The 50th anniversary of the founding of the Troika Pottery in St Ives has inspired a new book and exhibition which has shone the spotlight on this collecting field.
Troika 63-83 was launched
earlier this year at the Penlee House Gallery & Museum in Penzance,
their first exhibition of Troika in 20 years.
The show, running until March 3, was opened
by Benny Sirota, one of the three founders of the pottery, and the
launch was attended by a number of former Troika employees.
Meanwhile, a new book on the subject has
been published to co-incide with the exhibition. Written by
Lawrence Illsley, a writer and musician who is the son of another
of the pottery's founders Leslie Illsley, and Troika collector Ben
Harris, it is also entitledTroika 63-83.
Through the 16 chapters they discuss the
unconventional production ideas which came out of the pottery in St
Ives and then Newlyn from 1970 - slurry from the local tin mines,
household emulsion paint and melted broken glass. After
experimentation these produced some extraordinary mould-cast
sculptural pieces - tin-glazed wares influenced by Brancusi and
Klee, the Cycladic masks with Aztec-style decoration and the
heavily-textured monolithic wares that became their
Above: an illustration from the 'Troika
63-83' book, showing two decorators working on the
Born in 1981, Lawrence Illsley was just two
years old when the Troika pottery in Cornwall closed after 20
tumultuous years. For him, publishing the new book has been
something of a rite of passage.
During the writing of it he learned a great
deal about the pottery started in St Ives by his father Leslie
Illsley, Benny Sirota and Jan Thompson as they all looked for a new
life in the heady artistic surroundings of the Cornish village
(Bernard Leach was up the road, Barbara Hepworth round the
Lawrence said: "The best thing about it was
meeting all the people who actually knew and in many cases
respected my father. It was great that people felt they could be
honest with us and speak truthfully about the past, good and
There have been two books on Troika, both
out of print, with the first by Carol Cashmore, published in 1994,
now fetching £120 upwards from out-of-print book specialists. But
this is the first to get inside the story, pulling out the detail
and talking to 17 former employees: the casters, fettlers and
decorators, with their memories forming the basis of this book.
As is well known, the trio, including
sleeping partner Swedish architect Jan Thompson, called their
pottery Troika - from Benny's grandfather who escaped from Russia
dressed as a woman travelling in a troika, a sledge drawn by three
horses. The name appealed too because of the angular forms they had
in mind for production.
Benny had an interest in pottery but was the
business head of the enterprise, with Leslie the radical and
sometimes troubled artist and sculptor.
Right from the beginning the trio had sold
to Heals, bouncing up to London in an old van with their designer
pots. These found a ready market with young professionals who
wanted to dress their homes with a bit of quality and Heals also
organised Troika exhibitions in-store and in Sweden.
They continued to supply Heals right through
the boom years of the '70s until 1981. It was then all but over for
Troika. The book moves inexorably towards the break-up of Benny and
Leslie's partnership, described here by Julian Greenwood-Penny, a
Troika employee: "Benny was the piece of sand in the oyster that
creates the pearl. He was the irritation that got Leslie off his
bum. Creativity requires an outlet and Benny was always able to
find one. He kept an eye on the wild impulses of his own and
Leslie's creations in order to make them palatable to the
The last two chapters look at the external
and internal factors leading to Troika's demise, when the market
was crushed by new, cheap products.
In the early '80s, the predominant factor
was price, not quality. "In this light, it is a wonder that Troika
survived as long as it did, finally closing in 1983. Troika was not
only out of style but out of luck," write Harris and Illsley.
The decline was swift with the Newlyn
pottery sold for £21,000 and turned into flats and Leslie, who died
in 1989, putting many of the Troika pieces into a skip, including
rarities and prototypes.
But the secondary market for this most
sculptural of pottery has sparked a renaissance - as Benny, now
living in Kent and studying art history, said recently: "It's 50
years since the creation of Troika. I never dreamed, and I'm sure
Leslie wouldn't have dreamed either, that it would have had such a
long-lasting effect. I only wish Leslie could have been here to see
With a timeline and four pages of artists
monograms plus 26pp of colour illustrations and some grainy black
and white pics (unfortunately printed on rather poor quality
paper), Troika 63-83 is published at £25pb. For a
copy contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Longthorne of the Market House Gallery
in Marazion, Penzance, has been a collector of Troika for 12 years
and a dealer for 15, trading in the pottery from his gallery for
five years and often with some 80 or 90 pieces in stock.
He said: "Over these years there have been
peaks and troughs as in many other collecting areas with the
strongest designs and colours fetching the highest
"An anvil vase in a plain brown glaze with
average design definition might fetch £650 but a striking cobalt
blue with tinglazed highlights and strong pattern to both sides
could fetch up to £850.
"Popularity of colours tends to be blues,
greens and then browns for the textured ware ranges. Particularly
rare Troika pieces include whiteware and blackware at £800-2500,
masks £600-1200, Celtic crosses £400-600, 14in (35cm) wheel vases
£800-1000 and tin mine lampbases £400-£600."
Back around 2004, Mr Longthorne negotiated
the £3500 private sale of one of the white glazed sculptural wares
that featured in Troika's first exhibition at Heals in 1968.
He collects this rare white/blackware,
saying: "Although very difficult to find these days, I feel that
these pieces in particular represent Troika at its purest with most
designs being cutting edge for the '60s and many were difficult and
time consuming to make; many years ahead of their time.
"Many such items would not look out of place
on the shelves of current design stores including Ikea."
Mr Longthorne suggests that new collectors
could do well to collect a strong and varied collection of both
sizes, designs and colours, adding that "the small pieces are
always popular irrespective of the general highs and lows in the
market at any point in time and subsequently prices are always
He also said the fake market in Troika is thankfully small and
most pieces are easily detectable.