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TROIKA: 63 – 83

Malcolm Hill




“Do you know how the name Troika came about? It’s to do with my grandfather. Perhaps this is mythology, but my grandfather and his wife escaped from Russia, he escaped dressed as a woman on a troika; a sledge with three horses. Then of course there were the three of us and it gelled”. Benny Sirota (ref).

Troika pottery was produced in West Cornwall between 1963 and 1983, founded at Wheal Dream, St Ives in 1963 by potter Benny Sirota, sculptor Leslie Illsley and silent partner, architect Jan Thompson. It achieved success almost immediately, developed its unique style and great appeal, relocated to Newlyn in 1970 and continued to produce there until its eventual demise in 1983.

The superb 50th Anniversary Exhibition held at Penlee House in 2013 displayed examples of the whole, varied output over the twenty year period. The development of the work could therefore be easily surveyed and appreciated; larger works being shown separately and smaller works in groups – which particularly suits Troika.

Troika achieved early critical success when the white, smooth-surface pieces, many of which were decorated sparely with single discs of dark colour, were sold at Heal’s and Liberty’s stores in London.(fig.1 above right). (Heal’s continued to stock Troika until 1981). This served to bring Troika to a large audience quickly and provided a year-round operation, far in excess of the traditional seasonal trade in St Ives. At its peak, Troika was also on sale in New York, Sydney and Stockholm.

However, the range of work that ‘defines’ Troika and is the most easily recognisable are the textured/ sculptural pieces, which were produced continuously between 1967-1983. These are considered by many to be the most successful, both critically and commercially. (fig.2 below left)

The development of this range was born of necessity – as a quote from the painter Bryan Illsley explains: “Moulds wear out very quickly, too quickly to be too much fun or be profitable, so they started scratching in designs onto the pots to disguise the flaws of an old mould. From necessity came design” (ref.).

These pieces were further developed by scoring and incising the surfaces of the moulds and also by adding sand and mine slurry to create texture. But it was the decoration which really shone through to bring these works alive. The decorators were given free rein to choose the colours and motifs to accentuate the forms – a bold move and ultimately an act of trust – Leslie Illsley (fig 3 below right) and Benny Sirota being only interested in creating the form and design of the pieces. The ‘signature’ glaze colours used were primarily cobalt blue, copper green and manganese oxides.

The finished surfaces are strongly reminiscent of the topography of West Penwith, particularly the moors, coastline, ancient standing stones and the relics of Tin mining to be found between St Ives and Penzance. This is an area which has long been a source of much inspiration to many other artists in the St Ives ‘group’. To me, Troika resonates with and encapsulates West Cornwall perfectly.

With a myriad of designs there were a huge and varied number of pieces made, including urns, mugs, cube, wheel and cylinder vases, double base vases and lamp bases as well as individual works such as ‘anvil’ and ‘pillar’ (fig.4 below left) which were always considered as pure sculpture.

Benny Sirota left Troika in 1980 but production continued in Newlyn until the closure in 1983. This was inevitable and was due to a number of factors including increasing financial burdens and also a change in public taste which lead to a decline in orders for craft pottery. A situation which was also experienced by three other established potteries in Newlyn around this time, namely Celtic, Leaper and Tremaen.

It is now widely acknowledged that Troika has taken its rightful place in the ‘art establishment’ and its output can be seen in many public galleries and museums as well as in commercial galleries and also appearing regularly in Antique and Fine Art auctions.

On a personal level my wife and I made our first association with Troika on visits to St Ives from 1979 onwards, at first coming across it by chance and making an instant connection with it. I am pleased to say that we were two of the ‘tourists’ mentioned above who bought the work because ‘they liked it’ – surely the only basis for buying art. We were always gratified on returning home with the work to see how well it ‘stood up and held its own’ against other and more established St Ives art. A view that has now been confirmed by many.

I feel that Benny Sirota should have the last word though, summing up Troika in 2012 by saying: “It’s fifty years since the creation of TROIKA. I never dreamed, and I’m sure Leslie wouldn’t have dreamed either, that it would have had such a long lasting effect. I only wish Leslie could have been here to see it”


I would like to thank Alison Bevan, Katie Herbert, the staff of Penlee House, Ben Harris, Lawrence Illsley and Phil Monckton for their kind assistance with this article.
(ref.) All references from 'Troika 63-83' by Ben Harris and Lawrence Illsley. Published by It’s pronounced ‘Aitch’. © Ben Harris & Lawrence Illsley 2012. Only available from www.troikapedia.co.uk

Troika 63-83 was at Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance, January 19th – March 9th 2013. (below - ex- Troika staff at the exhibition by Phil Monckton)