October 22, 2011 12:53 am

The Diary: Tristram Hunt

The MP for Stoke-on-Trent takes dignitaries from China around the British Ceramics Biennial’s installations
Tristram Hunt

Stoke-on-Trent’s version of the Great Wall of China isn’t visible from outer space but it is striking. In the middle of the whitewashed, high-ceilinged, dust-laden China Hall, once the beating heart of the old Spode Works, leading ceramics designers from the city, where I am MP, have put together an inspiring monument to manufacturing. Not yet up there with the Hay or Edinburgh festivals, not quite London fashion week or Frieze, but Staffordshire this October hosts the British Ceramics Biennial and can expect an influx of art students, international designers, museum curators and wily investors.

What has made this possible is a ceramics industry that’s back from the brink and is once again delivering healthy profits. So there they stand cheek-by-jowl, our modern pottery barons – Burleigh, Emma Bridgewater, Royal Crown Derby and Wedgwood. But the hero of the hour is Spode. The original manufacturer of those blue Italian willow designs, found in nearly every middle-class household, had gone bust by 2009 as it outsourced production and abandoned innovation. The company that had bested Chinese porcelain with its own bone china in the late 18th century had, in a cruel revenge of globalisation, been brought to its knees by competition from China and elsewhere.

Then the Portmeirion Group intervened – buying up the brand, returning production to Stoke and reviving its fortunes. It understood that authenticity – “Made in Staffordshire” – was essential for success. So, recently I found myself at this former Spode potbank, taking a delegation of dignitaries from Zibo in Shandong province, China, around the biennial’s installations; or, telling the Chinese about china in the old China Hall.

What is also getting us really fired up in Staffordshire is the indecision surrounding the future of the Wedgwood Museum. For readers unfamiliar with the tale (raised previously in these pages by AN Wilson), this remarkable museum – based at the Wedgwood plant in Barlaston – is in danger of liquidation thanks to a perverse piece of legislation. The Pension Protection Fund, which is meant to secure the pensions of former workers whose companies have gone into administration, is pursuing the Wedgwood Museum for tens of millions of pounds following the previous insolvency of Waterford Wedgwood. The pensioners themselves will see little benefit but Staffordshire could have itself stripped of one of the greatest ceramics collections in the world.

The museum stands as one of the great embodiments of the English Enlightenment. It was Stoke-on-Trent and Lichfield, Derby and the Derwent Valley that nurtured the enterprise and experimentation of the 18th century. With great brilliance, the museum charts that story – of Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley and James Watt. To have that taken away by a state agency would be an act of unspeakable cultural vandalism, and also put at risk the future of numerous local authority, company and trust museums up and down the country. I note the government has recently discovered £250m to empty the bins more regularly; we trust it might just see the value of the Wedgwood collection.

Illustration of British Ceramics Biennial

Wedgwood himself was a founding investor in the construction of the Trent and Mersey canal, which enabled him to ship his wares from Stoke to Liverpool and then across the Atlantic to the booming colonial markets of Bridgetown and Boston. Following its path, I decided to visit the new Museum of Liverpool during last month’s Labour party conference. I was sceptical of the Kim Neilsen design as yet another attack upon the waterfront by Liverpool city council. And while the nearby black-windowed Mann Island development is an absolute shocker, the Museum of Liverpool works well.

Inside, the Guggenheim-style circling wooden staircase produces a wonderfully airy space full of civic valour. Unfortunately, very few of the galleries were open but the one that was, on Liverpool’s imperial past, contained a rather interesting interpretation. During an account of the East India Company, the panel mentioned “The First War of Indian Independence”. I can only presume the curators were referring to what was once known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

No doubt, this version of history is regarded as inclusive and politically correct but it is, in fact, highly contested territory. Jawaharlal Nehru always thought of 1857 as the Mutiny, whereas the BJP, or Indian People’s party, like now to think of it as the first war of independence. But for British visitors, there might at least be some acknowledgement of the more well-known “Mutiny”.

The city’s galleries, however, are really about China rather than India, celebrating its historic connections with Shanghai – as well as subtly highlighting the coming global reality of growing Chinese investment in Liverpool. Or what is now known, as Wedgwood surely knew it too, as “the Atlantic Gateway”.

Back to the House of Commons and you can’t move for Conservative ministers complaining about how lazy the prime minister is. Never does his boxes; not on top of his brief; thinks he can wing it. So what does he do with his time? From the endless photoshoots of his DVD and book collection, we know he is a total philistine (unlike the Machiavellian George Osborne, who loves a good Shakespeare history play). But at least David Cameron spends time with his family.

Harold Macmillan, another Old Etonian prime minister, liked to busk the workload so he could while away the hours in his armoury of West End clubs. So much so that, as writer Ferdinand Mount recounted in a recent essay, a member of the club Pratt’s called in there one evening in the 1960s and asked whether there was anyone about that night. “Nobody at all, sir, only the prime minister.” Those were the days.

Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central. The British Ceramics Biennial runs until November 13, www.britishceramicsbiennial.com

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