Museum On Tour, 8 November 2018: Porcelain inspired art for Smeaton’s Tower
by Terah Walkup, Art Curator
Last month the fourth Plymouth Art Weekender took place and the city was buzzing with activity. Though our building is very much under construction, we supported a number of artists in the lead up to the city-wide contemporary art festival. This year, Smeaton’s Tower was a venue for the first time.
2018 marks the 250th anniversary of the founding of the ground breaking Plymouth Porcelain factory. In 1768, William Cookworthy, chemist, mineralogist and Quaker, opened the first factory in Britain that could produce hard-paste porcelain – a formula that manufacturers across Europe fiercely competed to master. Cookworthy’s success was founded on his discovery of a clay source in Cornwall that closely matched the fine clays of China.
That same year, James Cook departed from Plymouth sound aboard HMS Endeavour to chart astronomical observations in a journey of exploration. His crew lodged with Cookworthy at his house on Notte Street. They were entertained by his tales of experimentation and were supplied by him with a ‘portable’ soup’ laced with minerals that would help prevent scurvy while they were at sea.
A few years earlier Cookworthy entertained another prominent guest. Their chance collaboration would define lighthouse construction across Britain’s coast and beyond.
John Smeaton came to Plymouth to design a new lighthouse for the Eddystone Rocks and lodged with Cookworthy. The two were keen engineers and shared an enthusiasm for the challenges presented by constructing a seaworthy lighthouse at one of the most dangerous points along Britain’s coast.
Smeaton used traditional wood-working techniques and created a dovetailed, interlocking base that was cut straight into the rock to anchor the lighthouse. Cookworthy used his experience with minerals and chemistry to help Smeaton create a concrete mixture that could withstand the violence of the sea.
For the Plymouth Art Weekender, artist Stuart Crewes created a series of etched glass panels that were displayed in the windows of Smeaton’s Tower and which layered the multiple histories of the relationship between these men.
The lighthouse, whose purpose was once to provide light outwards, was reactivated by artworks that relied on light coming in. The transparent works, using motifs from both engineers’ lives and experiments, were mapped onto the views from windows to the north, south, east and west with consideration given to what the viewer could see and beyond what was immediately visible.
As we may have mentioned a few times before, we hold the world’s largest and most significant collection of Plymouth Porcelain! Crewes worked with myself and other curatorial colleagues in to research the collection. Working closely with an artist in this way was a special opportunity for us to engage with the collections even though we are currently ‘closed’.
Central to the design of the east-facing window was a silhouette of a porcelain figure. Created as one of a set of the ‘Four Continents’, this figure, in the form of a lithe, idealised woman, represents Asia and holds a vase of spices. Crewes photographed the object along with several others during one of his research visits and incorporated it into the etched collage. What at first looked like masquerade wear, was a motif taken from one of the more rare teapots in our collection.