The Decorators


Part of Art Walk Project’s Land Mark programme, this residency was based on the former site of the Buchan & Co Thistle potteries in Portobello, Edinburgh. It focused on a group of women who worked as decorators for the potteries in the late 1960s. Mostly in their teens, the women painted thistles, among other motifs, in workshops near the present-day site of the kilns. Each decorator had her own mark that she would put on the bottom of any pottery she decorated. In 1972, Buchan & Co closed the Portobello site and moved to Crieff. Some of the women ceased to be decorators at around this point, either through redundancy or moving onto to married life. The kilns are now the only physical traces of the pottery on the site: the history and work of the decorators is not visible.

Consequently The Decorators attempted to make visible this social and gendered history through the final artworks on location. By paying attention to voice, photograph, painted pot and the mark on its base, the residency produced a series of events and site-specific artworks that conveyed the significance of stories of the decorators, and how in their own subtle way, they continue to leave their mark on the Portobello landscape.

The Decorators, 2019-2021: List of Works and Events

Show & Tell, Portobello Library, Thursday 19th September 2019

Artist Introductory Walk/Visit, Portobello kilns, Pipe Street and Bridge Street area
Saturday 16th November 2019

The Decorators, Portobello Kilns and Bridge Street, Saturday 29th February & Sunday 1st March, Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March 2020. With the following site-specific photographic and sound works:

Outdoor photo-banner, 453cm (W), 242.5cm (H) door area 269.5 (H), Bridge Street
Production: Eastern Exhibition & Display

Outdoor Poster, 246cm (H) 178cm (W), Bridge Street
Production: Eastern Exhibition & Display. Artwork by Rosy Naylor

Outdoor mesh wraparound banner around Kiln 1906, 386 metres.
Production: Printvision. Artwork by Rosy Naylor

Sound work: three voices, three portable bluetooth speakers installed inside Kiln 1909

The Decorators’ Tea Party, The Wash House Community Centre
Saturday 29th February 2020

Artist Walk/Talk, Portobello kilns, Pipe Street and Bridge Street area
Saturday 7th March 2020

Legacy, Solo show, Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow
27th April – 6th June 2021
Featuring The Decorators 2 metre display case of photographs and Buchan memorabilia Production: Eastern Exhibition & Display

Assemble, Group Exhibition, Art Walk Projects Hub, Portobello
2nd-12th September 2021

Photographs (various sizes), Buchan pottery, memorabilia and Decorators’ statements
2 metre display case and 1 upright cabinet display case, with 4 upright cabinets in British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Salvation Army, and St Columba’s Hospice charity shops
Production: Eastern Exhibition & Display

Community Mapping Workshop with the artist and AOC Archaeology Group
4th September 2021

Artist Walk/Talk with Mairi Fortuna, Art Walk Projects Hub and Portobello High Street
5th September 2021

Book Publication: The Decorators of Portobello: In their own words Launch, 8th October 2021

The Decorators: Inside the Kiln with the voice of Mairi Fortuna from Nicky Bird on Vimeo.

The Decorators: Interview extracts, 2019

Mairi Fortuna, Decorator from 1967-1971, 12 minutes, 36 seconds
“…at the time I didn’t know, when I left the Pottery, that no other job would ever be the same…”

Irene Macintosh, Decorator from 1968-1972, 13 minutes, 18 seconds
“…now, if I close my eyes I can still do it. So, I’ve never forgotten how to actually paint the thistles on the pots…”

Barbara Naughton, Decorator from 1966-1968 and 1969-1972, 13 minutes, 50 seconds
“I do remember, I did work very fast. I was a minimalist, really! So, the least amount of brush work, and so on, the better.”

The Decorators: Interview extracts, 2021

Irene Forbes, Head Decorator from 1953-1972,
in The Decorators of Portobello: In their own words pp.35-45.
“You had wee strokes and it was important you got these right.”

Pat Banyard, Decorator from 1958-1965, in The Decorators of Portobello: In their own words pp.47-53.
“When I went for the interview I was sat down by Irene Forbes to paint a thistle. And that was that.”

Related Resources

Porty Podcast The Decorators – Art Walk Porty Residence, November 2019
Porty Podcast The Decorators – Part 2, 29 February 2020
Artist Interview with Genevieve Fay, February 2020
‘The Decorators of Portobello’ residency with Nicky Bird, a-n The Artists Information Company, February 2020
The Afternoon Show, BBC Scotland, 5 March 2020

From the Gallery: Nicky Bird Walk & Talk Tour, 22 April 2021 Legacy, Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, 27th April – 6th June 2021

The Decorators: Voice of Irene Macintosh & walk around a wraparound banner from Nicky Bird on Vimeo.

TOP IMAGE: The Decorators, Nicky Bird with Mairi Fortuna, late 1960s/2020