The Bentham Pottery Brexit Mug
If Bentham Pottery ceased production tomorrow, then the one pot that we would probably be remembered for is our “Brexit Mug”.
The Brexit Mug was a response to my frustration at how the Brexit negotiations were going in November 2019. I’d like to say that I’d spent weeks designing the concept of it, but the truth of the matter is I thought of the idea in bed the night before and the next day, whilst Kathy went down to the house to make a brew, I took one of the blank mugs we were making and literally carved the letters out in graffiti font style. The joke being that the mug would not hold liquid. A commemorative mug that does not work, in one sense. an anti-commemorative mug.
When Kathy came back from making a brew, I showed it to her. It took her a while to realise that the letters were created by carving holes into the pot, so she didn’t get the joke at first. I asked her if I should put a photo of it on the Bentham Pottery facebook page. Kathy thought it might cause offence. I put it on anyway, with a joke caption of “Limited edition commemorative Brexit mugs available from 29th March 2019”. March 29th was the original date we were meant to be leaving the E.U.
I had no expectations from this post, other than receiving a few sarcastic comments from my mates. Over the next 24 hours the post went viral.
I’m not really sure when I first realised that the photo of the Brexit Mug had gone viral. I’d certainly noticed by the end of that day that I was getting a lot more Facebook likes and comments than for my usual posts. It was only really the next morning when I started getting phone calls from various national and local newspapers as well as pro-remain groups, art galleries and museums that I came to the conclusion that I’d obviously hit a nerve.
Somebody posted the Brexit Mug onto twitter, where it again went viral. I remember saying to my wife Jenny, “All I need now is the Victoria and Albert Museum to ask about buying one”. Literally 10 minutes after saying this I got an email from the Victoria and Albert Museum, wanting to buy a Brexit mug for a forthcoming exhibition. Jenny texted a photo of it to my brother in law, who was sat watching the news. He looked at the photo of the Brexit mug on his phone and then looked at the T.V only to see the same photo on the T.V. He was just wondering how he’d managed to transfer the image from his phone to the T.V., when he realised that the Brexit Mug was actually currently being featured on the BBC News.
For some reason Germany was fascinated with the concept of the Brexit Mug. I was interviewed by a number of German newspapers and I was interviewed on live TV by a prominent German TV station. Radio Los Angeles interviewed me live one evening when I was attempting to make a large pan of risotto for the family. Radio Lancashire turned up at the pottery and interviewed me whilst I was teaching people on a pottery course.
We started getting a steady stream of “Brexit Mug tourists” turning up at the pottery, wanting selfies of them, me and a Brexit Mug. Some of these Brexit Mug tourists went on to buy pots from the shop. My webs stats went through the roof.
I was getting literally hundreds of emails and Facebook messages from people wanting to buy a Brexit Mug. I was really overwhelmed by the whole experience and didn’t really know how I should proceed with the matter. I wasn’t used to my pots provoking such a response. Usually people come into the pottery, occasionally they might say how nice my pots are and buy something or alternatively they might wander round the shop for ages say nothing, buy nothing and exit the shop. That is about as much feedback I was used to.
The problem was that the Brexit Mug was not an easy mug to make in any quantity, as ‘Brexit’ was carved out carefully using a surgical scalpel. After carving, each letter needed careful sponging and filing to remove hard edges. The whole process of making a Brexit mug was time consuming, so there was no way that I was going to be able to make thousands of them for say £10.00 per mug, nor indeed did I want to. In the ceramic world, carving holes into pots is known as “devils work”, due to its tedious nature and also the fact that a fragment of the design you are carving can easily be erased with a careless knife stroke.
After much thought I decided to make a limited edition run of Brexit mugs and charge a high price for them. Initially I thought I’d make a maximum of 60, but changed my mind to a maximum of 100, due to the increasing amount of enquiries I was getting. I decided I would charge £80 for the mugs with £10 from each mug going to the Motor Neurone Disease charity. Jenny (my wife) helped me set up a Brexit mug page on the Bentham Pottery website, with a link to a Brexit mug purchase page. We announced the sale of Brexit mugs on the Bentham Pottery Facebook page, pressed the “publish” button and waited with baited breath to see if anybody was prepared to purchase one for £80. We didn’t have to wait long; the first orders came within a couple of minutes. 6 hours later, our order book was full, with a healthy waiting list, in case anybody failed to pay. It was now simply a case of making them and posting them all out.
The making of the Brexit mugs occurred in January 2019 and proved to be just as tedious as predicted. By the time I got to Brexit mug 100 I had managed to get the cutting out of Brexit down to 15 minutes a piece.
All Brexit mugs were dispatched as promised before 29th March (the original date we were meant to be leaving the E.U.).
I had a few enquiries from other potters asking me if they could make some Brexit mugs themselves and give me a percentage of their sales. I agreed to this, but I wasn’t interested in a percentage of their sales, so I simply asked them to donate 10 percent of their sales to the Motor Neurone charity. The following potters all made Brexit mugs and donated to the charity: Mary Chappelhow, Julia Warin and Donnas Peterson. Between the four of us, our Brexit mugs raised over £1500 for the charity.
Over the next 6 months the Brexit mug appeared in a number of prominent exhibitions:
- The Victoria and Albert museums’ “FOOD: Bigger than the Plate” (18 May 2019 to 20 October 2019),
- Compton Verneys’ “A Tea Journey: From the Mountains to the Table” (6 July – 22 September 2019),
- 35Blumens’ (near Dusseldorf) “Brexit – Exhibition” (5th April to 29th April 2019)
- St Paul Gallerys’(Minneapolis) “Traces” exhibition (March 3rd to June 23rd )
It made an appearance on the BBC’s Dateline London programme (5th October 20-19) when a reknowned German journalist, Thomas Kielinger, brought a Brexit mug into the studio as a prop to illustrate the unworkable state of Brexit. It appeared on Germany’s foremost TV Channel ARD (30th October 2019), when the presenter Annette Dittert poured a teapot into a Brexit mug to demonstrate the futility of the mug/Brexit.
The Brexit mug owes everything to social media. If I’d had the idea before Facebook then it wouldn’t have had the audience to go viral, indeed it may not even have been fired. Of course a post doesn’t just go viral by itself, it has to capture people’s interest in some way and on a mass scale. I feel the success of the mug was due to its simplicity and the fact that it represented an unworkable concept in a unique way. I think the timing also helped, as I unintentionally uploaded it to Facebook on the same day that UK and EU negotiators came up with a draft Brexit agreement. I feel that there is also something inherently British about humour with references to tea related subjects/objects.
I could have very easily not made the Brexit mug. I have had plenty of ideas for new pots over the years, which have simply remained ideas and have eventually been forgotten about. If the Brexit mug taught me anything then it is if you have an idea, then occasionally it’s worth acting upon it, as you never know where it will lead you to.
The original Facebook post went to 19 thousand shares
Here are a few of my favourite responses from the post:
“sign me up. whatever you charge it will be a better deal than the thing its commemorating”
“can you do a Jacob Rees-Mug?”
“I’d like to buy one for my uncle. He can make himself a nice cup of British tea every morning. Woe betide anyone who points out he has wet trousers.”
“It’s an interesting idea…but I just don’t think it’ll hold water”
“Well done for figuratively representing an unworkable concept so perfectly!”
” I think that to be truly authentically brexit, buyers should pay now, then wait an unspecified amount of time for ‘brexit’ to be delivered, and with no idea of what quality it would be. I’d be happy to be on the list!”
“I think what you’ve done is brilliant. It ranks alongside Duchamps urinal in subversiveness!”
Here are some other sites that have done a feature on it:
De Zeen – modern architecture magazine