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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Anna Bailey

Anna Bailey is a writer and historian from North Yorkshire, England. Since childhood, she has been fascinated by histories of lived experience and the everyday. She is particularly interested in relationships between making and use, as well as the inherent human trace in artefacts.

Having previously completed a BA in History at the University of Oxford, Anna's practice is firmly grounded in historical approaches. Whilst at the RCA, she has extended her skills in research and academic writing to embody a cross-disciplinary perspective of design history. She hopes to continue her exploration of unconventional approaches to design history and material culture, through which we might catch fresh glimpses of historical design and making practices.

Image:Footed agateware teapot, Staffordshire, ca.1750-1765 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

A black and white image of a smiling woman

Whilst my research interests encompass a wide variety of different periods and materials, during the MA I was drawn to investigate the tacit skills and complex processes involved in making and selling ceramics. Inspired by a taught module on global exchange in early modern ceramics production, I wrote an essay on imperfection and unpredictability in Josiah Wedgwood I's early manufacture (ca.1759-1765). This in turn led to a dissertation on the complexities of producing eighteenth-century British agateware, during which I constructed my own contemporary agateware pieces. I also handled several items from the V&A's Ceramics Collections, which gave insight into the haptic interactions between people and objects over time.

I pursued this MA because I wanted to explore alternate avenues to learning about the people who lived in the past. After a year at the RCA, in partnership with the V&A Museum, I am more convinced than ever that studying design history must be firmly grounded in humanity, through the makers and users of objects.


I first encountered eighteenth-century agateware in the V&A's Ceramics Galleries. As part of a typological overview of production. they neatly encapsulate a particular design 'phase' within the timeline of British ceramics production. Agateware is a form of variegated pottery, which imitates striated agate minerals. While variegated techniques have been traced as far back as the Roman period, the press-moulded agatewares produced between ca.1740-1770 were distinctive and laborious. Using clays of two or more colours, eighteenth-century potters rolled, stacked, and sliced a kaleidoscope of structurally-ingrained patterns. Utilitarian agateware objects, including tea-wares. tablewares, and small decorative items, appeared in British shops and homes during the second quarter of the eighteenth-century. But how did eighteenth-century consumers categorise and use these wares? How integral was the identifiable trace of the artisan - accessible via material knowledge, appearance, and comparative innovation - to their value? And how did this change once utilitarian agatewares had fallen out of fashion?

Objects in museum collections have been examined by thousands of people. The layered interpretations imposed upon objects by users, collectors, and researchers, can obscure the contexts of their manufacture. Taking cues from the recent emphasis upon 'making and knowing' in design history research, I investigated the relationship between artisanal innovation and the consumption of 'finished' agatewares. Commerciality was integral to eighteenth-century production, and production ceased when consumers lost interest; agateware objects were therefore part of a reciprocal and self-perpetuating cycle. However, agateware pieces enjoy an ongoing 'afterlife' as collectibles. Considering agatewares diachronically, as creations and possessions with evolving functions and values, allows us to unpick the symbiotic 'knowledges' inherent in surviving objects.

Researching the making process of agateware objects, brought to life by human hands almost three centuries ago, raises important questions regarding the accessibility of the past. The British pottery industry was insular and secretive, and much of the ephemera surrounding production has not survived. I therefore experimented with making a modern iteration of agateware, under the direction of a contemporary studio potter (see image below). This was not an attempt at reconstruction; rather, experiencing the mutability of clay first-hand enabled me to form unexpected connections between making and knowing.

A curved rectangular plate made from variegated black, brown, and white clays
Underside of an agateware plate, produced by the author in May 2023, under the guidance of a contemporary studio potter.


V&A/RCA MA History of Design Dissertation