Suffolk: Why Violet Elmer is as much an art deco creative genius as Clarice Cliff

Violet Elmer gave the world some stunning art deco designs but history hasn’t lauded her like contemporaries Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper. Two Suffolk fans aim to put that right. STEVEN RUSSELL hears about their labour of love

IT was on a summer’s day in 1994 that the Girlings and some friends up from Hampshire took a trip deep into the Suffolk countryside. Near Woodbridge they chanced upon a wonderful post office-cum-china shop, now long-lost. The friends enjoyed nosing round antiques shops, so this was a good find. Their Suffolk hosts also had fun exploring the emporium, and found their eyes drawn to some simple rouge leaf-design dishes resting among the china horses and dinner services.

“Oh, that’s Carlton Ware,” their friends said. “What?” replied the Girlings.

Actually, they did know a little bit about it. Elaine had a piece that had come from her gran. But that was pretty much the extent of their knowledge.

“They reckon every household in the country had at least one piece of Carlton Ware, and we had that one piece – a jam pot that we’d had for many years. But, of course, it didn’t mean a thing to us until later on,” says husband Barry.

Something was now stirring in their imaginations, however . . . and Barry headed for the library. “I remember him phoning me up at work, saying ‘There’s a book called Collecting Carlton Ware!’ When I saw it, we said ‘When do we start?’” says Elaine.

They learned that Carlton Ware was pottery produced in years gone by at Wiltshaw and Robinson’s Carlton Works in Stoke-on-Trent – vases, serving dishes, tea and coffee sets, pitchers, figurines and more besides. While a few ranges had a utilitarian air about them, many of the ceramics were joyously artistic.

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Inspired, the Girlings went back to that rural Aladdin’s cave to buy the plates: a large one and three or four smaller examples.

Why hadn’t they bought them on their first visit? They’d obviously fallen for them. “The lady was inflating the prices,” smiles Elaine.

Their friends suspected it was because they were too well presented! “So we dressed down and went back scruffy a few days later, and managed to get them very reasonably!” explains Barry.

In that library book was an advert for a company in Sevenoaks that sold Carlton Ware, run by a couple. Elaine phoned and spent a happy hour learning about this now-gone pottery whose products were once exported far and wide.

“Within a few weeks we were going to a fair and had bought our first two pieces,” she says. Barry laughs: “We thought we were absolutely mad, and probably are. But we just went for it.”

They read everything they could lay their hands on and joined a club for enthusiasts.

Today they own about 65 pieces of Carlton pottery – it’s spreading into the bathroom and bedrooms of their bungalow just outside Ipswich.

They buy selectively and they buy because they like the look of something, not for investment reasons. “We buy everything for love, and for keeping. We’re not in it for making money,” Barry emphasises.

The couple have their ear to the ground for news of what’s available. They used to enjoy going to collectors’ fairs, and pottering round antiques shops whenever they went anywhere, but they say those opportunities are being limited by the growth of internet-based selling. It’s taking away some of the romance.

Prices for Carlton Ware peaked in about 2000, they reckon – about the time they paid the most for a piece: a four-figure sum. Generally, though, it’s in the hundreds.

As their knowledge grew they were drawn to the Handcraft and Best Ware ranges of the late 1920s and 1930s, and particularly to the creations of Violet Elmer.

The couple became aware of her in the early 2000s, but there seemed precious little information available to satisfy their curiosity.

Still intrigued, in 2007 or 2008 they set about researching the life of an artist who had designed numerous vases, ginger jars and other pieces, and who had made a “vast contribution” to British decorative arts.

It’s proved an enjoyable labour of love, if frustrating at times because of the cul-de-sacs in which they found themselves. Violet had no children, so her line ended with her death.

Nevertheless, they patiently added jigsaw pieces to the overall picture and appealed for information via newspapers in Staffordshire.

They got details of Violet’s will, which had addresses for relatives, and managed to find a cousin in Shropshire. “He was very ill and old, and actually died two weeks after we contacted him,” says Barry, “but he did fulfil a promise he made to us. He was very co-operative and did send a package of some of her drawings and wedding photographs, and told us what he did know about her.”

All the details they uncovered have been distilled into a book – a biographical tribute they trust will see Violet “remembered as one of the finest designers of the art deco era”.

Miss Elmer was born in a late-Victorian suburb of Oxford but, curiously enough, had a Suffolk ancestor.

Her great-grandparents had lived in Scotland Street, Stoke-by-Nayland. Their son George was born in 1824. He was an agricultural labourer in 1841 but a decade later was living in Oxfordshire, a groom to a well-off employer called Henry Dashwood.

Perhaps, back in East Anglia, the Elmers had been employed within the large Tendring Hall estate. The owners, the Rowley family, were related to the Dashwoods. “It may be that, through this connection, George was told of the vacancy in Oxfordshire and made the move to better himself,” suggest the Girlings.

In 1862, George married Ellen, the daughter of a master tailor. Their son Thomas worked as a telegraph messenger and postman. By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign he, his wife and a couple of children were living in a recently-built property in Oxford.

Violet was born in the spring of 1907. She was known to have had a good art teacher at school, “and it may be that even at this very young age Violet’s spark of ability was ignited”.

In her late teens she entered a major art competition and did well. It brought some national exposure and her skills came to the notice of Cuthbert Wiltshaw, managing director of family-run Wiltshaw and Robinson’s Carlton Ware Pottery, in Stoke-on-Trent.

“It is believed that Mr Wiltshaw wrote to Miss Elmer offering to purchase some of her paintings. However, the young artist was unable to attribute a value to her work. That first contact subsequently resulted in the offer of a position of designer at the factory.”

Violet was initially reluctant to leave her hometown, but in 1928 made the “life-changing decision” to go.

The company dated from 1890. Cuthbert Wiltshaw, who took over in 1918, is described as a visionary who shaped its fortunes by nurturing avant-garde designers. “The factory was driven during the 1920s and 1930s by their progressive ideas and a benchmark established for good design,” say the Girlings.

The Carlton Works in Copeland Street was a relatively small pottery compared with the likes of Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and Spode. “What it lacked in capacity it made up for in resourcefulness and adaptability. The plant’s workforce was known to be happy, loyal and conscientious, it being not unusual for different generations of the same family to serve the company a lifetime. Violet Elmer would have enjoyed these pleasurable working conditions.”

The firm had built its reputation with floral- and fruit-embossed products. Then it moved into abstract, geometric, art deco and fantasy design. “In its day, for most people, a top Best Ware piece” – a luxurious range – “would account for a major portion of their weekly wage.”

Appointed to design the new Carlton china products, Violet soon made her mark with the tea settings. “Her input was outstanding, both in terms of quality and quantity,” says the book. “She contributed iconic designs, from delicate floral to a hint of art deco, each exuding a charm of its own . . . It is quite likely that some of Miss Elmer’s cherished designs were shown at the British Industries Fair at Olympia’s Empire Hall in 1930.”

The art deco movement – with its favouring of geometric and angular shapes, stylised use of images of cruise liners, skyscrapers and the like, and penchant for natural symbols such as shells and sunrises – had a massive influence on Violet’s visions.

The style had emerged early in the century, took a grip after the First World War, and enjoyed a major showcasing with the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts D�coratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.

Violet and senior designer Enoch Boulton employed the geometric formulae that had its roots in Aztec, Inca and Mayan cultures. “Sunbursts, zig-zags and lightning flashes would all be represented in their work.”

The artist’s patterns depicted things like floral sprays, woodland scenes and fantasy birds.

Amazingly, in 1929 she was given the chance to succeed Enoch Boulton as principal designer.

An early involvement was with a range called Cottage Ware. It featured pieces such as a biscuit barrel shaped like a thatched cottage and a toast-rack with a house at both ends. “The young artist’s trademark trees and shrubs could also be seen.”

“Buttercup” was one of the best floral embossed designs from Wiltshaw and Robinson. “The artwork was drawn from a close observation of nature. Marketed about 1935, and in all probability from the portfolio of Miss Elmer, the ware was produced in a choice of either yellow or pink.”

The range included sugar-shakers, teapots, cheese dishes and salad bowls. “It was the success of Buttercup that was instrumental in restoring the fortunes of the company.” (Trading in the turbulent economic times of the early 1930s had been tricky, with closure always a threat.)

While the embossed ware was the lifeblood of the company, its creative zenith was the Best Ware range – expensive pieces made from 1929 to the start of the war.

For Violet, the 1930s was a potent period. “Many were the exotic, art deco and fantasy designs which were to flow from her pen . . .” say the Girlings.

And then, after a decade of success, the modest Miss Elmer put down that pen.

In the summer of 1938 she married Arthur Lawton, a woodwork teacher at a secondary school in Newcastle-under-Lyme. They moved into a newish house that remained their home for the rest of their lives and Violet settled into a traditional domestic role.

The Girlings say the remaining 50 years of her life seem rather uneventful when compared with the fruitful Carlton years. Violet and Arthur were a sociable pair, however. Although they had no children of their own, they organised firework displays, Christmas parties and similar events for nieces and nephews.

They enjoyed rambling, and Violet was involved in charity work. She also loved her garden.

Arthur died in the autumn of 1978. His widow lived another decade.

Elaine and Barry argue that Violet created a catalogue of work the equal of any other designer and her skills “unmistakably epitomised the flamboyant evocative inter-war period at Copeland Street”.

That being the case, they consider it “a matter of concern that Violet Elmer has remained anonymous for so long” – and they hope their book helps redress the balance a little.

• Cast Aside the Shadows is available via Leiston Press on 01728 833003. It costs �47 (plus postage of �6).

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