Pretty Ugly Pottery: Ugly Mugs
Pretty Ugly Pottery
Overlooking the River Mersey stands a new, spacious two-storey building once owned by Pretty Ugly Pottery. The ground floor offered a large pottery display area, a cafeteria, the Have-A-Go area where visitors could try their hand at making their own Ugly Mug, plus the production area itself.
Everything was brand new, including the staff who spent a month travelling to Rhos-on-Sea in Wales to train at Pretty Ugly Pottery's original site on a small industrial estate. This older site had been making the world famous Ugly Mugs for years already and was purely a production site, fulfilling orders which were then sold at gift shops around Britain or shipped across to Europe and America.
The Liverpool site attracted international visitors, school groups, special needs groups and coach-loads of tourists who could enjoy a guided tour of the production area before being encouraged to make their very own Ugly Mug in the Have-A-Go area. Their mugs would then be dried, glazed and fired, and the finished amateur mugs would be shipped worldwide to their eager creators.
Pretty Ugly Pottery opened in 1997 and lasted for less than two years in Liverpool. The Rhos-on-Sea site folded also.
However, Pretty Ugly Pottery's distinctive Ugly Mugs are now becoming collectors' items.
What's an Ugly Mug?
Pretty Ugly Pottery's famous range of Ugly Mugs were dishwasher-proof mugs with funny faces on the outside. There were two main types - plain earthenware, with facial details highlighted with brown colour (iron oxide); or the more colourful type with facial details formed from dyed clay.
All were made by hand. The mug shape was thrown on a traditional potter's wheel, then the "facers" created the novelty characters from a block of clay, shaping the features by hand. A handle was then applied, then the mug would be left to dry. Around two weeks later, any rough bits of clay were smoothed before a thin layer of liquid glaze was added. Once dry, these would then be taken to the kiln for firing.
Other ranges were also made by Pretty Ugly Pottery, such as the animal characters or the nude women who were placed on the inside of a mug so the drinker got a surprise. The photos below show the full range of ceramic gifts.
My Job at Pretty Ugly Pottery
I was one of the new team employed by Pretty Ugly Pottery for their new Liverpool site in 1997. After completing three short courses run by Merseyside Tourist Board, and having spent several weeks at the pottery's plant in Rhos-on-Sea in North Wales, we were all ready for the official opening of the Liverpool site at 112 Mariners Wharf.
My job had two aspects - working as a tour guide, and also creating the characters mugs and tankards. With Ugly Mugs, we were expected to produce a minimum of 250 per day (assuming our work wasn't interrupted by a tour.) The tankards were bigger and more complex; we managed to make around 95 a day of those.
It was fun work - busy work, but fun.
In summer months, tours began every half hour. Often we'd finish doing one tour only to immediately begin another. At the peak of the season, this could go on all day and we'd end up feeling dizzy, wondering if we'd just said the same thing twice in immediate succession. We'd think, "Didn't I just say that already, or was that actually on the last tour?"
We three tour guides had to politely coax the public to complete the entire circuit of production area and Have-A-Go area in forty-five minutes flat. It didn't always work out quite that smoothly in practice! And by lunch-time the Have-A-Go area would look like a herd of wildebeests had trampled through it, with smears of clay and dropped modelling tools all over the place - and don't even ask about the chaos along the row of public hand-basins!
On top of this, we needed to ensure a ready supply of fresh mugs (the clay being not too wet, not too dry) for the public to unleash their creative efforts upon, which meant we had to constantly raid the other potters' shelves of leathery mugs. We also had to check that each visitor had an identifying number on the base of their mug so we'd know who to mail the finished thing to two or three weeks later.
The Pottery Tour
Tours began at the pug mill. This machine squashed air bubbles from the raw clay, which was scooped out of heavy plastic bags and fed into the pug mill, which then extruded a long sausage of smooth clay - rather like a giant-sized pasta machine.
The sausage of clay was then neatly divided into small measured sections using a wooden frame with wire strung across it. Each section was the right amount of clay to make the body of a mug, and people would watch in fascination as these were thrown on the potters' wheel. Our throwers made it look so easy - but then one of them had been doing similar work for twenty years...
The formed mugs were set onto long wooden planks and left on open shelves to dry to the leather stage, which means the clay is still flexible but not too dry to attach more clay (such as the handle.) If the clay is too dry, any additions are likely to fall off again. If the clay was drying too quickly, the pot-covered planks would be wrapped in plastic.
Once the mugs reached the leather stage, the character details could be added. These might be the famous Ugly Mug faces or any of the animal or novelty range designs. People used to love watching the speed at which the potters worked, and how they'd take a plain mug and scoop up blobs of shapeless clay to form the details, or make use of small plaster molds.
Having been given the character details, the mugs would then be carried over to the handler, who used another pug mill to extrude long ribbons of clay from which the handles were made. These were then placed back on the wooden planks, where they'd sit on shelves for around two weeks before the fettler used a knife and hot water to deftly tidy up any unsmooth surfaces, and then the mugs would be ready for glazing.
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Firing in the Kiln
The glazing area consisted of a row of plastic buckets, each filled with a different glaze. The bases of the mugs were dipped in hot wax to prevent them sticking to the kiln's shelves. The mugs were held upside down and their rims dipped into iron oxide to give the brown band around the rim, and then the whole mug was dipped into clear glaze.
No biscuit firing was used, just the one firing which cut production costs but also greatly limited the range of underglaze colours. We got round this by reducing clay to liquid then adding dye, which was then poured onto plaster slabs to dry off a bit until it returned to a flexible clay state. This could then be peeled off the plaster and used to create coloured details for the character mugs, such as coloured eyes.
The electric kiln sat at the far end of the production area, and the public weren't allowed to go near this for safety reasons. After a firing, when the kiln doors had been opened even slightly, heat and fumes would flood the entire pottery even with the two huge rear loading bay doors wide open. In winter, this was about the only time we got warm!
© 2010 Adele Cosgrove-Bray