13 February 2012

Spode and The Movies

This blogpost was written at that time of year when the BAFTAs and the Oscars were in the news so it seemed appropriate to mention Spode and The Movies.

In the 20th century the Spode company embraced the new technology of film as a promotional and marketing tool. There were films ranging from the 1930s to the 1980s; from reel film to VHS but Spode didn't quite make it into the DVD and the digital era.
Page from a promotional booklet (detail) c1902
The interest in photography had started early with the Copeland owners of the Spode company in the mid-19th century. One of the oldest images in the Spode archive is a formal portrait of W T Copeland, as President of Bethlem Hospital.*  I dated this to between about 1864 and 1868. Now very faded it seems to be printed on a sort of fine chamois leather.

There is a vast collection of photographs of all sorts in the Spode archive. The earliest photos of the factory were taken by one of the Copeland family, with an interest in this new-fangled technology, between c1899 and 1902. These were nitrate negatives which are subject to spontaneous combustion - not ideal to have in a paper archive store. So in 1996 when discovered in store these were carefully copied, new negatives made with a set of prints and the originals then taken away for specialist disposal. I later discovered that the photos were used for a promotional give-away booklet from about 1902. 

In 1998 the reel films were sent by the Spode museum to the British Film Institute (BFI) for consideration for their archive as this is the best place for this type of archive material to be stored. The BFI selected which films they wanted to include in their archive returning the unwanted ones. So the best old Spode films are deposited with the BFI. 

As part of the agreement the BFI offered to transfer 3 of the films to VHS. Two films from the 1960s were chosen plus another from the 1930s. This latter was something of a bonus as it did not belong to the Spode museum! Coincidentally, at the time of the Spode deposit with the BFI, a private deposit was made by the family of a film maker. After the muddle was sorted out the Spode museum was allowed by the family to have a copy on VHS for internal use.

The film, A Peep into a Well-known Pottery Works, was made in 1931. The BFI now (2012) have this listed as a 'promotional film' for Spode on their online catalogue but I think this is incorrect as I remember this as a film commissioned by Kodak to record 'dying industries'. The pottery industry was supposedly one of these. It actually took another 78 years for Spode to 'die' but this is a wonderful film. Accidentally listed by the BFI as belonging to Spode this happy error led to the discovery by the museum of an unknown silent film which was not actually commissioned by Spode.

Ronald & Gresham Copeland, still from Clay, Hands & Fire, 1935
A silent film Clay, Hands and Fire of 1935 was a Spode commissioned film and follows the making of 'modern' Spode through all its processes based on a great historical tradition. The still from it shows two Copeland partners in the firm discussing an antique Spode icepail in the Spode museum collection.

A History of Excellence was another promotional film commissioned by Spode and later reissued to sell in the museum shop in the about 1998 as a souvenir for visitors to the new museum. Made essentially for marketing purposes some of the historical facts are not quite correct but this is a good, professionally made film from, I think, about 1991. Commissioned from Morris Nicholson & Cartwright it was narrated by famous actor Sir Michael Hordern (1911-1995). Often it is incorrectly dated to 1998 from the reissue for sale in the Spode museum shop. This date is after the death of the narrator.

You can see early 20th century film under the heading Spode Factory on the excellent webpages of Staffordshire PastTrack and more such as snippets from A History of Excellence on YouTube.

*Collection no. SMT 2000.910