The place-name Harwell has two different interpretations but Harwell as a surname did not appear until the thirteenth century. As Harwell is an uncommon surname it was interesting to discover a potter named John Harwell whose work has become important in ceramic history. Although John Harwell has no known link with Harwell or the Harwell Americans who have been traced back to thirteenth century village families, more research may reveal one.
A mug known as the Harwell Mug is now on show in the renovated ceramic gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Its existence as far as Harwellians are concerned, surprisingly, only came to light as a result of an interest in pottery and not as a result of researches into the surname Harwell. The Museum’s interest in the mug is that it is a documentary piece of Bristol stoneware and perhaps the finest piece of eighteenth century brown stoneware in existence.
Brown salt-glazed stoneware was in common use in the eighteenth century and many tankards were made. The freckled brown Harwell Mug is a large commemorative tankard 25cm in height; it gets its name from that of the potter John Harwell whose signature is incised on the base. The mug was made for the parliamentary election campaign in Bristol of Edward Southwell and bears the date 1739 and the slogan “Southwell for Ever”. It is the first time a political slogan is known to have appeared on a piece of English stoneware although examples of Bristol delftware with the same slogan also survive. The decoration around the mug is of a complete hare-hunting scene and the workmanship is excellent. The Harwell Mug and others only signed with J.H. have been an important link in identifying wares made at Bristol and which until a few years ago were thought to have been made at Fulham.
John Harwell worked at the Redcliffe Back Pottery of Thomas and William Frank in Bristol, where as an apprentice he made the mug. His latest dated piece was made in 1766, by which time he was involved with an earthenware retailing business, but it seems likely that his son carried on the tradition of making these giant mugs and decorating them in relief with trees, hunting figures, birds and a sun in the 1770s and 1780s. More details can be found in “English Brown Stoneware 1670 – 1900” by Adrian Oswald, R. J. C. Hildyard and R. G. Hughes. Dr R. Hildyard, Keeper of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, provided the above information and the photograph of the mug.