Discover new arts trail in St Austell celebrating China Clay
- Credit: Rita Floyd
China clay encircled and created wealth in St Austell and became known as white gold. But as the industry has shrunk - just one quarry remains –so has the fortunes of the town. Now a trail of new public art works are bringing the area’s proud industry back to life as part of a revolution that is bring some of the UK’s cutting-edge ceramicists to Cornwall.
The latest work has been two years in the making. ‘The Cornish Dark Honeybee’ mural made-up of more than 11,000 ceramic tiles - all handmade, including one made by The Duchy himself, Prince Charles - installed in the town’s Biddicks Court.
The ceramic tiles were made from local St Austell clay by local residents, artists, makers and even HRH Prince Charles at suitably named The Hive workshop space.
The yellow glazed tiles depict 11 icons, selected by the local community to symbolise St Austell and the town’s favourite landmarks: the clay country sky tip, the Gribben, mackerel, sheep, pasties, waves, hearts, sun, mines, boats and sunflowers. It is the largest Whitegold Project public art commission to date – the new trail of commissioned artwork will be in completed in 2021.
The project has a bucket list of achievements for the work, including transforming unloved spaces and attracting new visitors, new residents and new investment. The project has its own international ceramics prize and is busy installing artworks from its winners that herald St Austell’s clay past. St Austell once produced half of the world’s China clay deposits and have produced around 120 million tonnes of china clay. Once employing thousands of local people, the mines have largely abandoned leaving a hole in the area’s industry, as well as its landscape.
The concept for the ‘Dark Honeybee’ mural came from Parasite Ceramics and is designed to celebrate Cornwall’s native honeybee and emphasise the importance of sustainability and the environment. This permanent artwork carries a legacy, made from the clay on which the town stands.
Already in place are two inter-related artworks from Professor Neil Brownsword who was awarded the Whitegold’s Quartz Prize in 2019. ‘Relic’ consists of fragments of porcelain flowers carefully arranged on the surface of the old pan kiln at Wheal Martyn Clay Works and ‘Taskscape’, a film and object installation on show at White River Place, the main retail centre in St Austell. Brownsword’s work was selected for the Quartz Award by jurors as an outstanding proposal exploring clay in relationship with people, culture and place.
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The Wheal Martyn Clay Works museum and visitor’s centre which tells the story of Cornwall’s whitegold. Much of the Clay Works is designated as an Ancient Scheduled Monument due to its place in the world’s mining history. ‘Relic’ is the culmination of five years of research and archives the hand skills of Stoke-on-Trent china flower maker Rita Floyd. In a kind of three-dimensional ‘how to’ guide, his work captured every stage of the hand modelling involved in mass producing the many types of flowers Rita makes. His abstracted individual elements are carefully arranged across the pan tiles of Wheal Martyn’s china clay drying shed - petals, leaves and mounds of discarded flowers, reminiscent of local sky-tips.
“Neil’s installation is an extra-ordinary juxtaposition of the pure whiteness of the clay against the very mottled grey tiles of the old pan kiln,” says Jo Moore, Curator of Wheal Martyn Clay Works. “As the light changes the pieces are lit from the spaces where the liquid clay would have poured through from the settling tanks. It’s magical!”
In ‘Taskscape’, Neil focuses attention on moments of china clay transformation, showing us processes seldom seen: the flowing, bubbling, accumulation of materials and turquoise waters that occur in extracting, separating and settling the clay. “Whitegold offered me the opportunity to draw together interests in place and practices,” he says. “I am very interested in industrial regions, the industry of China clay production in St Austell and ceramic production in North Staffordshire. For over two hundred years these industries have been intertwined and so I wanted to find a way of connecting them in my work”
The Whitegold Project will see a further 12 ceramic artwork commissions introduced at locations throughout St Austell between now and June 2021, from works by young Cornish makers, to world famous guest artists.
A history of Cornish ceramics
Clay – or Kaolin - was first used in China more than ten thousand years ago to make fine white porcelain.
In the 18th century, William Cookworthy spent several years searching for a similar material to satisfy the gentry’s desire for fine china. He found it in 1745 at Tregonning Hill near Germoe, in the shape of a rare type of decomposed granite, finer than most talcum powders.
He spent another 20 years developing his porcelain recipe, which was patented in 1768. By the mid 19th century 65,000 tonnes of china clay were being mined in the St Austell area every year by seven thousand workers. Deposits in St Austell had emerged as the largest in the world. By 1910, Cornwall was producing some fifty per cent of the world’s china clay.
The minework helped shape the area’s landscape as well as its wealth. For every tonne of usable china clay that was mined there were five tonnes of waste. These were piled up and today we call them the Cornish Alps which have become as much of a landmark as the engine houses synonymous with Cornwall’s tin mines.