The Wrens of Oxshott

In this online exhibition, we revisit the remarkable lives and works of Denise and Rosemary Wren - hugely significant mother and daughter potters who lived and worked in Oxshott. Their works are both famous and trail-blazing in the world of pottery and women's history.

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Denise Wren working at her potter's wheel at ''Potters Croft'', watched by 7 year old Rosemary. Denise is wearing her ''working dress'' of Liberty silk (c.1928).
Denise Wren working at her potter's wheel at ''Potters Croft'', watched by 7 year old Rosemary. Denise is wearing her ''working dress'' of Liberty silk (c.1928).

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The Oxshott Pottery was founded in 1920 and quickly gained a reputation as one of the most successful studio potteries in the country. Denise and her husband Henry had a child, Rosemary, in 1922, who also had a distinguished career working with clay.

Denise and Rosemary both worked out of Oxshott Pottery until 1978 so it is interesting to compare works that are very different yet created in such close proximity to each other. Denise had kept many animals at her Oxshott home - including dogs, cats, chickens and an aviary of birds - but it wasn't until the 1960s that animals became present in Denise's work. Rosemary, on the other hand, experimented with many forms but always returned to representing animals.

  

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Collection of four birds sculpted by Rosemary Wren, shown here on display in Elmbridge Museum's 'Wrens of Oxshott' exhibition, 2019.
Collection of four birds sculpted by Rosemary Wren, shown here on display in Elmbridge Museum's 'Wrens of Oxshott' exhibition, 2019.

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Mother and daughter

Denise and Rosemary Wren's practices were, at times, radically different from one another. Denise's vessels and traditional Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) vases took relatively traditional forms. Rosemary's preferred shapes, on the other hand, were stylistically 'artistic', informed not only by nature but also modern sculpture and her education at art school. 

For Rosemary, the internal space of her hollow clay animals was just as important as the finished surface. The only openings in the whole construction are the eyes, and this is important for two reasons: not only does it let the steam out when the clay is in the kiln but, as Rosemary said, "it also allows the animal to look out. It’s fascinating; as soon as they have their eyes, the animals turn round and look at you!"  

It is in their tactile, hand-made strategies and the marks their works carry, however, that the two potters share common ground. Everyday objects like wooden rulers, butter knives and blunt quills were used by both potters to mark their clay works. The hands-on approach toward mark-making displays a propensity for experimentation. Unlike artists working in other mediums - such as painters or draughtsmen - potters make very permanent and direct works; this can be seen in Denise's goblet, below, which displays a hatch of scratches that are bold, beautiful and in-erasable.


Key Works

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Tall jar created by Denise Wren.
Tall jar created by Denise Wren.



Denise Wren, tall jar, 1960s

This tall jar or vase is typical of the work Denise Wren became very well-known for.

Stoneware is a popular material for many studio potters - the clay can be fired once or twice, a characteristic that Denise made the most of.

The glaze on this jar is dense and tactile, opposed to some of the thinner, running glasses Denise used. Some of Denise Wren's main pottery production was hand-sculpted and thrown earthenware such as this, decorated with slips and glazes for flowers.

The vase was purchased from Rosemary Wren, Denise's daughter, after a lecture on her mother's work at Oxshott Village Hall, in 1987.





Goblet pot created by Denise Wren
Goblet pot created by Denise Wren



Denise Wren, Goblet, 1960s

This goblet shaped pot is known as an Ikebana pot by craftsmen potters.

The clay is decorated by incised horizontal grooves and five criss-cross patterns around the body of the pot. The glaze is of brushed white dolomite and the whole piece is fired by the salt-glaze method resulting in a brown pot, semi-glazed inside with patches of matte grey and white on the outside. On the base is a white paper label with the words "Denise K. Wren, Oxshott Pottery" in black ink. This label was put on the pot when it was exhibited in the Craftsmen Pottery Association Shop.

With the rings of its production clearly visible and scarred by the tools that Denise kept in her studio, this short goblet displays the most drastic marks in Elmbridge Museum's Wrens pottery collection.




Blue tit created by Rosemary Wren
Blue tit created by Rosemary Wren



Rosemary Wren, Blue tit, 1987

This small blue tit was one of four similar pieces donated to Elmbridge Museum. 

The sculpture is approximately life-size, with a matte glaze, coloured blue and yellow. It is one of three pottery birds made in 1987 by Rosemary Wren and Peter Crotty from life drawings of the birds.

The colouration and patterning of the bird is very accurate, but in the mannered form - the softness of the beak and the rounded tail - there is a cartoon-like and playfully animated charm.





Long-tailed tits created by Rosemary Wren
Long-tailed tits created by Rosemary Wren



Rosemary Wren, Long-tailed tits, 1987

These long-tailed tits, produced as a pair and just over life-sized, exhibit Rosemary's tendency toward more exaggerated and romanticised forms.

As was Rosemary's want, the eyes, as deep as they are, seem to peer out as the shapes of the tails curl and dance around each other.

They are two of the four pottery birds made in 1987 by Rosemary Wren & Peter Crotty, from life drawings of the birds.






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The Wrens of Oxshott: Timeline


1891 - Denise Tuckfield is born.


1912 - Denise learns to throw clay at the age of 21.

1915 - Denise starts to sculpt pottery in Kingston and marries Henry Wren.

1920 - Denise and Henry Wren design and build Oxshott Pottery. Here she and Henry make pots, teach students and experiment with designs, glazes and kilns, using coke and later gas to fire them. Throughout the 1920's and until the 1950's, two-week summer courses were also regularly taught at Oxshott.

1922 - Rosemary Wren is born at Oxshott.

1924-26 - Denise Wren teaches evening classes at Teddington School of Art.

1920s-1939 - Denise Wren's main production is hand-built and thrown earthenware decorated with slips and glazes for flowers. She also keeps animals and writes pottery manuals.

1937 - Denise begins to design textiles.

1941-45 - Rosemary Wren works with animals in the Women's Land Army, as part of the home front in the Second World War.

1945 - Denise is entered in the National Register of Industrial Art Designers as a textile designer, having ceased potting during the war years.

1945-1947 - Denise studies ceramics and sculpture at the Guildford School of Art under Helen Pincombe, going onto the Royal College of Art from 1947-50.

1947 - Henry Wren dies. Denise and Henry's daughter Rosemary takes over his workshop and begins working full-time with her mother.

1953 - Rosemary learns to make hollow forms at the age of 31, and also begins salt-glazing. She starts making hand-sculpted ceramic animals and birds the following year, in 1954.

1956 - Rosemary helps to found the Craftsmen Potters Association, based in London.

1960s - Denise Wren starts making elephant figures.

1968 -  The lack of availability of suitable coke leads to an abandonment of the Wrens' much favoured method of salt-glazing.

1970 - Rosemary Wren starts a relationship with Peter Crotty.

1975 - Denise Wren is made an honorary life member of the Craftsmen Potters Association that her daughter Rosemary helped to found.

1978 - Rosemary and Denise Wren move their pottery to Exeter.

1979 - Denise Wren dies in Devon. After her mother's death, Rosemary moves the pottery to Hittisleigh in Devon.

1982 - Rosemary moves the pottery to Newton Abbot, Devon, and then again in the following year to Lustleigh, also in Devon.

1984 - Denise Wren's role in the development of studio pottery in Britain is given recognition with the exhibition and related publication, 'The Oxshott Pottery' at the Crafts Study Centre, Bath.

1989 - Rosemary moves the pottery again, to Strathpeffer, in Scotland.

2013 - Rosemary Wren dies,