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The Magical Mind and Career of Daisy Makeig-Jones

What if magic could be used to turn around a company's fortunes? It sounds fantastical, but 100 years ago, 'the little people' really did come to the rescue of a world-famous ceramics company, writes Jane Clothier.

Faced with declining sales and financial hardship, Josiah Wedgwood & Sons were brought back from the brink by Fairyland lustre, a line of decorative china featuring magical creatures and motifs and characterised by an opulent finish. Produced from 1915 to 1931, it reversed declining sales and propelled the company to the top of its field on both sides of the Atlantic.

It all sprang from the vivid imagination of a single ceramic designer, Daisy Makeig-Jones (1881-1945). Such was the brilliance of her work that Fairyland lustre remains one of the most collectable Wedgwood ranges a full century later.

Brightening an Edwardian twilight

It can be hard today to appreciate how groundbreaking Fairyland lustre really was. A look at the austere world from 1900 to 1915 reveals a trade recession that was hitting the English pottery industry hard. Wedgwood was just one of many companies struggling to move forward. The innovation that had defined the company since its inception in 1759 was no longer present and dwindling sales were based solely on its famous basalt and jasper wares.

Against this background, the rising popularity of a new type of ornamental china in the form of lustre ware was timely. Many domestic rooms were still lit only by oil lamps and candles, meaning the market was ripe for decorative pieces that reflected the light in the softly lit, late Edwardian home. In the lustreware process, fired, glazed china was overlaid with a delicate film of metal to produce a multi-coloured, iridescent effect.

The mass market was ready for this new departure. Decorative bone china had previously been reserved for tableware and exclusive items for the wealthy, yet factory manufacture meant fine items could now be produced on a wider scale. What's more, the dazzling quality of lustreware invited new creative approaches to decorative design.

Into this world stepped Susannah Margaretta Makeig-Jones (Daisy was her known name from childhood; the surname is pronounced 'mak-eye Jones'). Born in 1881 in a Yorkshire mining village, she was the eldest of seven children, her father being a doctor and her mother the daughter of a solicitor.

From early days, Daisy demonstrated an artistic talent. When her father moved his practice and family to Torquay in South Devon, she was enrolled at the Torquay (now Torbay) School of Art. After leaving school, she next went to stay with an aunt in Kensington in London, to attend Art school in Chelsea. An artistic career and its associated independence beckoned.

When Daisy met Wedgwood

The series of events that saw Daisy joining Josiah Wedgwood & Sons owed more to family connections than any chance encounter. A relative, the Reverend Archibald Sorby, was a friend of the Wedgwood family. At his suggestion, Daisy wrote to Cecil Wedgwood with a view to becoming a ceramic designer.

His response was that she would first have to learn the manufacturing principles and processes, and that this could only be achieved by commencing an apprenticeship on the factory floor. Possibly to his surprise, given Daisy's social standing, she accepted. It says much about her determined nature that she applied, succeeded, and in 1909 travelled to Erutria in Staffordshire to commence her training at the age of 28.

As is the way with these things, the apprenticeship was painstaking. Having learned the basic processes, Daisy joined the trainee paintresses. The timing was serendipitous - at the time, Chief Designer James Hodgkiss was trialling new glazes, including ornamental lustre. Daisy benefited greatly from his experience. As her own ideas grew, she passed on watercolour designs of her own - early Fairyland scenes - to become part of those trials.

Two years later, in 1911, she was promoted to a permanent position, before spending two years designing nurseryware. Here, she turned to illustrations for tales such as Thumbelina by Hans Christian Anderson for inspiration.

Her work must have been excellent, for in January 1914 she was appointed designer and headed a studio of her own. During this time she conducted her own test firings, using different colour glazes including opulent blues, purples, orange, yellow, green and gold. Her test designs featured pixies, elves, sprits, and, of course, fairies. Nine months later, Wedgewood began production of Fairyland lustre.

Magical designs from Fairyland

From 1915, Daisy produced designs featuring flora and fauna: butterflies, fish and birds plus the odd dragon. The naturalistic scenes were simple at this point, but were characterised by bold and deep colours. Daisy developed eight colour schemes, of which four were intended to correspond with types of natural light and times of day. This interaction between natural light, colour schemes and subjects can be seen in Sunset Fairyland, with its orange and scarlet hues, and Moonlight Fairyland, with its cooler scheme.

The motifs of sprites, elves, enchanting creatures and mystical landscapes were frequently repeated across designs. Daisy designed over 60 numbered patterns for bowls, vases, cups and boxes in the range, with fairies making their first appearance in 1916. It may surprise some that as a talented and trained artist, Daisy did little original drawing. Her skill as a designer rested in selecting elements from the works of others, and then weaving them into an effective design that represented her own vision. The result was engaging: regular and well-ordered scenes were populated by creatures of the natural world alongside elemental beings.

They were true to a period that expressed a fascination with folklore, including that of Celtic origin, in books, illustrations and performance. In childhood, Daisy would have been exposed to the richly illustrated fiction of the time and the connections between these and her work are evident. The illustrations by H.J. Ford for Andrew Lang's Colour Fairy Books were freely adapted, along with those of Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham. Danish artist Kay Neilsen, illustrator for the book East of the Sun and West of the Moon, published in 1914, was also an inspiration. Elements of Celtic folklore, legend and tradition also featured, along with Asian aesthetic and shapes, plus evocations of Middle Eastern landscapes and palaces. The dreamlike world of The Arabian Nights lends its spell to some of her enchanting motifs.

The new range was an instant success with the public. As World War I rumbled darkly on, sales of the colourful, cheering ornaments with escapist subjects soared. Besides having a direct appeal, Fairyland lustre also derived from the Arts & Crafts movement and resonated with the burgeoning Art Nouveau movement. The range was especially popular across the Atlantic, where it coincided with the rise of the Roaring Twenties.

Upmarket stores competed to obtain enough stock to keep their shelves filled. The Coalport, Crown Derby, Minton and Worcester potteries, who had previously dominated the high end decorative china sector, all developed their own lustre ware, but lost a substantial share of the market to Wedgwood. Wedgewood finally had a popular and profitable product to secure its future.

Daisy's technical input

While lustre as a technique evolved in many potteries, Daisy Makeig-Jones was instrumental in driving its development at Wedgwood. Her designs required advanced glazing and firing methods to bring out the rich visual worlds of her imagination. She worked on new techniques to apply the layers: bright underglaze colours served to heighten later overglaze colours. In another approach, she adapted an existing overglaze sponging process to achieve underglaze mottling and stainings that gave a greater impression of depth. When such techniques were used with deeply hued, complementary colours, the richness Daisy desired was infused into the glaze.

The Fairyland lustre process

The lustres used for the range were commercial or 'liquid lustre.' These were laboratory-produced preparations of metallic compounds, resins and oils, with the colours being determined by a particular metal. For example, orange lustre was based on iron, while yellow derived from uranium. Despite its multicolour effect, mother-of-pearl was based on only one metal, either titanium or bismuth. Purple was more complicated, containing five metals and being based on gold. Pink and ruby are also based on gold, while pale blue was one part ruby lustre to four parts of mother-of-pearl.

The production of Fairyland lustre was demanding, in that a combination of skills were required during a lengthy process involving five or six firings and multiple paint processes.

After an initial firing to fix the piece's shape, a paper transfer was applied bearing a design printed from a copperplate engraving. Larger vases may have needed several such transfers. These were then rubbed down to ensure they adhered to the ceramic, before the tissue was floated off in water.

Next, the design was coloured. If the design had a blurred, coloured background ('staining'), or a dappled background in one or more colour ('mottling' or 'stippling'), this was first applied by a paintress with a sponge. The outline was then painted in with a soft brush, one colour at a time.

Liquid lustres were painted onto the glazed surface with a soft hair brush using sweeping strokes, although the mother-of-pearl or iris lustre needed irregular, zig-zag strokes to enhance its jewel-like effect. The item was then fired again in a low temperature kiln, before another coast of lustre was applied, followed by another firing.

The final stage was gilding by the 'pluck and dust' method. This involved another tissue transfer, again from a copperplate engraving but printed using an oil and mercuric oxide paste. This exactly matched the original outline of the design.

When the tissue was removed, the paste remained, and powdered gold was dusted onto it. The pieces edges were finally hand-painted with liquid gold. A final firing followed, then polishing with silver sand, and burnishing of the gilt edges.

Occasionally, yet another overglaze enamel painting would be required, and this would necessitate a further low temperature firing.

With such a complex and laborious production process, it is little wonder that the aesthetic effect achieved continues to held in such regard by collectors.

Rise, decline and fall

With the success of Fairyland lustreware Daisy rose to an influential position in Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, with her standing alongside the Wedgwood family managers being on a fairly equal social level. She developed close friendships with women in the family, strengthened when one of them married her brother. Having been the source of company's salvation, Daisy could be forgiven for believing her position secure.

However, it was inevitable that a design that owed its success to becoming fashionable should suffer as fashions moved on. As Art Nouveau yielded to the finer, simpler lines of Art Deco, the Depression took hold and the American market disintegrated. Adapting to survive, Wedgwood discontinued Fairyland lustre in 1929 and, again seeking fresh inspiration, hired a new art director. The number of Fairyland lustre patterns in production was reduced from 101 to just fourteen kept as stock. Others were available on special order only until 1941.

Daisy was asked to retire in 1931, but refused to go and continued to work in her studio. Unsurprisingly, this led to a major confrontation and she left suddenly, having arranged for all her samples to be smashed by an assistant. She returned to the family home in Devon to garden and care for her ageing mother. In 1945, she died aged 63 after a lengthy illness.

Collecting Fairyland lustre

Fairyland lustre currently enjoys huge popularity, with its desirability underpinned by scarcity. For all its success, Daisy's career was a short one, meaning the pieces are in limited supply and rarely come onto the market. Interest has been heightened by a number of exhibitions, including those at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 2001 and the San Diego Museum of Art in 2005. Features on the US Antiques Roadshow have further stimulated buying activity.

Some pieces are especially scarce. Items from the early 1920s were produced when Daisy was personally hand decorating the pieces, which unsurprisingly increases their sale price. Wedgwood policy prohibited the addition of designer's signatures, yet Makeig-Jones did add a small 'MJ' to some pieces, including a punchbowl featuring the Poplar Trees design on the exterior and the Woodland Bridge motif on the interior. The signature with overlapping letters appears five times, possibly after being engraved into the copperplates.

Some motifs are considered more attractive. The fairy and butterfly motifs, resonating with Art Nouveau subjects, are particularly popular. Frequently, these are combined in single designs. In the Butterfly Woman motif, a young woman with butterfly wings is perched on a branch. Where this appears on a vase, the neck of vase features Flight of the Birds. The interior, meanwhile, features Floating Fairies. More intense colours are also desirable: for example, Flame Fairyland Lustre features the most intense colourway, with ruby reds and deep purples.

As with any decorative item, the value depends on the age and condition of the individual piece. Lustreware is especially susceptible to damage, so perfect examples are hard to come by. Glaze scratches are common and do not overly detract from value.

Most Fairyland items coming onto the market are in the form of bowls, which can attract prices up to around $9000 at auction. Unusual shapes or patterns can go for half that again. Scarce large vases are the most expensive and sought after, gaining prices of up to $45,000 at past auctions.

Imitations do exist. Avoid designs applied to a heavy pottery, even if they bear the mark Fairly Lustre Ware. The patterns are transfers produced in China. Copies were also made in the 1930s, to which opportunists have added Wedgwood marks at later dates.

Daisy's creative legacy

Like many talented artists, Daisy Makeig-Jones's career took a trajectory that is amazing in its rise and saddening in its fall. In its wake lies a rich creative legacy, comprising what is arguably some of the most appealing decorative china produced. One thing beyond debate is that her unique vision endures and her output continues to be loved by Wedgwood collectors worldwide.

This feature first appeared in the Autumn 2016 edition of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.