Thursday, January 8, 2009

A note on Wedgwood

From "Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art" by Lothar Ledderose (1998)*...

...porcelain production in China was a highly systematized, sequential involved a strict division of labour...The most detailed account was given by the French Jesuit missionary Père François Xavier d'Entrecolles (1664-1741)...In 1712 and 1722 he wrote two long letters on porcelain production in Jingdezhen, relying in part on information from Christian converts in the porcelain trade. The Jesuit Jean Baptiste du Halde included the two letters in his monumental and influential Description de la Chine, which was published in Paris in 1735-39 and soon translated into other languages...

It seems no accident that it was during the 17th and 18th centuries, which saw the rise of state factories in France and the beginnings of the industrial revolution in England, that Europe admired China intensely and was intent on learning from it...In Europe, the invention and introduction of machines led to the substitution of mechanical operations for manual work on a large scale. Yet machines were not the only factor that brought about the industrial revolution. The organisation and control of the workforce and the techniques of division of labour were also essential.

In 1769, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) established at Staffordshire, England, the first porcelain production in Europe to enforce factory discipline and make full use of labor. Each of his workers had to be expert in only one part of the production, which was a revolutionary concept at the time. Wedgwood derived the idea from his reading of the letters of Père d'Entrecolles.

*The A.W.Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1998. Published by Princetown University Press. Permission being sought.

Blog is cursed

Whilst writing about the Rhondda on Tuesday, the news came that the Welsh valleys were without water because of the freezing conditions. This area never gets on the national news usually (not since the closure of the Burberry factory). I went home and watched a documentary about new Chinese art on More 4 (featuring Ai WeiWei among others) in which there was the ubiquitous "misty mountains" shot of Tibet. Later that night I heard the news that Marks & Spencer are cutting jobs (1,230) and stores "amid trading gloom", and that Adolf Merckle (not Merdle), the German tycoon and the world's 94th richest man, has committed suicide because of the global financial crisis...oh, and, finally, the contemporary art bubble has burst - it's official.

The main news of course, is the disproportionate and horrific bombing of Gaza city by Israel.

Meanwhile, I was thinking of another visual bridge between Wales and China - red dragons...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Burberry in China

Photo © Gary Pope

Over Christmas I went to see Twilight with my 15-year-old niece. It is shot in Portland Oregon, the Pacific North West - a rain forest region ideal for sun-shunning vampires. There was a breathtaking panoramic scene in the film like the one above. This idea of a landscape of misty mountains was just the visual bridge I needed to pull together some ideas about the way trade opened up in the 18th century between the West and China and how it operates similarly today. Also, how the idea of the production line began in China – which I shall try and write about another time. The scene resembles a Chinese landscape and is also reminiscent of the Welsh valleys (it is, in fact, Oakland, California).

I had been thinking about the 300 textile workers of Treorchy losing their jobs when Burberry moved their operation to China in 2007. Many celebrities supported the workers' fight to keep their jobs, and a lot was talked about Burberry losing their "brand value" (although it may be said that it already had by being appropriated by "Chavs"). Burberry disagreed: they were only making polo shirts in the Rhondda whilst their famous trench coats would still be manufactured in Yorkshire, so could still be seen to be an iconic British brand.

Treorchy is my mother's birthplace and she remembers when the factory was called Polikoffs. Apart from the mines, they were the main employers.

Burberry had to go before The Welsh Affairs Committee to justify their move. Entitled Globalisation and its impact on Wales the report* makes interesting reading, not least this excerpt concerning the nature of a so-called iconic brand...

Q250 Chairman: Could I suggest a different definition of iconic in relation to your predecessor company so to speak, Polikoffs? That was very much associated with the trench coat given that it played such an important part in the war effort, and Polikoffs of course were welcomed as a company driven out of Eastern and Central Europe by the advance of Nazism and into the Valleys in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies and, right down to today, Polikoffs is synonymous with being embedded in the culture and history as a model employer in the Rhondda. That to me is iconic in its association both with the community and the culture, and with the trench coat and all that that represents. What is your view of that?

The Committee also talked to the union involved (GNB)...who gave examples of other companies who have pulled out of Wales. Mr Garley: ...Very similar to the Burberry similar scenario, at that time Marks & Spencer had record profits and money was literally coming out of their ears and they dumped in excess of 6,000 clothing workers in Wales and in the UK through that corporate greed. I just make the point if I can that those companies still exist, those companies have not gone to the wall, all that has happened is they have transferred and migrated their manufacture elsewhere... We have asked the company how much are the workers in China going to be paid in these two factories and they will not tell us. We have asked the company what hours of work are the workers in China going to work and they will not tell us. We have asked the company how many days a week do they have off and they will not tell us...

So what happened next? Independent film-maker Patrick Carr ( has made a film which has interviews with the Chinese workers. It seems the new Burberry employees may only temporarily benefit from this relocation before the Chinese sub-contractors move their operation from Shenzhen out to more rural areas for even cheaper labour. These rural workers who had moved to the city to work (for £105 per month, two shifts a day including evenings, only four evenings off a month and only two days off a month) will quite possibly lose their jobs. "We don't hope for anything, we just take one day at a time," says one. Patrick Carr calls it a "global manufacturing merry-go-round". See his film here:

As the GNB's Mr Garley said "the vulnerability of workers through globalisation knows no bounds".

*This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

Royal Doulton up the spout

Bad news for the potteries (and Ireland) yesterday as it was announced that Waterford Wedgwood had fallen into administration. Pity the 1,900 UK employees who work at the Barlaston pottery in Stoke-on-Trent with Staffordshire suffering below zero temperatures on the same day.

But what an amazing British dynasty the Wedgwood family is:

The Darwin — Wedgwood family was a prominent English family, descended from Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, the most notable member of which was Charles Darwin. The family contained at least ten Fellows of the Royal Society and several artists and poets. (The most notable artist is the composer Ralph Vaughn Williams.) Francis Galton is part of the third generation along with Darwin. Clarice Cliff is part of the sixth.

The family is linked to William Wedgwood Benn's family of Labour Party politicians (namely himself plus son Tony, grandson Hilary, and great-granddaughter Emily Benn) through Josiah Wedgwood's younger brother Aaron.

More on Wedgwood later...after all Doulton & Co and Wedgwood & Co are part of the Willow Pattern Story...