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Troika Pottery

  • Mark Hill
  • 04 Jan 2011

Chimney vaseTroika Pottery was initially met with great scepticism when it was first established in the beautiful Cornish coastal town of St. Ives. The local establishment were quick to predict failure for the new venture, giving it just three months to survive. The company’s unconventional ceramics, which broke with the contemporary trend for plain, functional designs, gave cynics good reason to worry, but concerns were proved unfounded when Troika was snapped up by discerning London stores such as Heal’s and Liberty’s, and became known around the world.

PlaqueThe company was founded in 1963 by sculptor Leslie Illsley, potter Benny Sirota and architect Jan Thompson, who chose the name ‘troika’ to represent the team of three. Despite initial successes, Thompson walked away from the enterprise after two years, leaving the other two to build the business.

Pieces, such as vases, lamp bases and some tablewares, were produced with the use of molds, which were taken from hand-thrown originals, and then hand-painted. This process meant pieces had the look and feel of unique Studio pottery, but could be produced far more economically. Much of the early output was smooth, glossy, on-glaze ware, although distinctive textured pieces, which were to become predominant in later years, were also produced. Tiles and wall plaques, some up to five feet long, were also made in the first few years and can now sell for up to £1,000 or more.

Lamp baseDespite the appeal of glazed ware, Troika began to concentrate on textured pieces. The company employed a small team of skilled artists who were encouraged to experiment with new and exciting types of decoration. Textured forms were unusually angular and inspiration behind the distinctive decoration was certainly eclectic: elements of primitive Aztec design, the Cornish landscape and the expressive geometrical paintings of Paul Klee were combined to produce radically different pieces that were both functional and visually appealing.

When the local council terminated the lease on the Wheel Dream pottery in 1970, Troika were forced to relocate to Newlyn. Fortunately, the new premises were larger and the company’s capacity, as well as its reputation and success, increased. By this time Troika was so much in demand that, despite the size of the new pottery, orders had to be turned away.

Pottery maskEarly pieces from the St. Ives pottery often command a premium and exceptionally large, rare or unusual pieces can be worth over £1,000. The decorator, identified by a monogram or initials on the base, can also affect appeal and value. Look out for the Aztec-style mask sculptures that are hard to find today.

Troika suffered during the late 1970s depression and from the influx of cheap imports from the early 1980s. The factory was finally wound up on 1983, much to the disappointment of its many devoted fans.