Troika Pottery Buyer’s Guide: The Artistry of British Ceramics

Troika Pottery: Troika Pottery collection, circa 1970. Troika Pottery collection, circa 1970. Sold for £550 GBP via Chiswick Auctions (April 2018).

Although it only fired up its kilns for just over two decades, the legacy and influence of the Troika Pottery has extended far beyond. Mavericks of their time with design ideas and ways of manufacturing that were both inspired and experimental, the pottery’s trio of founders prioritized the creation of art over the practicality of a pottery piece. Even with this in mind, the pottery’s unique double egg cup ceramics, homeware and tiles became some of its greatest successes.

Troika Pottery: Origins and Influences

Troika Pottery: Troika Pottery pillar vase.

Troika Pottery pillar vase. Sold for £1,400 GBP via Bearne’s (July 2006).

Troika was born into a time of artistic flourish within the southwest, fresh off the back of the St Ives School – a British postwar art movement taking root in the small, coastal town. A beacon for abstract artists, the scene had been set for creative innovation on a different level, with new approaches and ideas coming to the fore.

The pottery scene in St Ives was no exception. The modernist movement, marrying abstraction and experimentalism, was certainly an influence on even the more traditionally-oriented ceramics makers. The world-renowned Leach Pottery, founded by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, had been forging its way since 1920, producing pieces influenced by Leach’s time in Japan as well as traditional British craft techniques.

Pitching in together to come up with the £3,000 required to buy the Wells Pottery in St Ives, Benny Sirota, Lesley Illsley, and Jan Thompson assembled as a ceramics team in 1963. Sirota was a potter, Illsley a sculptor, and Thompson an architect. Their aim was to develop a ceramics line that eschewed tradition, with a way of working that differed from the studio pottery movement that surrounded them. They settled on a name of Russian origin, ‘troika’, which describes a chariot pulled by three horses – signifying an equal partnership.

Cornish Heritage

Cornwall’s treasure trove of minerals and concentration of skilled artists made it an attractive place for ceramics production throughout the 20th century. The area is home to large amounts of China clay, which can be fashioned into fine white porcelain.

Based at the end of St Ives Quay, and armed with a smaller kiln than most, the trio started their venture by producing tiles and small bottles, but eventually bought a larger kiln and began to make the angular pieces for which they became known. Critics within the local pottery community predicted a swift departure from the scene for Troika, branding their pieces as too abstract and incongruous to provide any sort of function. Not fitting the mold was to benefit Troika in the end – come 1968, their pieces were being sold by prestigious London stores, including Liberty and Heal’s.

Understanding Troika Pottery

In Troika’s beginnings, the rough met the smooth in a way that propelled the pottery down an artistic pathway to success. The studio garnered attention for two very different styles: a line with a smooth, glazed finish and a textured, more sculptural range of ceramics, both reminiscent of the Cornish landscape. Patterns were often abstract, featuring geometric shapes in bold colors and many pieces were influenced by Cubism in their form and design.

Artistic Techniques

Troika Pottery: Pair of Troika Pottery wall pockets.

Pair of Troika Pottery wall pockets. Sold for £550 GBP via Sworders (May 2021).

Troika’s approach to design was as eclectic as it was effective. Their textured pieces were produced by pouring liquid clay into molds – known as slip casting. This was combined with carved decoration, which was where Troika really came into its own. The decorators created different patterns within each piece, incising the clay with a variety of tools. They would also hand-build sculptural features, accentuating the pottery line’s angular look. Glazes were often many-layered, in cobalt blue, green, white and ochre, with a mix of matte and glossy finishes.

Troika Pottery: Troika mask sculpture.

Troika mask sculpture. Sold for £2,200 GBP via Gorringes (March 2004)

Evolution of Style: Key Periods in Troika Pottery

The popularity of Troika’s pieces within the London design scene was a real turning point. Following their initial focus on decorative, less practical pieces, such as tiles and plaques, Troika found their niche with uniquely shaped homeware – including the double egg cups snapped up by Heal’s, which proved a great success for both parties. Homeware featuring smooth surfaces and geometric shapes – including cylindrical lamps and vases – were also a hit.

From 1965 onwards, more artists joined the pottery, and its design styles became increasingly elaborate, with sgraffito regularly used as a technique – where after glazing, decorators would scratch into a piece to expose layers of color and create a pattern. The ceramics seemed almost Aztec-inspired, with bold, geometric motifs and vase shapes resembling Cornwall’s ancient standing stones. Some pieces were created purely to be ornamental.

Four Troika Pottery - Cornwall vases.

Four Troika Pottery – Cornwall vases. Sold for £190 GBP via Chiswick Auctions (October 2019).

Outgrowing their St Ives location, in 1970 Troika moved to a larger studio in another Cornish town, Newlyn. Here they remained until 1983, when the pottery closed for good, due to a drop in sales – partly down to Heal’s choosing to no longer stock craft pottery, and also because consumer tastes had shifted. The Newlyn era did bring about some new shapes and pieces now synonymous with the brand – namely the distinctive Cycladic-Aztec mask vases and the ‘coffin’ vase.

Collecting Troika Pottery

Starting off a Troika pottery collection needn’t be tricky. When production ramped up after the move to the larger Newlyn studio, sales increased in turn, so there are plentiful pieces to be had within the collector’s market.

Once you’ve identified the style of piece you’re most drawn to, focus on making sure it’s authentic. Look out for the Troika mark on the base of any piece, along with specific artist initials – researching previously sold pieces on online auction sites, like Invaluable, will help you get a feel for the features of an authentic piece. Whether you’re buying online or in-person, ask for as much documentation as possible, including a certificate of authenticity or original receipts showing purchase details.

Navigating the Market for Troika

The value of a Troika pottery piece is dependent on a number of factors, including rarity and condition. Earlier pieces are harder to come by as production was inevitably on a smaller scale at the St Ives studio, particularly when the team were working with their first kiln. Anything signed by one of the original founders will also add extra value. The Troika Pottery Collectors Club is a valuable resource, as it categorizes and authenticates pieces, as well as looking at their rarity.

After a retrospective exhibition on Troika was held in London in 1994, interest in the ceramics line was reignited, and again with the advent of online purchasing. By 2004, the tribal-inspired mask vases created at the Newlyn studio were in high demand, and began to sell for upwards of £800, culminating in a private collector paying £2,700 for a mask vase at auction in the same year.

Price Guide

Depending on where your penchant for pottery lies, Troika Pottery pieces can vary quite significantly in price. You could certainly pick up a vase originating from the studio’s more prolific period for around $90 – $150, similarly with the double egg cups once sold at Heal’s. A highly stylized mask vase can still command from $600 up into the thousands, as they’re generally viewed as Troika’s signature and most unique creations. Early pieces have a higher price tag – a love plaque decorated by Benny Sirota sold at auction for £1,100 in 2023.