work / life balance.

To try to make sense of all of the thoughts forming in my head, I began with a small mindmap in my notebook, which developed into something much larger on the table!

In discussion with Stephen we decided to modify the form of each of the three plates so that they were each slightly different, this also assisted Stephen with avoiding some of the overtly difficult aspects of creating form close to that of the original tondino shown. We decided together that the first plate could have a small "well" for the food and a large rim area for decoration, the third plate could be the reverse (with a large area for food and a small area for decoration) and the third could be a balance of the two proportions.

Processing how our ideas from research could work with the form of the plates came through in mindmapping. It emerged that these three unique forms could represent the different social standings of individuals in Victorian society that William Morris was so keen to write about.

The final concept was formalised from this, the tondinos would tell the story of 19th century labour politics as perceived and written about by William Morris. Depicting the story of the life situations of three sets of individuals,

The sets would consist of the lowly factory worker, who Morris saw as living in drudgery and oppression (above top two images), the factory owner who Morris saw as greedy and selfish (above bottom two images) and the arts and crafts movement (above centre two images) who Morris described as living in harmony with a balance between joy in work and the fruits of their labour in play and fellowship.

It was decided that in the form of the plates, the centre "dome" would bear imagery and symbols related to the "controller" of each social set, the central "feeding well" would show imagery relating to the "nourishment" of the soul that emerged, as a direct result of the central control exerted, and the lip or rim of the plate would bear imagery relating to the impact of the situation on each group according to the writings of William Morris.

The next step was to find appropriate imagery to represent the story we were trying to tell about the living situations and impact of each scenario as William Morris saw it. Further research took me back to William De Morgans original tondinos and in reading about his influences I discovered the work of Edward Topsell and his book "The History of Four Footed Beasts and Serpents". These images were a perfect, left field, humourous and playful resource from which to create imagery. That combined with Persian symbols, (a clear influence on De Morgans lustrewear) provided us with animal like characters and embedded meaning in shapes and pattern formation.

Finding out about the symbolism behind both the animals in Persian art and in the tales of Edward Topsell was a fascinating and inspiring process...

Appropriate characters and shapes to tell each story were selected and trialed in formation according to the size and form of each plate.

The final images contained a mix of Topsell's creatures and Persian art. The two small images to the right above show the polar opposite experiences of the factory worker (top) and the factory owner (bottom).

The factory worker himself represented by the dog who according to Topsell was a loyal servant of his master, shown as Topsell's "Mantichora" in the centre, a hybrid creature consisting of head of man, the body of a lion and the tail of a scorpion, known for eating the flesh of man to serve his own needs.

The control of the Mantichora on the factory worker, led to a life of misery and suffering as depicted by symbols in the centre leading to the rim. These symbols are derived from a Persian shield and symbolise the defensiveness felt by the factory worker as he struggles to survive whilst biting his own tail through lack of joy in his life.

The first plate depicts the experience of the factory worker

The life of the factory owner is shown on the rim of the third plate as a doubling up of the Mantichora. Two factory owners unified and conspiring through greed and an appetite for the flesh of man, shown here devouring the dog or "factory worker". In the "nourishment well" of the food containing portion of the plate (extra large on this one due to the riches of the factory owners position) are elements of the tail of the Persian eagle or "faravahar".

This relates to the bad forces ever present in the environment of exploitative labour, alongside power of the Persian eagle itself as the motivator of the Matichora. At the centre of this one is Topsell's "Gulon" a creature born of gluttony and greed, the governing force behind the set up.

The third plate shows the situation of the factory owner

The final of the three plates exists as the balance between the two. It represens the intent of the Arts and Crafts movement. This plate has the Persian star at its core as the community did not believe in hierarchy and instead, sought to exist in harmony, governed only by forces of nature. They created their own rules collaboratively based on democracy in a climate of positive forces, experiencing joy, happiness and faithfulness to each other.

This environment is what fulfilled them, as such, images of the Persian paisley pattern exist in the centre "nourishment well" (as this is said to have been a representation of life and eternity), complimented by the Persian "Huma bird", (a creature of compassion and good fortune).

The culture that was created by this way of working within the Arts and Crafts movement, by William Morris' account brought about fellowship and loyalty, shown here as Topsell's elephants looping trunk and tail around the rim.

The second plate depicts the balance found in the working ways of the Arts and Crafts movement

With concept confirmed and drawn up on paper, the real challenge lay ahead. Stephen actually had to make them the correct size and proportion to work with the images that we developed. That kickwheel was not easy to use (I had a few goes), but he worked hard to create a brilliant set of 9 plates (three of each proportion needed for the imagery).

Unfortunately, when selecting the best three to trim, he got sidetracked and forgot about our spares, so the were demolished by the harsh Welsh autumnal weather!

This left no room for error in the firing and glazing of the plates if we were to be able to present our final designs in the best light. However, it ended up being one piece of bad luck after another for us, as poor Stephen battled with not only the elements, but new and unfamiliar equipment in creating something that would be second nature to him at home.

The second issue was in the firing. A misreading of the kiln that was on loan to us meant that it was opened too early and one plate cracked and another got chipped! Then in the base glazing once bisque fired, it became apparent that the blue coating had "gaps" in the coverage, Stephen attributed this to grease of some kind contaminating the surface of the plates as they were being dipped.

This incessant poor fortune meant that I had to get creative with the application of the pattern.

As De Morgan was a fan of humour in his designs this provided a fun opportunity to manipulate the pattern of the plates to account for the problems we faced.

In the chipped plate (with the small central well meant for the factory worker) I reworked the position of two of the dogs so that they appeared to be biting the plate where it had been chipped (out of hunger / starvation), rather than biting their tails. I careefully selected the orientation of the imagery to cover the missed base glazing and on the factory owner plate (with the large central well) I accounted for the missing dome by explaining that the gulon (or glutton) in the centre had eaten it!

I painted the factory worker and factory owner versions (below left and centre) and Stephen painted the Arts and Crafts plate (right). Below shows how the plates (freshly painted with raw glaze) compare with the design intent.

Despite difficulties, we felt hopeful as we sent the plates away for the final lustre firing. The glaze colours were limited to the blue backdrop and red and gold for the lustre pattern.

When we unwrapped the plates 24 hours later. We were in for further disappointment. It seems that there had been a misreading in how the glazes had been mixed and so only the gold elements actually showed on the final plates (shown above in orange). The elements that are shown white above should have come out a beautiful strong red, but unfortunately it has disintegrated somewhere in the process....

The best laid plans...

Image of the final fired plates courtesy of David Jones Photography

For a designer intent on creating items with meaning and purpose, this outcome was upsetting for me, without the images, there was no story. All of the other difficulties had been overcome creatively but at the last hurdle, most of our efforts were lost.

On a more positive note, Bryony and Niamh created beautiful curtains from their "Bread and Roses" poem utilising the sickle to represent bread and therefore life's necessities, and also the Lancashire rose to emphasise the need for positive fulfillment in life.

Bryony even found a creative use for the leftover fabric in her performance of the Owl and the Pussycat!

With help from the others in the group and Ross from Anvil forge, Rod created a beautiful set of firedogs which went on to be the judges choice. The workload involved was as much in terms of hours spent as Abi's chair in episode 1. It was a fab exercise that by this point we were all able to work together "in harmony" and I think Rod was suitably proud of the overall achievement.

So there you have it, the story of the dining room, or actually the story of the tondino plates and a bit about the other items....

Follow the other crafters @bryonyknox, @wimperisembroidery @stephen_winstanley @abdollahnafisi and @goldeneyeforge8 on instagram for more behind the scenes stories about the other items in the show and detailed insights. Of course, feel free to follow me too @ilsaparrydesignstudio.

I will be making one more of these blog posts, next week about tonight's show where we have to make a weathervane, a magazine, a mirror and a pergola. Each of us are teamed with another crafter! So please feel free to subscribe to my site for updates (scroll to bottom of page to sign up).


Enjoy episode the final show episode 4 - Friday 1st February 2019 BBC2 9pm

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