KEITH MURRAY (1892-1981) was one of the most influential designers of glass, ceramics and metal ware in inter-war Britain. In recent years his elegant, minimalist designs have chimed with current interior tastes making him avidly collected in Britain, his native New Zealand, the United States and Japan.
His name was mostly associated with the range of plain, crisply modeled earthenware vases, bowls and jug sets designed for Wedgwood pottery, although few people are familiar with the broad range of glassware which he designed for the Stourbridge firm of Stevens and Williams and still fewer know of his design for the Royal silversmiths, Mappin and Webb.
A New Zealander by birth, he moved to England aged 14, and trained and worked as an architect until lack of commissions in the lean years of the late 1920s forced him to consider an alternative career. A keen collector of English glass, he became interested in the design of table glass and was influenced by modern Swedish glass. He made some designs for simple table glass and began looking for a manufacturer who might be interested in producing them.
He was encouraged by the Design and Industries Association’s stalwart representative Harry Trethowan, buyer of glass and ceramics for Heals’, who suggested that Murray write to Hubert Williams-Thomas, managing director of Stevens and Williams of Brierley Hill.
Murray was employed by Stevens and Williams as a freelance designer from 1932 until the outbreak of war in 1939. During this time he made more than a thousand designs ranging from ornamental pieces to bathroom sets and table services, all of which are numbered and recorded in Keith Murray Works Description Book at the Royal Brierley Crystal Museum.
The range was know as ‘Keith Murray Glass’ and was promoted and sold as an entirely separate entity from the traditional cut crystal which was the firm’s mainstay between the wars.
The impetus to produce modern glass came from the impact that imports of modern glass, especially Swedish, was having on the home market. Hubert Williams-Thomas realised, like Murray, that it was not just the low cost of some to the Swedish glass which made it attractive to the modern market, but the high standards of design associated especially with the leading Swedish glassworks, Orrefors, who employed the artists Simon Gate and Edward Hald.
In 1932, following the early success at Stevens and Williams, Murray was invited to visit the Wedgwood pottery at Etruria. In 1930 the future of Wedgwood was uncertain. The economic slump had seriously affected the pottery industry and Wedgwood was particularly vulnerable because its American sales were badly hit.
The firm pursued a policy of rationalization throughout the 1930s, reducing the number of designs and encouraging simpler shapes and patterns. The young managing director Josiah Wedgwood V appreciated Murray’s interest in designing for industry and invited him to work as a freelance designer for two months a year.
He began to make designs for Wedgwood on a commercial basis in 1933. Murray’s plain modern designs for bowls, vases and lamp bases were at first made in cream earthenware and black basalt but, by the end of 1933, they were produced using new matt glazes designed by Norman Wilson. These ‘Siennese’ glazes were first available in a matt white finish called ‘Moonstone’, followed by a matt straw, April green, dark green, turquoise and matt grey.
Wilson’s new ‘bronze basalt’ and red body stonewares extended the ‘Keith Murray’ range, indeed the collaboration between Murray and Wilson resulted in a range of experimental and unique pieces which are greatly sought after by collectors today.
Murray’s pieces for Wedgwood appealed to the new class of design-conscious homeowners. But Josiah Wedgwood also asked Murray to design an even cheaper range for ‘that growing section of the younger public which has some taste but no money.’ Murray responded with a range of slip-cast ornamental wares with fluted shapes. He also designed a range of earthenware jugs and beer mugs with champagne or matt glazes. A special feature of the slip-cast mugs was the ribbed sides which disguised the seams left by the moulding process.
Asked to produce some decorative patterns for table services for both bone china and Moonstone wares his ‘Lotus’ pattern was designed in 1933. It was available in two colour-ways; bronze and red, or green and platinum. He designed three other patterns for earthenware services in 1934, ‘Green Tree’, ‘Iris’ and ‘Pimpernel’.
Besides the highly successful Siennese glazes and the black and basalt bodies, Murray designed a range of ornamental wares which are described as ‘mixed coloured bodies’ and date from January 1937. These two-tone wares come in two colour-ways; celadon green slip on a cream-coloured body.
On many of these two-tone wares Murray made a feature contrasting slips by turning the piece on the lathe to expose the lighter colour beneath the slip in simple repetitive bands.
All the ‘Keith Murray’ designs were marked on the underside; at first with a printed facsimile of the designer’s signature and, from 1934, with a printed monogram. A new mark was introduced in 1940 with the designer’s initials and the words ‘WEDGWOOD OF ETRURIA AND BARLASTON’.
What the Experts Say
Auctioneer Peter Wilson’s ceramics specialist, Chris Large, said: “Murray’s designs for Wedgwood are very popular with collectors. True to his architectural training, his pieces are elegant, geometric and structural and the simplicity of his designs have made them a favourite with connoisseurs.
“Popular tableware designs include Lotus, Weeping Willow, Iris and Pink Flower and the most desirable colours are bronze, black, grey and moonstone.”
Other collected designs include the clean engine-turned fluted vases which go for around £500- £800 on the secondary market. A bulbous ribbed vase (1932) can realise £800 to £900. A green glazed bomb shape vase, 20cm, sold for £125 at Bonhams, Oxford, 2012.