Two men laid the foundations of Wemyss’ success – Robert Methven Heron (1833-1906) and Karel Nekola (1857-1915). Heron came from a long line of potters in Kirkcaldy, Fife, made frequent trips to Paris and was said to be ‘well known’ in London society. Robert Heron secured the exclusive English sales of Wemyss ware to London china retailer Thomas Goode and it was also Heron who took the rather unusual step of inviting Bohemian artists to Fife in 1880 to decorate pottery.
The Bohemians, not speaking the language, did not take to life in Fife and soon returned to their homeland, except Karel Nekola, who spoke a little English and fell in love with Robert Heron’s cook and stayed on.
Nekola’s role in the development of Wemyss was crucial. He was a great lover of nature and his passion for the outdoors informed his work, which is cherished for its vibrancy – his roses are unsurpassed. Nekola trained other local people, keeping the Wemyss tradition alive after his death in 1915.
Karel Nekola was followed by Edwin Sandland, a gifted artist from the Staffordshire potteries. Sandland had left the potteries in 1915 to join the army pay corps. Invalided out in 1916, he found his way to Fife pottery, and worked there until his death in 1928. Sandland continued the tradition of painting, but also introduced other styles such as the rare black ground wares which can fetch in excess of £2,000 today.
Following Sandland’s death, the decorating was headed up by Joe Nekola, Karel’s son. He had left the business many years before to become a carriage painter, but returned to work at the pottery. This period was very much the end of Wemyss’ Fifeshire operation. Although the Victorians and Edwardians had loved Wemyss, it has fallen out of favour with modern buyers and the pottery closed in 1930.
Frustrated at the pottery’s closure so soon after his return to the business, Joe Nekola painted up a sample plate and sent it off to a number of potteries, hoping to find a new home for Wemyss. The Bovey Tracey pottery in Devon bought the moulds and trademark and offered Joe a job, ensuring that Wemyss continued to be made until 1957. Joe died in 1952, but Wemyss was still decorated by his apprentice, Esther Weeks. Esther passed on the secrets of the techniques to the Griselda Hill pottery, which began to make its modern Wemyss ware in 1985.
Fife Wemyss ware is much more valuable than its later Devon-made pieces. It is relatively simple to tell which is which; Fife Wemyss has a body that is almost cream in comparison to the bright white wares produced in Bovey Tracey. The Scottish pieces also featured a soft glaze, which is prone to chipping or cracks and crazing, which collectors expect to see. The slip casting process was used at Bovey Tracey, but the Devon glaze is more ‘glassy’ and the wares weigh less than their Scottish equivalents. During the Bovey Tracey period, much Wemyss was sold via Jan Plichta, a London-based retailer. Anything marked Plichta is post 1930s.
Despite the very high prices for the scarcest pieces, Wemyss is still affordable. Smaller items such a plates, jam pots, cups and saucers tend to be priced around £100-£150. You will pay less for pieces that have been restored or less popular designs, such as apples. You will pay more for the popular ‘Cabbage Rose’ design. A later Plichta period example would be well under £100, but prices are rising.
A large vase in a good shape, such as a frill-edged Grosvenor vase, won’t be worth much less than £1,000. Dog (as apposed to cabbage) roses always add value and, generally, the rarer the flower the higher the price. Look out for gorse and white heather, they are extremely rare.