My favourite object #1: a Yattendon Guild copperware vase

The first in our series of favourite objects chosen by MERL staff, volunteers and visitors, is written by Fiona Melhuish, MERL Librarian.


In my work with the Special Collections rare books and MERL library I get lots of opportunities to spotlight my favourite items from our wonderful book collections through exhibitions and Featured Items on the Special Collections website, so for this post I am going to choose one of my favourite objects from the Museum’s collections – a Yattendon Guild copperware vase (MERL 2009/24).

The vase pictured in an article in The Studio journal

Yattendon Guild Copperware vase (MERL 2009/24)

This vase was purchased by MERL in 2009 as part of the Collecting Rural Cultures project which aimed to acquire material to build a picture of the countryside in the twentieth century. It was made at the Yattendon Metalworking Class, or Yattendon Guild, an evening class for local men and boys, organised by Elizabeth Waterhouse (1834-1918), the wife of the architect Alfred Waterhouse, whose buildings include the Natural History Museum in London.  Alfred designed several buildings in Reading including East Thorpe, a Grade II listed building, which is now the home of MERL and Special Collections. The Waterhouse family purchased the Yattendon estate in West Berkshire in 1878, and Alfred built Yattendon Court (now demolished) as their family home.

Between 1890 and 1914, the class met weekly at Yattendon Court and developed into a thriving village industry. The class produced items in repoussé brass and copper mostly from Elizabeth’s own designs – she also taught her pupils how to beat the copper and brass. The metalworker Colin Pill (who has an interesting website devoted to Arts and Crafts metalwork) has pointed out that “the handle construction on [Yattendon] vases and tankards as well as the shallow nature of the repoussé and background punching or grounding are very distinctive”. Yattendon metalware does not appear to have been stamped with a maker’s mark but some pieces occasionally bear pen inscriptions.

The class became affiliated to the Home Arts and Industries Association (HAIA) which was established in 1884 to increase skills in craftsmanship among the working classes and to promote the revival of rural craft industries. Similar metalwork classes were set up in Newlyn in Cornwall and in Keswick in the Lake District.

The Yattendon Class established a reputation for good design, and produced items including plates, jugs and lanterns in an Arts and Crafts style. The decorative motifs were inspired by plants and flowers, whilst others featured peacocks, fish, deer and leopards. The class produced over 5,000 items and sold their wares in a local shop, whilst other items were sold at Liberty’s in London. In 1895 the art and design journal The Studio praised the Yattendon Guild’s “fine show of repoussé copper, excellent in its design and thoroughly characteristic of the metal”. This vase was featured in an article in The Studio in 1899.

Yattendon Guild copperware vase

The vase pictured in an article in The Studio journal

The vase is one of several items with a Waterhouse connection held by MERL and Special Collections. The Museum also has a tankard made by the Guild (MERL 68/506) and Special Collections holds books written by Elizabeth, correspondence and watercolours by the Waterhouse family. Neither the tankard or the vase are currently on public display in the Museum at the moment but please contact us if you would like to visit to see them!

Yattendon Guild copperware tankard (MERL 68/506)

Yattendon Guild copperware tankard (MERL 68/506)

Objects made in the Arts and Crafts style have always appealed to me, with their designs drawn from natural forms. However, what I think is particularly special about this object is the numerous links it has with different parts of our collections, from the building in which our collections are housed to local history and to the rural life and craft traditions which the Museum seeks to document and celebrate. The design of the vase has a simple beauty and a very satisfying symmetry, with the stylised plant/seed head motif gradually reducing in size as the vase tapers upwards – it would look wonderful in an Arts and Crafts-style fireplace filled with teazels!

Craft Collections and Craft Connections

Written by Greta Bertram, Project Officer for A Sense of Place and Countryside21.


MERL has a fantastic array of traditional craft products and tools in its collections, from such crafts as blacksmithing, wood turning, carpentry, lacemaking, leatherwork, pottery, stonemasonry, straw crafts, and wheelwrighting (plus many many more!). Many of these objects are on display in the Museum’s gallery, and visitors to MERL can also watch videos from a project called Rural Crafts Today, showing ten contemporary traditional craftspeople at work (short versions of these films are also available online).

The craft collections are one of the things that first attracted me to the MERL, and my first visit to the Museum was to interview the former Keeper, Roy Brigden, about craft and intangible heritage in museums. In my life outside MERL I’m a trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts. The HCA aims to support and promote traditional crafts as a fundamental part of living heritage in the UK and to ensure that those craft skills are carried on into the future. I’m always on the look out for potential collaborations between MERL and the HCA, and there are a lot of crossovers in the work that I do. During the sixteen months I’ve been working at MERL I’ve catalogued a good proportion of the craft objects, and undertaken engagement activities with basketmakers in my MERL-HCA capacity. You can find out more on the Sense of Place blog.

Photo: James Fletcher

Prince Charles and Kirstie Allsopp at the Craft Skills Awards.

Last Thursday I attended the inaugural Craft Skills Awards, a national suite of awards to recognise best practice in passing on craft skills. The awards were set up by Creative & Cultural Skills and partner organisations, including the HCA. The prizes were awarded by His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales – Patron of MERL, and President of the HCA. The categories included ‘Encouraging Craft Skills in the Workplace’, ‘Encouraging Craft Skills in an Educational Setting’, ‘Encouraging Craft Skills in an Informal Setting’ and ‘Engaging New and Diverse Audiences in Craft Skills’. You can find out more about the awards and the winners, and watch a great video about why we should support craft, here. I was lucky enough to meet the Prince and to say thank you for giving a wonderful speech in which he quoted some of the findings from a new piece of research which I’ve been involved in, Mapping Heritage Craft, highlighting the issues faced in skills transmission. Both the Craft Skills Awards and Mapping Heritage Craft also highlight the vibrancy of the traditional crafts sector, as there is a mistaken tendency to think that these crafts are dying out and are no longer part of our contemporary rural (and urban) landscape. We’re hoping to be able to reflect this is in the new displays at MERL, and I think it would be great if we could find a way to present some of the more ‘intangible’ elements of traditional craftsmanship as well as the tangible objects.

I will also be running the HCA stand at the MERL Village Fete on Saturday 1st June, with the help of a local spoon carver. This year’s fete has a traditional crafts theme and there will be several craftspeople demonstrating their skills on the day. Come along for a great day, a look round the museum and to find out more about the HCA!