The Martins in Context

The four Martin brothers were pioneers in the production of Victorian studio pottery. Renowned for their eccentric and fantastical designs, the brothers worked during the Gothic Revival and the Arts and Crafts movement – major 19th Century reactions to the Industrial Revolution.

This year many museums and galleries across the country will be celebrating ‘Ruskin 200’, with 2019 marking the bicentenary of John Ruskin’s birth. Ruskin (1819-1900) was a writer, artist and philanthropist, whose ideas were an important inspiration for the Arts and Crafts movement and the Martin brothers. 19th century Britain saw the rapid growth of mass-manufacture and new industries. Machine-dominated production had damaging consequences on both the social conditions for workers and the quality of goods. Ruskin was highly critical of these changes, arguing in ‘The Stones of Venice’ (1853) that “Workers could not produce beautiful things if they were enslaved to the mechanical process.”

John Ruskin, circa 1870. W. & D. Downey [Public domain]

Critics like Ruskin looked to the past in their search for more humane methods of working and better-quality models of production. These ideas formed the Arts and Craft movement. The movement should be understood not as a single style, but as a collection of small communities of craft workers and architects who used traditional production methods with few machines. Such working environments drew on medieval guild systems. Quality craftsmanship, individual creativity and the use of local materials were valued. It was felt that working in this way would improve both craftsmanship and peoples’ quality of life.

Although it is often associated with architecture and furnishings, the Arts and Craft movement had an important influence on ceramics. Potters working at this time wanted to raise the status of ceramics to that of fine art. They preferred to see their creations as artistic expressions rather than products of big industry. Many, including the Martin brothers, turned to natural themes and experimented with new techniques.

From 1873 the brothers sold their wares in London. Working as a family unit, they handled each step of production themselves. Robert Wallace was the designer, Walter the potter and chemist, Edwin the decorator, and Charles the commercial manager. The Martins’ traditional and highly skilled production methods echoed Ruskin’s support of returning to a system of manufacture based on small-scale workshops.  They hand-crafted each of their pieces and during their 50-year enterprise, no two creations were ever the same.

The brothers’ eclectic collection of ceramics, ranging from clocks to grotesque creatures, includes a series of portrait plaques sculpted in relief. Robert Wallace created this terracotta plaque. It shows Edwin incising a design onto a vase.

Looking Back to the Medieval World

Many Victorian artists and architects based their work on designs they found in late medieval art and architecture.  England’s great cathedrals, like the one we see here in Exeter, were an important source of inspiration. This Victorian style became known as the Gothic Revival.  We can see in the moulded gothic arcades which surround this mantle clock. RAMM itself was also built during the Gothic Revival period and it is interesting to see the similarities between the museum’s architecture and the Martinware clock.

On top of the clock stands a little bard playing his harp. The dancing figures incised onto the front represent the four seasons. From the left, Spring and Summer dance with their bundles of flowers, whilst Autumn holds a sickle to gather in the harvest. On the right, Winter is wrapped in a shawl ready for the colder months.

If you visit Exeter’s gothic cathedral, you will spot many peculiar creatures hiding in the stones. These grotesques were popular both with medieval architects and the Victorians they inspired. Robert Wallace, the eldest of the Martin brothers, spent time as a stone carver on the new Houses of Parliament. Designed by Charles Pugin and Augustus Barry, the Parliament buildings were completed in 1870. Robert brought his experience of creating gothic grotesques for the building’s facade to the Martin’s ceramics venture. This grinning creature we have at RAMM is a perfect example of the brothers’ quirky inventions. Look closely and you can see the scale-like texture the potters etched across his back.

Pioneering Techniques and Searching for Nature

The Martin brothers are renowned for the distinctive salt-glazed finishes they added to their ceramics. This innovative technique enabled the Martins to create unique textures. The technique used a special high-temperature firing method which involved throwing salt into the kiln. The salt then fused with the clay, creating a semi-matt, speckled surface and a muted colour palette of brown, blue and green tones.  Most glazing techniques hid the clay surface underneath. But the salt-glaze method allowed any decorative marks engraved into the clay before firing to remain visible, adding further surface texture.

It was these innovative techniques that allowed the Martins to create the natural aesthetics favoured by the Arts and Crafts movement.  We see this in the muted earth tones and dull surfaces of their pots. Seeing the rise of industry and pollution, artists involved in the Arts and Crafts movement looked to the natural world for inspiration.

Many also supported the idea of ‘material honesty’. This meant that artists celebrated the special characteristics of a material, such as the grain of wood or the texture of clay, to create decorative effects. We see this in the Martin’s vases: nibs, bumps and veins were added to the clay to create gourd-like forms.

Global Influences

During the late Victorian period, many potters like the Martin brothers took inspiration from Japanese and Chinese designs. Europeans were able to appreciate the rich culture of the East at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1878. Japanese stoneware proved very popular. The forms and glazes seen on Chinese porcelain also made an impression, directing artists to explore new techniques.

Ceramics were not the only form of inspiration. Books showing the woodblock prints of Japanese artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige circulated around Europe during the 1870s.

Although the Martin brothers worked as a family unit, the artist H.F. Fawcett helped with some designs. Fawcett was especially fascinated by Japanese art and applied similar decorative schemes to the sketches he produced for the Martins. The dragon and fish motifs we see on this jug and vase reflect these Eastern influences.

The Arts and Crafts Movement Today

Photographing the collection has allowed us to really get close to these Victorian creations. It is amazing that we can see exactly where the brothers worked and handled the clay – close inspection of the ceramics shows the tiny indentations from tools and even some finger prints. Ruskin certainly would have approved of this close relationship between object and maker, an idea that brings us directly to these Victorian craftsmen. The ideas explored by Ruskin and adopted by the Martins continue to resonate with us today: the impact of technology on society and the environment, the need for sustainable production methods.

The Martins’ work is now available to explore on South West Collections Explorer and some of their creations are on display in our More in Store windows at RAMM until August 2019.