Paul Atterbury


The tradition of international exhibitions established in the Victorian period was maintained before the First World War by major displays in St Louis, Brussels, Ghent, and elsewhere, but also important was the more localised Franco-British Exhibition, held in London's White City. The success of this venture lead directly to the idea of an exhibition designed to celebrate the British Empire, a scheme apparently first developed by Lord Strathcona in 1913. The outbreak of war put things on ice, but the idea was revived in 1919, quickly gaining the support of the Prince of Wales and King George V, who saw the exhibition as a way of affirming Britains faith in the commonwealth of nations that made up the Empire. The government backed the plan, and voted the sum of #100,000 towards the guarantee fund, and soon financial support was being raised in other quarters.

In July 1921 Wembley was confirmed as the site for the exhibition and a 216 acre site was purchased, with good road and rail connections. At this early stage the plans included "a great national sports ground", designed to hold 125,000. In the event the stadium, which cost #750,000, was first used for the F A Cup Final on 28rd of April 1923, when Bolton Wanderers beat West Ham United 2-0. Today, nearly 70 years later, the stadium is virtually all that remains of the exhibition, everything else having become little more than a memory.

The opening, originally scheduled for 1923, had to be postponed until the spring of 1924 owing to complications with the various participating countries, but the building work progressed at great speed, owing to the widespread use of ferroconcrete. This was the first major building project in which concrete was used as a material in its own right, rather than for internal and generally invisible purposes, and in the event 15,000,000 cubic feet of concrete was poured into the Wembley site. On April 23rd 1924 the British Empire Exhibition was declared open by King George V in a speech that was broadcact to the nation, and then the turnstiles were opened to admit the first of the 17,403,267 visitors who paid to see the exhibition before it closed on the 1st of November.

Most of these visited the Palace of Industry, the second largest building in the exhibition, the largest being the Palace of Engineering, at the time the biggest concrete building in the world with a covered floor space over six times the size of Trafalgar Square.

The Palace of Industry was designed by Sir John Simpson and Maxwell Ayrton, while a panel of 50 approved architects ensured a harmony of design and planning throughout the displays, one of these was Edward Maufe, and it was he, later the architect of Guildford Cathedral and the Runnymede Memorial, who was selected by Liberty & Co to design the Moorcroft Stand. By August 1923 a large space of 1,000 square feet had been reserved by Moorcroft in the pottery and glass section, at a cost of #750. Only Wedgwood and Pilkington had stands of a similar size. Fronting one of the main thoroughfares in the Palace of Industry, the Moorcroft stand also had the advantage that visitors wishing to see the smaller stands behind had to pass through its gateway, and thus had to see the Moorcroft wares in passing. Among those placed behind were R.H. & S.L. Plant, Wiltshaw & Robinson, the makers of Carlton Ware, Grafton China, and Poultney of Bristol. The combination of Maufe's striking design, to be seen on several of the postcards sold at the exhibition, in style a simple 1920s classicism that anticipated Art Deco, with the fine display cabinets in Austrian oak made by the Liberty workshps ensured a memorable setting.

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The Moorcroft Stand at Wembley designed by Edward Maufe

Much of the planning was undertaken by Alwyn Lasenby, with William Moorcrofts co-operation, and notices in the display directed buyers to Liberty's shop in London's Regent Street, Liberty's virtually acting as Moorcroft's agent for the exhibition. Unfortunately, surviving records only hint at what was on display, although some of the pieces and their designs can be identified on contemporary photographs, such as that used for the cover of the Moorcroft Collectors magazine in December 1989. However, contemporary press reports do give a fair idea. Under a heading "Moorcroft Ware A Potter of Genius", the Daily Graphic of the 28th of June published a glowing description of wares decorated with "Moonlit Blue" and"Autumn Tree" designs, and flambe effects. Equally enthusiastic was the report in The World Today, "The Wembley exhibit of Moorcroft pottery is an assembly of many colours, but not a single one is out of place. Nothing harsh or crude obtains, all are beautifully blended. Some of the contrasts are a delight to dwell upon. Lustres are conspicuous. Fruit and flowers figure in some of the decorated pieces, forming a homogeneous, indestructible part of the body of the ware...They are the product of an ideal British pottery conducted by an experienced artist-potter...one who knows his work thoroughly, and whose enthusiasm for British pottery production is remarkable".

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Others also noted "the fine colourings of the lustre wares", while emphasising the importance of the hand made element in Moorcroft generally.

Also important was the attention given to the royal reaction. On the 3rd of May The Times commented, "Mr Moorcroft's exhibit of pottery at Wembley was honoured by a visit from the King and Queen,, the Duke and Duchess of York, and Prince Axel of Denmark... Mr Moorcroft felt that their Majesties visit to his exhibition, and the interest they evinced, constituted an honour not only to himself but to the English Potteries generally...Our readers will join us in warmly congratulating Mr Moorcroft upon these further marks of Royal favour, for their Majesties have of course long been interested in Mr Moorcroft's beautiful pottery products, the samples of which at the Wembley Exhibition are magnificent specimens of pottery decoration, and raise Mr Moorcroft's reputation to unprecedented height..." These and other articles confirm that Queen Mary was a keen collector of Moorcroft ware, along with other types of British ceramics past and present. It is therefore a tragedy that none of the wares she so avidly assembled can now be traced in the Royal Collections.

With such widespread appreciation, and with buyers visiting the stand from all over the world, and not just from the British Empire, Wembley must be considered a great success for Moorcroft. Orders preserved in the archive came from as far afield as Buenos Aires and Copenhagen, and patterns in demand included Pomegranate, Moonlit Blue, Autumn Tree, Heartsease, lustres in green, old gold, and lemon, rouge flambe, along with plenty of blue porcelain tableware. Yet for all this, William seems to have had some reservations about Wembley. In a letter to the Board of Trade, written after the exhibition had closed, he draws a clear distinction between it and the annual British Industries Fair. "We took considerable space at the British Empire Exhibition, because we realise how much we owe to the Empire, and because we feel our Colonial friends would make, and have already made, great sacrifices for us. The British Empire Exhibition is in my humble opinion purely an exhibition, and I sent there the best objects we could produce, solely with a view to showing the best we could do. Our Exhibit cost us at Wembley, in one year, more than the whole of the money spent during ten years at the British Industries Fair, and we regarded our Wembley Exhibit as merely a bouquet, the best possible, to throw at our Colonials

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The Group would like to thank W. Moorcroft PLC for permission to use this article from the Moorcroft Collectors Club News Letter and for the illustration of their stand supplied by them.


© Exhibition Study Group 1992