30 August 2016

Spode and Kate Bruce

Kate Bruce 
Kate Bruce was a paintress employed by Spode for a long time. My research has found she started during the period when the company was known as Copeland & Garrett (1833-1847) and continued on during the ownership of W. T. Copeland from 1847 and was still working in the early 1900s.

Like most employees of the Spode company little information exists about individuals whether the famous 'premier' artists and designers who were men, apprentice boy painters training to work in the style of the premier artists or women working as anonymous paintresses.

There are pieces painted by Kate Bruce in the Spode museum object collection and they are not uncommon amongst private collectors either. A quick search on the web and you can find her signed pieces for sale. She seems to have been prolific! Pieces are known to be painted by her because, very, very unusually for a woman at Spode, she was allowed to sign her work. Most of what she painted uses designs of small cornflowers.

Soup bowl/bouillon cup & saucer from Worthpoint
Backstamp on soup cup & saucer, company marks (blurred) & pattern number R2079
A report of a Royal Visit to the factory on January 6th 1897 by the 'Princess of Wales and other members of the Trentham party' (Trentham was the seat of the Duke of Sutherland and is not far from Stoke) says that:

'...The royal visitors were met at the showroom entrance by Mr. R. P. Copeland, the head of the firm, and Mr. W. F. M Copeland. They were first shown some artists engaged in decorating articles of pottery, one being the venerable and respected Mrs. Bruce, who after 53 years of service with the firm, still skilfully handles the camel-hair pencil and was engaged in applying a cornflower to some plates...' Pencil is the pottery industry's term for a paintbrush.
Dessert plate, bone china, Gadroon shape painted by Kate from Potteries Museum & Art Gallery
It would seem from the above report that Kate began work at the factory in 1844. Conversations with Robert Copeland led me to believe she may have been a favourite of the Copeland family and this is why she was allowed to sign her work as well as demonstrate her skills before royalty and other important visitors to the factory.

Although unusual for a woman to sign work at Spode it was not unusual to work for the company for many years, well past what would now be thought of as retirement age.

Sometimes together with her name on the pieces will be her age and an example is known (from a private collection) with the inscription 'painted by Mrs Bruce aged 74 1900'. This, together with the inscription on the piece above would make her date of birth 1826/7 and, if the royal visit report is correct, starting to work for the company at about the age of 18 although I would expect earlier, for she would have had to complete a seven-year apprenticeship either at Spode or another manufacturer.

Mrs Bruce featured in at W. T. Copeland souvenir booklet c1902