Berry's Burslem Remembered
When I was a child I thought Burslem Town Hall was built from black stone. As the Brown Edge bus crawled down Moorland Road I'd be looking for the angel perched above its great hulk. As Christmas approached I'd turn the other way transfixed by the magical nativity scene illuminating the December gloom. But it was always there, dark and imposing, a vast slab of coal looming over the bustling rain slicked streets.
Arthur Berry fondly hoped the Potteries would always remain this way. He wanted the six towns to be known as the filthiest place on the planet and attract visitors from the world over who would marvel at the soot and smoke in the same way they marvel at the Sphinx and the Pyramids. It's not a view that would attract much sympathy today but it reflects a lifelong attachment to place and class - to a city and people that forged his character.
Berry - artist, playwright, broadcaster and author of an extraordinarily frank autobiography - was born in Smallthorne in 1925 in a street "where every house seemed to have an old woman, a drunken man, a gang of kids and a snarling dog." It was a world populated by people twisted into strange shapes by hard work and poverty but who, nevertheless, took pride in their homes and appearances. It's a world familiar to Eileen who recalls mothers in headscarves painting front steps and out of work miners with carnations in their lapels. "We had next to nowt" she says. "But what we did have we were proud of."
When his family moved to Biddulph Berry was struck by the differences he encountered but also by the similarities in the way the men dressed and gathered on street corners to pass the time. At school he met a boy who introduced him to the local picture palace and, for a while at least, he stopped visiting his old neighbourhood. It was painting that brought him back and it was through Burslem's famous school of art that his love affair with the Mother Town began.
"It was like Buckingham Palace" Berry wrote of his first impressions of the school. "I'd never seen such an important looking building before." Burslem School of Art had long enjoyed a reputation for producing the talented artists and designers required by the pottery industry. Past students include Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper. Initially however Berry's family couldn't understand how an education in art could benefit a working class lad whose future surely lay on the factory floor or the coal face. "Arthur don't talk so bloody daft," his father told him. "Folks dunner want art round here, it's for the toffs in London. Keep on with it and theyt be a three and sevenpence halfpenny man all thee life."
By now Europe was at war and Burslem wasn't untouched by the conflict. "I had six brother's" Eileen tells me. "All of 'em went to war. It was the most sons from any family in Staffordshire I think. By the Grace of God they all came back alive." Berry too, while describing himself as more afraid of spiders than German stormtroopers, was doing his bit for the war effort. Three or four nights a week he'd join the firewatchers on the art school roof chatting and sipping tea. It supplemented his income and gave him an excuse to spend even longer in the town.
To a young man who had begun to understand, or at least conceive an image, of what an artist was, the Potteries was like a metropolis and Burslem was its heart. "The evenings were a cinderous grey" he recalled. "Turning to purple and rust. The night sky was filled with a luminous beauty against which the great kilns were etched in blackness (...) No city in Europe could have produced a more dramatic background (for an artist) It was better than Paris or Barcelona."
|The Potteries skyline|
Berry's artistic endeavours would lead him to the Royal College of Art, located in the Lake District during the war years, and later to London where he enjoyed the life of a South Kensington bohemian while never forgetting his roots. His account of his time in the capital is punctuated with passages of righteous indignation aimed at middle class Southerners living off the backs of the hard working North. And it was to the North he would return not the first, and by no means the last, provincial artist to feel that the London art world had beaten him.
As Berry was only too well aware though the North with which he was familiar was rapidly disappearing. At the same time he felt a sense of estrangement from the world of international modern art and wondered how an artist whose heritage was primative Methodism and the chip shop could compete on such a universal scale. He was frequently plagued by self doubt and a fear of obsolescence. Even his beloved Burslem wasn’t immune to the quickening march of time.
|Wedgwood Institute (detail)|
|Wedgwood Institute (detail)|