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25 Jan 2019

Wemyss Ware – unique ceramics spanning centuries and countries

Written by Silvia Scopa
Wemyss Ware pieces from left to right: a seated cat decorated with cabbage rosees; a pig; a seated black-and-white cat
A group shot of the most iconic Wemyss Ware pieces
Wemyss Ware ceramics, easily recognised by the skilful use of colour, interesting shapes and hand-painted details, are among the most collectable and sought-after pieces of Scottish pottery.

Brightly coloured Wemyss Ware ceramics are famous for their unusual shapes and hand-painted decoration of natural subjects, such as fruits, flowers and British wildlife. Some of the most famous designs include the bee pattern used for honey pots and dishes, the ‘Bonjour’ pattern with black cockerels on bright green grass, and hand-painted cabbage roses and clovers on unusual shapes.

The most exclusive items linked to the Wemyss name are the playful ceramic animals, in particular cats and pigs. These pieces are created from a mould and painted with floral or realistic details before being glazed. The pig, a symbol of abundance and fertility for different cultures around the globe, is possibly linked with the figure of Karel Nekola. He was the Czech head decorator at the Wemyss pottery during the late 19th century. Exchanging ceramic pigs as a good wish for the New Year is an old tradition in parts of Europe.

Four Wemyss Ware pigs, one large one and three small ones.
Wemyss Ware pigs

Wemyss Ware originated in the late 19th century in a pottery in Kirkcaldy, Fife. Its original and vibrant style was the result of a meeting between Robert Heron, the pottery owner, and Karel Nekola. Heron invited Nekola, a decorator from Bohemia, to Scotland after returning from a grand tour of Europe. Made head of the decorating shop at the age of 25, Nekola married Heron’s cook in 1884 and lived near the Fife pottery, where he raised a family of five.

Two Wemyss Ware cats
Wemyss Ware cats

During the Great Depression in the first half of the 20th century, the pottery in Fife had to close.The rights to the Wemyss name were acquired by the Bovey Pottery in Devon. Nekola’s son, Joseph, moved to England where he continued his father’s legacy as head decorator. Joseph had various apprentices, including Esther Weeks, to whom he taught the distinctive painting techniques he’d learned from his father. After Joseph’s death in 1952, Esther became head decorator and continued to paint Wemyss Ware until the Bovey Pottery closed in 1957.

The back of a Wemyss Ware cat showing the famous cabbage rose decoration
Wemyss Ware cat showing the famous cabbage rose decoration

One of the key factors to the success of the Wemyss pottery was its distribution around Europe. For many years, Thomas Goode & Co of South Audley Street in London were the sole agents for England. They also reserved various patterns, such as the honey boxes and jam pots.

Wemyss Ware honey pot, showing the traditional bee design
Wemyss Ware honey pot, showing the traditional bee design

The Wemyss name was brought back to life in the early 1980s when Griselda Hill, an art teacher who lived in London, was amazed by the Wemyss pottery she saw at the Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery. Inspired by her fond childhood memory of her grandmother’s Wemyss pig, she moved to Fife and decided to create Wemyss Ware-inspired pottery.

Wemyss Ware dog bowl
Wemyss Ware dog bowl

In 1994 the Wemyss Ware trademark was acquired by the Griselda Hill Pottery in Ceres, Fife. Esther Weeks visited Fife regularly in order to pass on the skills and secrets inherited from Joseph Nekola.

The pottery and the shop are still open today and customers can buy custom-made smiley cats as well as good luck pigs. The Wemyss Ware website shows the wide range of products available.

Project Reveal is a Trust-wide collections digitisation project. It will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the National Trust for Scotland material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 24 months, from July 2017 until July 2019.

Project Reveal

Find out more about this Trust-wide collections digitisation project.

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