Cultural Icons takes inspiration from the history and tradition of the Staffordshire flatback, once produced by most of the potteries in the region. Such objects reflected the interests of ordinary people in Victorian England, their subjects including famous entertainers, politicians, royalty and religious themes. For this project, curator Tessa Peters assisted by artist Christie Brown invited figurative ceramicists to respond to the historic flat-back portrait figures in the extensive collections of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. The resulting artworks comment on aspects of mainstream culture, society and politics today.   

Stephen Dixon offers a satirical take on political events such as Brexit and the presidency of Trump, while Matt Smith’s series, Oceans Rise, Empires Fall, provides an allegorical vision of societal structures in a state of collapse. Claire Curneen’s timeless subjects – both religious and secular – feature mysterious pairings and propose enigmatic narratives. Ingrid Murphy’s She danced him into a flat spin series is the result of her direct hands-on engagement with a traditional flat-back scene within a virtual reality platform. Inspired by Staffordshire figures of Queen Victoria with her infant children, Joanne Ayre provides contemporary visions of motherhood including Meghan Markle and Shamima Begum, and Christie Brown’s flatbacks invite reflection on today’s celebrity culture exemplified by popular TV shows such as Love Island and Strictly Come Dancing. 

The artists were also commissioned to provide a related design for production as a limited edition by communities of makers in Stoke-on-Trent. This enabled workshop participants to develop new skills and gain an understanding of how the original flatbacks were made. The editions and one-off works are displayed alongside a selection of Victorian flatbacks from the museum’s collections and finely detailed drawings of historic flatbacks by John Hewitt that also encourage close study of the original portrait figures. 

An iteration of the exhibition tours to Hove Museum, 29 Nov 2019 – 11 April 2020.

The project was commissioned by the British Ceramics Biennial as part of the Four Sites initiative. It is supported by Arts Council England, Stoke-on-Trent Cultural Destinations, City of Stoke-on-Trent, Royal Pavilion & Museums/Brighton & Hove City Council.

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