The Museum's ceramics collections reflect the history of Devon pottery in both the north and south of the county.
In North Devon, pottery has been made in the Barnstaple and Bideford area since at least the 13th century. Here the industry thrived because large quantities of red clay were available locally and the nearby estuaries of the rivers Taw and Torridge enabled a profitable trade by sea. By the 17th century North Devon wares were exported to Wales, Ireland, Northern Europe and the New World. Home markets also flourished as communities demanded a wide range of domestic wares.
Many of the North Devon harvest jugs in museum collections were made as decorative, commemorative objects but a far greater number of plain, functional wares have not survived. These were used for transportation of beer and other drinks to thirsty agricultural workers out in the fields. North Devon harvest jugs, dating from the mid 17th century onwards, are notable for elaborate sgraffito decoration which includes ships, unicorns, birds, flowers, and hunting and harvesting scenes. Many of these jugs were made as gifts or to commemorate events such as marriages, christenings and successful harvests. For Sgraffito (after the Italian "to scratch") sharp tools were used to scratch or carve away the outer coating of pale slip clay to reveal the red body beneath.
The Torquay and South Devon pottery industry was launched in 1869 when a deposit of fine red clay was discovered at Watcombe. Further deposits were soon located and several potteries were established during the closing years of the 19th century. The expansion of the industry was helped by the new railways which brought more visitors along with reliable supplies of coal. During the 1870s and 80s a wide variety of terracotta (unglazed red) wares were made. Decorative wares, which included vases, figures and busts were commonly based upon Greek, Etruscan, Roman or Egyptian originals. In the 1890s and early 1900s as holidaymakers arrived in increasing numbers, mottowares were introduced. These were decorated in coloured slips with Sgraffito motto inscriptions and sold locally and throughout the country. Despite falling demand several South Devon potteries continued production well into the 20th century but this once thriving industry is now virtually extinct.