London’s famous blue ceramic plaques link the people of the past with the buildings of the present. Run by English Heritage, the Blue Plaques program celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
English Heritage is a London-based organization that oversees more than 400 historical buildings, monuments, and heritage sites in the United Kingdom, including such extraordinary sites such as Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall, and an impressive 58 prehistoric sites, 66 castles, 53 Roman sites, 23 historical gardens, 7 palaces, and 3 medieval villages, among others!
One of their longest running and most successful programs is London’s Blue Plaques. English Heritage’s objective is to ensure that places and spaces reveal their historical significance to a contemporary audience. As a visitor, tourist, or resident taking a stroll through the city, you might casually stumble upon one of these deftly created blue ceramic plaques placed throughout the city of London. What are these plaques? Where do they come from? And, what do they mean?
The city of London has more than 900 Blue Plaques commemorating artists, scientists, writers, activists, and politicians. Individuals such as Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Wilde, Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and even rock royalty such as Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon have all been honored with blue ceramic plaques.
The first time I came across a blue plaque I spotted it from a distance. I was surprised and intrigued to find out why such a beautiful ceramic object was embedded onto the face of a building. And to my utter disbelief I learned that I was standing in front of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s old composing studio where he wrote one of his earliest pieces, so the plaque explained, in 1764. This was both an exhilarating and transformative moment for me. Having been an admirer of Mozart since the age of 14, sheltering from the searing heat in Texas at the local university library, listening to Mozart on vinyl, headphones tightly fixed to my ears, in that moment I immediately understood the way that the blue plaques can alter people’s perceptions about a certain place they might walk past blindly, each and every day. After that experience, I began to consistently search for them whenever I was walking in London, keenly anticipating the discovery of another plaque and learning more about the events that took place within this great historical city.
Importance of the Blue Plaques Program
The Blue Plaques’ project mission is to bring history alive around us, to open our eyes to not just the architecture but to also chronicle these outstanding individuals and their achievements. As we stand before a blue plaque, we are offered a unique experience, forming a connection between us and those artists, writers, scientists, athletes, politicians, and actors that we have long admired. With each plaque the project offers a deeper understanding of the rich history of Britain and the opportunity to learn about it while literally standing where that history happened.
The Blue Plaque program had been embedding buildings façade with a touch of history for over 150 years. English Heritage took over administration of the project in 1986. Previously English Heritage attempted to focus on a broader range of British cities and historical spaces but found that many of these areas already had their own programs, so they decided to focus primarily on London, leaving other local councils to create their own unique plaques to honor those who used to live in their towns and boroughs.
So how do you know you are admiring an official Blue Plaque? Well, it helps to know a little about the four organizations that have worked to ensure the continued success of the program throughout its lifetime. The earliest plaques were commissioned by the Society of Arts, which was then handed over to London County Council to care for in 1901 for the next 35 years. In 1965, the Great London Council and English Heritage continued the mission and vision of selecting, producing, and placing the Blue Plaques—they collaborated until 1986, when English Heritage took full control of the scheme. So, if you recognize one of these names or logos on a plaque, you know they have the official stamp of authority!
Blue Plaques continue to honor remarkable individuals today too. In 2016, English Heritage unveiled eight new plaques for Sir Frederick Ashton, Benjamin Baker, Samuel Beckett (one of my favorite writers), Patrick Blackett, Tommy Cooper, Elizabeth David, Dame Margot Fonteyn, and Sir George Grove.
Proposing a Plaque
Interestingly if you are motivated to see a Blue Plaque made and installed to honor a prominent person that you admire and respect, you will be pleased to know that most, if not all, of the Blue Plaques created have come from public suggestions. English Heritage welcomes well-researched and fully documented proposals from the public.
The creation of every single Blue Plaque begins with a public nomination, and the process, from the initial application to the unveiling of a new plaque, takes almost three years. Applications are reviewed three times per year. The panel then researches the submitted application, focusing on the documentation (they recommend you submit as much evidence as possible) that connects the prominent individual and place (the site for the Blue Plaque). If the application is approved, then the creation of a plaque begins, with design, fabrication, and application for permission to install the plaque on the building. After the plaque is installed a public unveiling is organized, which is cause for a celebration.
History of Design and Manufacturing
The design history of the plaques themselves has been a very dynamic one over the years, with the earliest plaques being made out of a variety of different materials—terra cotta, bronze, and marble. In 1897 the plaques were an earthy, deep brown color as other clays and colorants were simply too expensive for such work.
Researching the history of the four organizations that have operated the Blue Plaques program offers a deeper insight into recognizing which organization created which plaque, simply based on the materials, borders, patterns, and font design.
The Society of Arts commissioned Stoke-on-Trent based pottery Minton, Hollins & Co. to produce the very first designs. The company was recognized for high attention to detail in the ceramic tiles they made for The Palace of Westminster, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and numerous other Victorian-era buildings. Their plaques are easily recognized by the prominent border featuring the society’s name integrated into the design.
By 1901, the London County Council had taken over responsibility, and the council continued to work with Minton, Hollins & Co., but wanted to explore something more decorative and stylized, so they developed a wreath border that carried the initials of the L.C.C. on the top of the plaque (see 2). With a change of manufacturer Royal Doulton produced the plaques between 1924 and 1955. The wreath design was used until the Second World War, when in 1938 an unknown student from the Central School of Arts and Crafts revamped the L.C.C. design, creating one that was simpler, cleaner, and bolder, the reimagining was so forward thinking and iconic that to this very day the plaques have barely differed.
From 1965 to 1983 the Great London Council and English Heritage used this modern and daring design to ensure a cohesive look of all future plaques. They worked closely with the legendary Carter’s Tile Co., who took over manufacture of the plaques from 1956 until 1981 to ensure specifications remained consistent for each new plaque, with meticulous attention to detail. The manufacturers were instructed that each plaque was to be 20 inches in diameter and 2 inches thick and the name of English Heritage should be prominently featured at the top of the plaque as well as their logo at the bottom. All spacing and font use was to be considered within the current design specifications.
The Current Plaque Makers
The Current Plaque Makers Since the inception of the Blue Plaques program, all of the plaques had been handmade by large potteries or manufactures, but in 1984, husband-and-wife team Frank and Sue Ashworth took over the crafting of the plaques following these very precise specifications to create all future designs for English Heritage.
Based in Cornwall, Frank and Sue Ashworth are ceramic artists living in a city rich in British studio pottery and ceramic tradition. Very near to the Bernard Leach Pottery and St. Ives, their home is closely attached to British clay history.
For the last 32 years, Frank and Sue have worked together as a team to create each plaque (200+ and counting); from creation of the clay body, to the laying of the raised text, every movement meticulously made with precision and skillful hands.
Your Support and App
English Heritage offers a membership giving you access to all 400 historical sites across England. Bringing history right up to date, if you would like to discover the hidden history of London and want to find one of the city’s 900 Blue Plaques, a lot of footwork can be saved by downloading the free Blue Plaques app from the Apple Store for iPhone or the Google Play Store for Android.
With 150 years of history to explore and an ever-growing roster of celebrated names to search, embrace the opportunity to follow these dots of history around a city that is ever changing but not forgetting its past.
the author Edith Garcia Monnet is an artist, visual critic, and author of the book Ceramics and the Human Figure. Garcia was awarded the 2015–2016 Viola Frey Distinguished Visiting Professorship at the California College of the Arts. She has shown her work throughout the US, Europe, and Mexico. To learn more, visit www.nenadot.com and www.edithgarcia.com.
To view a step-by-step video on how Frank and Sue Ashworth make the blue ceramic plaques visit: www.english-heritage.org.uk.
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Credit: English Heritage. For more information, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk