The Wrens of Oxshott


The Oxshott Pottery

Denise Wren was born in Western Australia in 1891, and emigrated to England with her family in 1899. After studying under Archibald Knox at nearby Kingston, she formed the Oxshott Pottery with her husband Henry in 1920.

The Oxshott Pottery quickly gained a reputation as one of the most successful studio potteries in the country. Denise and Henry’s daughter, Rosemary, later also had a distinguished career in pottery. She had been born in 1922 and lived in Potters Croft, the house built by her parents. Rosemary trained at Guildford School of Art and started potting after serving in the Women’s Land Army.

Denise and Rosemary Wren both worked out of Oxshott Pottery until 1978, so it is interesting to compare their works which are so 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, having been exposed to them from a young age.

Mother and Daughter

Differing Styles

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!"

Rosemary Wren

Hand-made strategies

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, pictured further down this page, which displays a hatch of scratches that are bold, beautiful and in-erasable.

The Wrens at work

1923 Denise Wren at Potters Croft, holding 18 month old Rosemary. Both are wearing hand-woven garments made by Denise's sister at her studio in Molesey.

1920s Denise Wren working in the garden at ''Potters Croft'', Oxshott, decorating a pot.

1920s Henry Wren, working out of doors on a potter's wheel. Denise Wren is seated at a table behind him decorating pots.

1927 Photograph of Denise and Henry Wren, with 2 students and Rosemary (aged 5) packing a kiln, out of doors, with fuel for firing.

1927 Denise Wren with Rosemary (aged 6) standing beside a table outside their house, supervising 2 female students making coil pots.

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.

1928 Photograph of Henry Wren, with a pipe in his mouth, and Rosemary Wren (aged 7) on their knees packing pots for an exhibition.

1928 Denise Wren working at a pot on the wheel at Potters Croft, with Rosemary aged 7) and Henry looking on.

1928 Photograph of Henry Wren working at the potter's wheel at "Potters Croft", Oxshott.

1920s Henry Wren and daughter Rosemary in the garden of ''Potters Croft'', Oxshott.

1930 Denise Wren holding a rabbit to show to her daughter, Rosemary, outside the entrance to the aviaries at ''Potters Croft''.

1930s Denise Wren and her dog, Peg, below the aviaries at ''Potters Croft''.

1958 The coke-fired kiln designed by Denise Wren and erected at ''Potters Croft''. This photograph was published in "Gas Coke News", 1958.

1960 Denise Wren at the Oxshott Arts & Crafts Exhibition, with the tablecloth she designed for the Oxshott Women's Institute. The borders show Oxshott's history.

1986 Photograph of a display of Denise Wren's work, supplied by Kingston Heritage Centre after their exhibition on her pottery.

Key Works: Denise Wren

Tall Jar, 1960s

Tall jar created by Denise Wren, 1960s.

Tall jar created by Denise Wren, 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, 1960s

Goblet pot created by Denise Wren, 1960s.

Goblet pot created by Denise Wren, 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.

Key Works: Rosemary Wren

Blue Tit, 1987

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

Pottery blue tit made in 1987 by Rosemary Wren and Peter Crotty.

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, 1987

Long-tailed tits, just over life-size, with a black and white matt glaze. These were one of three pottery birds created in 1987 by Rosemary Wren and Peter Crotty from drawings from life.

Long-tailed tits created in 1987 by Rosemary Wren and Peter Crotty.

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

All of Rosemary’s animal figures shown here are hollow. The rich detailing on the back of these tits’ tails show her attention to detail. 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.

More from the Collection

The Wrens Pottery

Pottery Wren This larger than life-size wren has a matt and shiny glazes. It is one of three pottery birds made in 1987 by Rosemary Wren & Peter Crotty from drawings from life.

Tall Goblet The hand-making of this object is evident in the rings where it was formed on a potter's wheel. Made by Denise Wren in the 1960s, it has a salt-glaze and a hand-marked pattern around the top.

Potter's tool box The tools here all came from Potters Croft. They were donated to Elmbridge Museum by Rosemary Wren. Within the chaos of the storage box, items which may have influenced the potters can be seen, including shells, a fir cone and a whistle.

'Potterscroft Oxshott Surrey' stamp This stamp was used at Potters Croft for marking official documents and any pottery orders the Wrens received. It adds a little uniform order to the mayhem usually found in a pottery studio.

Assortment of pots and jugs These pots and jugs were made by Denise Wren at Oxshott Pottery in the early 1920's. There are 4 tall pots, 3 medium height jugs, 5 small jugs and 3 small dishes. The photograph was supplied by Kingston Heritage Centre after their exhibition on the work of Denise Wren in 1986.

Elephant figure This example of an elephant figure was made by Denise Wren in 1971, after she stopped using a coke-fired kiln.

Tall, salt-glazed jar This jar, made by Denise Wren, was possibly for 'Ikebana', the Japanese word for 'flower arranging'. This continues to be a very popular style among studio potters.

Glazed plate This beautiful dark glaze was achieved by adding wood ash to the plate. It is darker in the middle because the glaze pooled before it was fired. It is the work of Denise Wren and dates to the 1960s.

The Lives of Denise and Rosemary Wren

1891



Denise Wren is born in Albany, Western Australia, as Dorothy Tuckfield. She later changed her name to Denise.



1899



Denise and her family leave Australia for England. They settle in East Molesey.



1907-12



Denise learns to throw clay in Kingston-upon-Thames, under the designer Archibald Knox. In 1911 she had learnt how to throw pots by watching Mr Mercer, a flower pot maker from Norbiton Potteries.



1915



Denise helps to set up the Knox Guild of Design and Craft at Kingston following Knox’s resignation. She marries fellow potter, Henry Wren.



1920



Denise and Henry Wren design and build the Oxshott Pottery at Potters Croft, Oxshott. Here she and Henry make pots, teach students and experiment with designs, glazes and kilns, using coke and later gas to fire them. Denise also attends evening classes at Camberwell School of Art under Henry Hopkins at this time. Throughout the 1920’s and until the 1950’s, two-week summer courses were also regularly taught by the Wrens at the Oxshott Pottery.



1922



Rosemary Wren is born at Oxshott.



1923-38



Denise and Henry Wren organise the annual Artist-Craftsman Exhibition at the Central Hall, Westminster.



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. Denise Wren ceases potting for the duration of the 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 from 1950.



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.



Next Steps

Interested in learning more about the wider history of ceramics? Take a look at some of these useful extra resources to discover its wider history in the UK and across the world.