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April 22, 2011 10:00 pm
Pottery-maker Emma Bridgewater, whose mugs and teapots occupy the same emotional heartland as the Aga in middle-class English kitchens, has recently released a collection of earthenware to celebrate Prince William and Kate Middleton’s forthcoming wedding.
A few samples can be found on the pale pine dresser at Bridgewater’s Oxford home. Beaming a rainbow of muted colours, one mug exclaims: “Hurrah for Kate & William”.
Bridgewater’s four-storey house near central Oxford, which she shares with husband, painter and design partner Matthew Rice, and their four children, Lizzie, 21, Kitty, 20, Margaret, 14, and Michael, 11, was built at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has been the family home for the past two years.
A Black Toast butter dish from the pottery range forms the centrepiece for the dining table. It’s not all Bridgewater, though: John Lewis salt-and-pepper mills hover in the background like backing singers.
Her success is down to good design ideas, an unremitting work ethic – and speed. The royal collection is a good example: “Matthew drew up the mug design for the royal engagement the afternoon it was announced. The mug was fired that night and on the website the next day,” she said.
All that hard work has paid off. So far 3,340 engagement mugs and more than 6,000 other Bridgewater royal wedding pieces have been bought online or in stores. Such success is nothing new. Bridgewater’s best-selling item, a half-pint polka-dot mug, sells more than 50 a day.
In the 25 years since its creation, Bridgewater’s business has grown from a one-woman company, inspired by the memories of her mother’s welcoming kitchen, to employ the 250 staff she has today.
There’s still the same emphasis on homeliness and the personal touch, though: “Some pieces we make go through something like 50 pairs of hands,” she says. “They are looked after by a series of people who really care about what they’re doing.”
Walk into any of Bridgewater’s stores and it’s clear what she means. Each hand-sponged mug is initialled by its creator; garish quality-control stickers are thoughtfully replaced by labels with the name of the person who inspected the final product.
Makeshift pen pots and unfired mug samples in Bridgewater’s study provide reminders of the business she set up all those years ago. Tea is a further reminder – it arrives in a giant swirling bird-and-worm-patterned teapot. Left to stand for a minute or two, the tea is poured into Bridgewater mugs decorated with baby- pink hearts, with milk added from one of her figs and olives jugs. Like chintz, the Bridgewater tea-set patterns mix and swirl together rather than being obsessively matched.
But then again, there’s no time to be obsessive when you have four children to look after and divide your time between Oxford, London and Stoke-on-Trent each week, as Bridgewater and her family do. This constant movement makes the kitchen all the more important – it is the hub of family life. In Bridgewater’s words, it is the one room in the house that states a family’s “intention of being together”.
“Family life isn’t lots of rosy-cheeked children sitting round the table for three meals a day, seven days a week,” Bridgewater says. “It’s actually about people coming and going. Somehow the kitchen anchors the family: even if you’re working all hours, or your husband’s away or your children have left home.”
Bridgewater also describes family life as having “chapters”. “For a long time – 16 years – we lived in Norfolk, so in fact it’s there that I miss, not London. But I knew I didn’t want to go on living full-time in Norfolk because, though I absolutely adore it, I do miss city life. Oxford is a good compromise.”
So what is Bridgewater’s favourite design? “It varies all the time,” she says: “But I love Matthew’s birds.” She puts forward a potted history: “He did those when we were renting a house outside Oxford and the stone-tiled roof was a bit loose. There were just loads of swifts and swallows nesting there, and in the evening they would be absolutely all around us.”
By moving to Oxford, where Bridgewater grew up, she is keen to give her children the same chance to enjoy the balance of the city. “I’ve always thought of north Oxford and Jericho as a sort of perfect place to live,” she says. “I love the greenness of it, but I also love the fact there’s a railway line between that and me, so there are goods trains rattling through it. It’s magical.”
Though nature provides a wonderful setting, what really makes Bridgewater’s house a family home are the hundreds of reminders of the family. On several walls, photos and paintings by Matthew, family and other friends are so abundant that they overpower the wallpaper.
On a journey upstairs, past Bridgewater’s lavender-scented bedroom, we’re greeted by an ammunition belt strewn across the bed in the guest room. “Michael’s armaments,” she smiles.
Ornate French maps line the stairway to the second floor, where there is further evidence of the presence of teenagers: unmade beds and discarded trousers.
Back downstairs, at least 20 photo albums fill a corner in Bridgewater’s drawing room, a cosy space that includes a grand piano, a half-played chess set and a babushka doll on the windowsill, her face turned to the window to silently admire the view.
The albums are a reminder that though Bridgewater may not always be in Oxford, her childhood memories and her family will root her to the city. “Growing up, I had several places I felt connected to,” she says, “and in moving to Oxford I wanted to shake us up a bit.”
Does Bridgewater ever imagine she’ll give up the nomadic commute in retirement and settle in one place?
“I’ve not thought about it, though I’m not sure what retirement is really,” she adds. “It doesn’t seem to me like a very good idea. What would we do? Take up golf? I really doubt it.”
My favourite thing: An amateur war painting
There is a painting called “War Wedding” that hangs in my bedroom. A disabled miner at Ashington Colliery painted it, so it’s completely amateur. But I love the thought of people having more than one life. Too often we think we do one thing in life and it’s exciting to think that we could have several lives, several passions. It’s also the story of the painting. A war wedding, what could be more romantic? And poignant. I love how the ladies stare, too, because one can’t help but stare at a beautiful bride. I’ve always been a fan of unselfconscious, naive painting, just as I like unselfconscious pottery.
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