21 August 2012

Troika - modernist art pottery

Troika was an art pottery operating in Cornwall. The company had been set up in Feb 1963 by three people (the troika) who contributed equally to take over Wells Pottery in St Ives. Leslie Illsley, the sculptor, contributed to the design of moulded pieces. Benny Sirota contributed with surface textures and glazes. Jan Thompson, who had been an architect, seemed to be the organiser.

Troika face vase, 1960s

In the first instance (1963-1970), Troika Pottery was based at the Wheal Dream site in St Ives. And somewhat unusually for the era, they wanted to pursue their vision of pottery as art, without too much concern for function. In fact tiles and wall plaques, some quite long, were made in the first few years with no purpose other than decoration.

Troika had two main ranges of ceramics, the rough textured range and the smooth glazed range. The smooth white surfaces made in St Ives reminded people of the Cornish landscape. Interestingly it is easier to collect the rough glazed wares today, presumably because more was made.

Many of the abstract or stylised patterns, often in sober blues and browns, were popular. The vases, marmalade pots, lamp bases and table-wares, all made from moulds, were quite architectural; some of the patterns seemed cubist. I assume that stylised sgraffito decoration, particularly coloured geometric blocks, was seen as crisp, modern and smart.

Wheal Dream site in St Ives

The new business was going well, gaining critical praise from the experts. Despite the appeal of glazed ware, Miller's noted that Troika began to concentrate on textured pieces. The company employed a small team of skilled artists who were encouraged to experiment with new types of decoration. Textured forms were unusually angular and the inspiration could have been elements of primitive Aztec design, the Cornish landscape or even the expressive geometrical paintings of Paul Klee.

And gaining high sales and popular success. Partially that was because St Ives had a well-heeled and regular summer tourist trade. And because Troika had contracts with big house and home shops in the cities. Yet when The Wheal Dream site was bought by the St Ives Council, Troika was forced to move out.

The second era (1970-1983) of Troika pots came from Newlyn, also in Cornwall. Illsley and Sirota bought an old salting house in Fragden Place, Newlyn which they had to renovate. The larger premises enabled production to be increased. Orders boomed and more staff were employed. Troika introduced only four new shapes during their time at Newlyn, one of these was the coffin vase which is the most common piece available today, along with the hanging basket and globe. Throughout the decades of operation, however, the designers continued to decorate the objects with earthy, muted colours.

above - Troika coffin vase 

below - Troika square vase

Heals in London, the home for contemporary  furniture and accessory design,  eventually made a decision to stop selling craft pottery - this meant serious trouble for Troika. Perhaps the glossy tin-glazed ware made by Troika was too highclass; the objects were expensive to produce and could only be bought by well heeled customers. 

Note that Collecting Troika Pottery added another consideration:  the Government doubled the Value Added Tax in 1979. Sales dropped and dropped. Whatever the reason, Troika was forced to close in 1983, only 20 years after its successful start. 

Not far from the Troika centre, Newlyn Art Gallery was originally a place to exhibit the art of the Newlyn School of artists. Opened in 1895, the gallery has been recently extended and opened up to the sea.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
'Troika' is something of an acquired taste, we feel, and also today very much of its period in terms of shape and colour.

We can well believe that, at the time, it would have been very much the kind of thing to be found in Heals, a store which has, by tradition, always been in the vanguard of promoting individual and innovative design. Sadly, less so now.

James Wei said...

These pottery do look very unique and special. The patterns do look rather interesting with that air of ancient relic.

Parnassus said...

This looks like Arts and crafts meets the 1960's. I looked at your pictures and then the ones on Ebay, and it does grow on you. Its quality and integrity is apparent, and although I am not sure that Troika is my style, it is on my visual radar now.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

Spot on! Troika is an acquired taste now ...and so it was even more procvocative in 1963.

It reminds me of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Imagine seeing Robin Day's designs for the first time.

Hels said...


You touch on an important issue - what was the inspiration for Troika's art pottery?

I am sure the colours tried to match the sand, sea and skies of Cornwall's beaches. But what of the shapes of the objects, the materials and the decorative elements? I would love to see Troika's original pattern books.

Hels said...


Arts and Crafts meets the 1960s :)

Very definitely 1960s and definitely not necessarily your style. It is too angular, too dense, too sharp-edged and a sharp break with tradition.

But i think the Troika hit the design jackpot when they launched their vases, lamp bases etc. Very modern.

P. M. Doolan said...

I love Japanese pottery and, consequently, the work of Bernard Leach. The Troika movement (which I had never heard of up until now, so thanks for filling me in here)seems to be going against his idea that pottery should be used. Was this a deliberate opposition arising at St. Ives I wonder.

Deb said...

What is art pottery anyhow? Something I would like but my gran would not have, possibly.

Hels said...


Art pottery refers to decorative pottery, whether it is useful or not. The pieces may first be designed by a studio potter, then made up in bulk by commercial manufacturers. The ceramic objects are not fine and translucent, as porcelain world be.

No wonder granny disliked what she might have called "bulky tat".

Hels said...


I can see why you are raising Bernard Leach's art pottery.. there are great similarities between his shapes and earthy colours, on one hand, and Troika's on the other. Except that Leach uses rounded surfaces far more often.

The thing about art pottery is not that it cannot be used. Of course it can eg any Troika vase will hold flowers perfectly well. But art pottery is there for its gorgeous decorative qualities, in the first instance.

Bauhaus people would have wept.

Theresa H Hall said...

I really am drawn to the bottom piece!

Hels said...


of course you are :) The piece is smart!

WriteAntiques has a lovely group of Troika art pottery objects to feast your eyes on. Have a look at

ChrisJ said...

What beautiful pottery - the face vase is especially compelling.

We could tell the Bauhaus people to just stick a flower in it. ;)

Hels said...


Cute :)

I have a lot of sympathy for the Bauhaus principle of Form Follows Function. But just occasionally beauty for its own sake can light up the human existence.

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Hels said...


my pleasure. Can you buy mid-20th century art pottery where you live? It isn't an antique yet, but auction houses may be the best bet.

John hopper said...

Thanks for the Troika article Helen. Being a native Cornishman and still living in the county it is good to see some homegrown work. You could say that Troika is typically Cornish as it uses elements of the local landscape of Penwith (the extreme Western tip of Cornwall), which is windswept and bleak, along with the old tin mining culture which has made the area even bleaker in places. Inspiration for the blockiness of the work can be attributed partially to the mining, but probably more so to the mesolithic structures (circles and tombs) produced from large granite rocks and boulders. The colours themselves fit in with the local colours of the landscape as well as the colours produced from local tin colouring streams and rocks. As long as you remember that West Cornwall is dominated by sea, sky, granite and tin then you can get some idea as to where Troika gained at least an element of its inspiration.

Troika is very collectable in the UK and part of its appeal is that it is so obviously connected artistically to Cornwall,through certain similarities with the work of Ben Nicholson for example. These colours, shapes and textures seem to run through much of the Cornish art and craft world and so must have more than just a stylistic eleement to them.

Hels said...


Yes indeed! Two of your important elements not mentioned in my post were a] the old tin mining culture, which I did know about and b] the mesolithic structures, which I have not seen or heard of.

I agree that the tin mining would go quite some way to explain the blockiness of the pottery, and also its grittiness. But mesolithic structures, produced from large granite rocks and boulders, are a more useful explanation of Troika design choices than primitive Aztec design.

Hels said...

oohhh I just saw a Troika wheel vase on Antiques Roadtrip. Deco To Modern says: The Troika Wheel Vase comes in 5 sizes ranging from 4½" right up to the giant wheel at about 13". The larger the vase, the rarer and more expensive the piece becomes, with giant vases fetching in excess of £1000. Each Wheel Vase is unique as they were all hand painted by individual decorators.