Nairn Studio Pottery

Nairn, Vase
Nairn, Vase

Overview

Nairn Pottery was produced from 1962 to 1992 in the ancient burgh of Nairn, which is situated on the Moray Firth coast, sixteen miles east of Inverness. It was founded, owned and worked throughout its life by a talented couple, Gordon Macintyre (1931-2016) and his wife Muriel (1930-2009).

Founding and Development of the Nairn Pottery

Gordon was born into an old Nairnshire family. He trained as an hotelier, a career he followed throughout his working life. Muriel was born in Bombay, India where her father was joint owner of a woollen mill. She accompanied her mother back to England in 1945 and the family settled in Harrogate, her father, Arthur Staynes, establishing a wool broking business in Bradford. In the early 1950s he returned to Karachi as an Adviser to the new Government in Pakistan. His time there ended tragically at Christmas 1962, when, under Ayub Kahn’s military junta, he was brutally murdered. Muriel was very close to her father and his tragic death had a traumatic effect on her from which she never fully recovered. Muriel had begun her career as a music teacher in Bexhill on Sea in the 1950s, having obtained degrees at the London School of Dalcroze Eurythmics and the Royal Academy of Music. Gordon was “enduring” his spell of National Service which he disliked in Harrogate, but there was one saving grace – in 1951 he met his future wife, Muriel, at a Scottish dance in Harrogate. After an “on-off” relationship they finally met up again in London and married in Harrogate on Easter Monday 1956. They then lived in London until after their first child, Symon, was born and became aware of the existence of the Chelsea Pottery, which ran an “open studio” system where anyone could work and learn. Both the ethos of the pottery and the creative possibilities of clay appealed to them and Gordon went to the pottery at every opportunity, learning a great deal as he did so. The Chelsea Pottery made a variety of wares, but was probably best known for its colourful bowls and plaques decorated by a method known as “inlay and overlay.” It was this decorative technique that Gordon and Muriel Macintyre went on to adopt for many of the pots they later created at Nairn, where, inspired by his experience at Chelsea, Gordon was keen to set up a pottery for himself and Muriel.

In 1959 the Macintyres decided to make the move from London to Nairn, where Gordon’s mother and sister were running the Clifton House Hotel, his father having died in 1952. Gordon began working there, learning much about the skills of running a successful hotel from his sister. Initially no house was available in Nairn, so the family moved into a small cottage where a second son, Charles, was born and from where they could search for a property big enough to accommodate a growing family and have space for making and firing pots.

In 1961 the Macintyres bought Strathyre, a large eighteenth century stone-built
house where their daughter Ruth was born in 1965. A Victorian wing had been added, providing a comfortable home for the family, and also a spacious five-roomed semi-basement which was perfect for the pottery. Eventually it provided a clay room, drying room and main working room. Initially Gordon and Muriel had no plans to do anything other than express themselves in the new medium of clay, an artistic hobby they could share; they did not consider the possibility of it becoming a commercial concern.

Gordon’s knowledge of the technicalities of ceramic production was not sufficient to set up on their own immediately, so he spent from late September until Christmas 1961 “working each and every day at Chelsea Pottery and at the V&A, drawing, drawing, drawing”. Many of Gordon’s later designs were taken from those drawing books.

Teaching was not formal at Chelsea; students were shown processes and were able to observe professional potters and decorators including a part-time thrower at work, but there were no classes as such. In order to learn enough to set up his own pottery in Nairn, Gordon watched, listened and tried things out for himself, experimenting particularly with glazes and decorating techniques. He received a lot of help and advice from Joyce Morgan, who was originally a fabric designer and who became a business partner to David Rawnsley, the man behind Chelsea Pottery. She went on to become a professional potter and decorator at the pottery and was very helpful to Gordon. The open studio concept appealed to Gordon and influenced the way Nairn Pottery was to be run. In September 1962 Muriel also went down to Chelsea. She worked there until just before Christmas, when the horrific death of her father cut short her stay. By then, however, she had learned the many and varied aspects of working with clay, without which she could not have expressed her creativity.

Once settled in Strathyre, Muriel and Gordon began potting. Their first purchase in 1962 was a full-sized electric kiln obtained from Webcot, a firm in Stoke on Trent, whose owner, Bernard Webber, was very helpful to them. A few months later they obtained a wheel, but in the meantime they produced coil and slab pots, moulded and slip-cast forms, as well as modelled sculptural figures. They made their own moulds with plaster of Paris and throughout the life of the pottery used fine red Cornish clay, purchased by Bernard Webber and shipped up by train in ready-to-use state. Initially an opaque “Webcot” glaze was used, but they switched to zirconium silicate – more familiarly known as a maiolica or tin, glaze, which worked better for them and was less toxic. Other glazes were purchased from Blythe’s, one of which gave a transparent pale amber finish that proved particularly useful. Iron, copper and cobalt oxides were bought from both Webcot and Blythe’s.

Having begun to work for their own pleasure, Gordon and Muriel found that other people soon showed an interest in their pots. A notice on the gate at Strathyre resulted in visitors coming into the studio, watching the couple at work and often leaving with a pot. They soon realised more by accident than design that the pottery had potential as a commercial concern. It wasn’t, however, in their nature to see such an enterprise as simply a business.

Alongside working their pottery, Gordon and Muriel were actively involved in running the Clifton Hotel over a 40 year period. In 1969 they bought a large Victorian House called Tigh na Rosan, next door to Clifton House, and converted the garage into their new workshop with a showroom onto the street. This was, however, to be their home for only four years. In 1973 they divided the house in two, selling one half but retaining the pottery and some accommodation attached to it, living there when not based in the hotel. In 1975 they built a very large self-contained studio between Tigh na Rosan and the Clifton Hotel and in the late 1970s sold the remaining portion of Tigh na Rosan. The studio was then converted into their new pottery described by Gordon as a “lovely place in which to work, light, airy and overlooking the sea.” It was also within the hotel gardens so the guests could wonder into the pottery if they wished – perhaps to buy a souvenir of their stay.

Rather than live “above the shop” all the time, the family also had a home in Geddes, an ancient hamlet a few miles from Nairn.

Any house lived in by the Macintyres was likely to contain surprises – a plaque on the wall, or a figure peering out among the plants. In one house, a Buddha squatted by a small pool, a salamander climbed up the wall and a slightly creepy head sat in a flower bed.

Main Products

An example of their earliest wares, probably made in 1962 in the few months before they obtained the wheel, is the tall coiled vase, inscribed Nairn Pottery, illustrated in the Gallery. The vase is forty centimetres in height and because of the thickness of the coils is heavily potted, weighing 3.175 kilograms (7 lbs). Interestingly the vase has the price “4 gns” written in dark pencil on the base. This can be seen in the Gallery image of the base, written above the last N in Nairn. In decimal currency, four guineas converts to £4.20, which, after allowing for inflation over the almost sixty years since it was probably made, equates to over £80. Back in 1962, the average weekly wage was slightly over £15, so four guineas was a considerable amount to invest in a vase in those days.

SPS Bulletin No.57 incorporates a section about the Nairn Book & Arts Festival 2012 at which Heather Jack gave a special delivery in Nairn Community Centre of her presentation on ‘The Nairn Pottery of Muriel and Gordon Macintyre’. The tall coiled vase was brought along to the event and shown to Gordon Macintyre who thought it might be an early piece. In Jill Turnbull’s NCS article, Fig 7, is a photograph of Muriel Macintyre coiling a pot in the studio at Strathyre. Given its substantial price, it is likely that the tall vase is an early piece coiled by her in 1962, in the few months before a wheel was acquired. Coiled Nairn pots are extremely rare – to date the illustrated vase is the only example known, although others may exist given that coiled and other forms of pot not requiring a wheel, were produced over several months.

The NCS article, Fig 11, shows a photograph of Muriel Macintyre throwing a bowl on the wheel. Nairn Pottery’s biggest output was its finely potted and decorated, shallow, flared bowls, influenced by the Macintyres time at Chelsea – including the use of the “inlay and overlay” method. These were made over a thirty year period in a range of sizes and are what the pottery is best known for today. A number of examples are illustrated in the gallery and in SPS Bulletin No.57. An obituary for Gordon Macintyre written by Heather Jack for the “Scotsman” newspaper published on 20th October 2016, best sums up the Macintyres and their pottery: “Always experimenting, never resorting to easy repetitive formula, the Macintyres created a body of work which is often playful and humorous, but
always expertly crafted. Many pieces were inspired by the beauties of nature which both Gordon and Muriel loved: flowers… shells…stones, and beasts both real and imaginary. The human figure often appeared in the guise of actors in the plays which the Macintyres produced at their hotel in Nairn.” 

Heather Jack went on to say that: “Production at the Nairn Pottery was a team effort, throwing being more often Muriel’s role, while Gordon turned the finished
shapes, and drew and coloured many of the designs.”
Sales & Promotion As well as selling products from their pottery, the Macintyres had a range of other outlets. These included the National Trust for Scotland shop at Inverewe where Gordon and Muriel would spend a day sketching plants and later translating the drawings into designs for the pots, often incorporating the name of the plant. They produced about two hundred and fifty pieces per year for Inverewe, until the late 1960s when a change of management resulted in a request only to produce plain glazed wares which unsurprisingly, failed to sell. Nairn Pottery also supplied the Copeland and Lye department store in Glasgow as well as the owner Mr Campbell’s upmarket craft and clothes store out towards Loch Lomond. They also produced work over several years for Fortnum and Mason, including their most demanding commission which was a request for two hundred plates, roughly five inches in diameter, each decorated with five fishing flies. One was to be put in each of two hundred Christmas hampers for Mrs Garfield Weston, the American owner of the company. They had only two weeks to complete an almost impossible order and had to work flat out before taking the finished consignment down to London, packed in a trunk – just in time.

Nairn Pottery was also showcased in locations such as the Scottish Crafts Council headquarters at Acheson House in Edinburgh and at a major exhibition in 1968 at the British Craft Centre in London, which was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who was photographed holding a Nairn Pottery bowl whilst speaking to Gordon Macintyre. In 1979 a new craft base called Highland Craftpoint was established at Beauly and when it was opened by the Queen, Muriel was chosen to give a demonstration for her. Exhibitions were also held in a number of galleries throughout Scotland and craft fairs were another important
outlet. Having gained steady recognition from the public, in 1970 the Nairn Pottery was sufficiently well regarded to be featured in an article in the Scottish Field, and in 1973, Gordon Macintyre won the Silver Shield at The Mod for his contribution to Art and Industry in the Highlands.

Articles in SPHR

Typical Backstamps & Marks

A simple “NP” mark often occurs as does the full incised “Nairn Pottery” and occasionally just “Nairn”, sometimes with the addition of a paper label. Examples of some of these are shown in the Gallery. Muriel also used an impressed butterfly
mark. Muriel would sometimes sign her name in full or simply use her initials “MM”. Gordon’s initials also appear, and occasionally the full signature of both Gordon and Muriel would be incised into the base. Sometimes a date was added,
especially on bespoke commemorative pieces, such as a bowl made especially for friends. As already mentioned’ “RB” is the mark of Rob Butler who worked part-time at the pottery from 1966-74. “Symon” is the mark of the Macintyres’ eldest son. Initials and names almost always signify the thrower or the turner of the pot rather than the creator of the decorative design.

Pattern Names

No named patterns or repeated pattern names were used

Other Publications & Links

Public Collections

Other Potters at Nairn
Probably influenced by the “Open Studio” concept at Chelsea Pottery the Macintyres did employ others to work for them. As a student, their eldest son Symon would work in the pottery as a holiday job, throwing batches of wares for later decoration. Local boy Rod Butler began working for the Macintyres in June 1966 when still at school and became their most accomplished and successful pupil. The initials “RB” appear on some of the pieces he potted. Later on he also decorated some wares, but it was not customary for such pieces to bear initials. His time at Nairn Pottery set him on an academic and career path which led to him teaching at a college in Brisbane, Australia. He still lives in Australia and is now in 2021 “a practising artist of sculptural ceramics, assemblage, drawing and painting.”

Another beneficiary in the early days at Strathyre was Bob Park, who was planning to open a pottery himself. He was offered the use of the wheel and kiln to make his initial stock, while the Macintyres were away in France. He took up the generous offer and spent the weeks necessary in Nairn Pottery for him to make the amount of stock needed for Culloden Pottery to open. He later moved to the Greystoke Gill Pottery in Cumbria.

The seminal work on Nairn Pottery was published in the Northern Ceramic Society (NCS) Journal, Volume 28, 2012 and comprises twenty-four pages written by Dr Jill Turnbull following three visits by her and fellow collector Heather Jack to Nairn, where they experienced Gordon’s hospitality and were provided with a large amount of information, photographs and answers to questions. Not often are ceramic collectors able to read such detailed information sourced directly from the owner of a former pottery and Jill Turnbull and Heather Jack deserve our appreciation for making the long trip to visit Gordon Macintyre on several occasions to carry out their research. Much of the information in this Overview, and in the sections which follow, is sourced from what was written by Jill Turnbull in the NCS Journal.

 

The Macintyres’ Other Interests
Although this article is about pottery it would be wrong not to mention how energetic and multi-talented Gordon and Muriel Macintyre were. Under the Macintyres the Clifton Hotel became much more than just a place to eat, drink and
stay. They were passionate about music. Both could play the piano and a record player was played constantly in the pottery. In 1961 Muriel was one of the principal instigators of the very successful Nairn Amateur Light Opera Society.

Gordon was also closely involved and in 1963 he took over designing and organizing the making of costumes, becoming President in 1966. The theatre was also a shared passion and in 1972 Gordon initiated full scale costume productions at the hotel, while Muriel joined what was to become The Clifton Players two years later, for whom Gordon was also involved in the design and production of costumes. Local people, hotel employees and the MacIntyres’ good friend, Ninian, the Brodie of Brodie also acted with them. Over a forty year period there were at least two home produced plays a year at Clifton House, as well as between ten and fourteen concerts. Alongside providing all this entertainment and hospitality, they still found time over a thirty year period to produce a remarkable range of decorative pottery.

The End
Sadly, in 1992 the pottery came to an abrupt closure. Muriel, unlike Gordon,
enjoyed craft fairs. They had made a large group of pots for the local Nairn Craft
Fair, where Muriel had taken a sizeable space in a marquee, setting it up with the
help of Claire Grant, a student from Grays School of Art. At the end of the first
day, they were preparing to pack up, when they were told that all precautions were being taken and they did not need to dismantle their exhibits. On the understanding that strong security measures were in place they left their work in the tent. In the early hours of the morning a fire was started by a drunken group of party-goers, the tent was burnt to the ground and the contents lost. The entire stock of the Nairn Pottery, amounting to about £3,000 in value was destroyed. The organisers, Nairn District Council, had not taken out insurance and the Macintyres were unable to claim compensation. In Gordon’s words: “Muriel was totally devastated and really that was the end …. Our daughter Ruth took the kiln and the wheel and all the glazes …. and we decided, after 30 years, to call it a day”.

They stopped potting completely and turned the studio into a high quality antique shop. It was not in Muriel’s nature to remain idle, however, and she went on to make stringed instruments, eventually completing a half-size violin, three beautiful violins, a viola and a cello. On one occasion she enjoyed a performance of chamber music played by visiting musicians on the instruments she had created.
Her last instrument, completed just before her death in January 2009, was a violin embellished with little inlaid plugs of 22ct gold. After her death, and according to her wishes, the finished instrument was painted by their friend, Scottish artist John Byrne, and strung by Andrew Gracie. It is in her husband’s words “quite unusual, beautiful, unique and a very fitting memorial to a most unusual and highly talented lady”. 

In the words of Rod Butler who began working for the Macintyres in June 1966 when still at school and who became their most accomplished and successful pupil, they “gave their vast and eclectic knowledge with enthusiasm and generosity. Art, ceramics, drama and opera, the list is endless. The people of Nairn will be forever in their debt”.

The SPS would like to thank Gordon Bushnell for producing this very full overview.

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