Oxford pottery queen Emma Bridgewater’s creations may be bright and breezy, but there’s a lot of heartache behind her success. She tells Jaine Blackman about her mother’s tragic accident and how stress took its toll on her health

She has made her ceramics business into a household name, her cosy, comfortable plate, cup and bowl designs gracing tables, dressers and sideboards both at home and abroad.

While Emma Bridgewater, 53, may appear to have breezed along creating her eponymous lifestyle brand for the middle classes, having four children while her business grew and working closely with her husband Matthew Rice, in reality, life hasn’t always been as rosy for the pottery queen as her cheerful ceramics might suggest.

The daughter of a publisher, Emma had a privileged childhood growing up in north Oxford with her siblings, enjoying languorous sunny afternoons and enormous picnics which seemed to last all day. Her mother and father had three children before divorcing when Emma was a toddler. They both remarried and had five more children between them.

But life was to change irreversibly when her mother, Charlotte, on whom she doted and who inspired her ceramics business, suffered a horrific riding accident in 1991, which left her with permanent brain injuries at the age of 52.

She spent nearly three months in a coma and returned home in body but not in mind. For two years, the family looked after her, but she needed professional care and ended up in several nursing homes.

“The pain of losing her is still raw, and it often springs out to ambush me from something of hers: a song, a scarf or a plate can detonate a landmine, any day,” she writes in her new autobiography Toast & Marmalade And Other Stories.

“It was an appalling, difficult drama and we had to pull together as a family, which is hard to do as you struggle with great tragedy, but we did and we do. It’s made us all very close,” she explains.

At the time, Emma had two small children and, while she did all her crying in the car on the way to business meetings or the factory, she says her mindset was to put the terrible pain somewhere useful. She often asks herself whether her business would have done as well had her mother not had the accident.

“Grief and all the things that go with tragedy, the anger and the feeling of unfairness, can be very constructive and can be a great driver and force for energy because, in some way, you’re trying to put it right. Now, though, I feel I’m leading a much nicer life, one that’s more recognisably like my mum’s.

“When she died in December [last year] I felt a huge, blissful sense of relief for her and for all of us, and I suddenly felt 22 years younger,” Emma reveals. “All the sad years just blew away at her funeral and she just came rushing back.

“She was in limbo for a very long time. It was as if she had Alzheimer’s for 22 years, but it’s like it came on catastrophically suddenly when she was the age that I am now, and then didn’t kill her for 22 years.”

The autobiography charts not only her early life in Oxford but also the huge influence her mother had on the whole family. Indeed it was her mother’s dresser, full of mismatched mugs, cups and plates which went comfortably together, which inspired Emma’s easy-going designs when she set up the business almost 30 years ago.

“The image of mum’s dresser turns out to be quite resonant and quite a useful metaphor. It says the whole thing. It’s a jumble of things that sit well together.

“I grew up in a house full of comings and goings. I then spent a lot of time at university and at my cousin’s house in Chelsea, same thing, you never knew who you’d find there at night. I love that, and the feeling of making a lovely day out of whatever there is. Mum was good at that.

“She was a very wonderful presence. She was a remarkable person. Our parents influence us so much more than we want to believe. As you get older you realise, with a wry smile, that you’re turning into your parent.”

When the accident happened, at first the family hoped she’d recover.

“We were initially wrapped up in the day-to-day emergency of it, but to onlookers it was apparent that the outlook was poor. We did two years of maximising her chances. In the end, my stepfather said, ‘Whatever recovery she can make, we are all going to pay too high a price’.”

Charlotte could not speak but she was not totally oblivious to her situation. “There were times when she had some kind of self-knowledge,” Emma reflects. “The thing is, you can’t grieve for someone who’s not dead. You have to hold their memory very energetically. I couldn’t bear for anyone to forget her.”

She says she has managed to run a business and bring up four children with a lot of concessions, an extremely supportive husband and a wonderful wider family, including fantastic in-laws.

“The business would have grown faster if I hadn’t had children, and the children would have probably fared better if I hadn’t had a business. I conceded on both sides of the deal. I run a slightly more squalid house than I would ideally do. There isn’t much ironing achieved. You just have to compromise.

“It has been thrilling, but real life has sun and shade in it. I have a strong feeling that if you pretend there’s no shade, there’s no dark, you do a disservice to the sisterhood. The most common feeling, if you polled lots of women, is guilt, the feeling that you’re shortchanging your team when you’re at home and you’re shortchanging your kids when you’re at work.”

The stress of running a business also affected her own health, she believes, in that she suffered rheumatoid arthritis in her 40s.

“It creeps up on you. You don’t know how far you’re pushing yourself psychologically and physically until something gives. I believe stress plays a frightening role in modern life. The classic things that happen to people are strokes, heart attacks and cancer. I feel lucky that the form it found in me is arthritis, which runs in my family.

“I’d had nausea, dizziness and disorientation for some time in my mid-40s. The treatment is unpleasant. You have to take drugs which make you feel sick.”

Despite the medication, she continued to feel ill until she reduced her workload and eliminated the stress in her life, handing over the running of the business to Matthew.

“Miraculously, the treatment worked and within two years it had gone into remission. It was a wake-up call with a very good outcome.”

But she’s still very hands-on and together, Emma and her husband still do all the designs, including her two favourites, Toast & Marmalade and Oranges & Lemons. She also has a new collection with Sanderson and a range of toiletries in Marks & Spencer.

Yet it seems she is pacing herself better these days; it’s her mother’s influence which has helped her do that, she says.

“She was a very peaceful person to be around. One did quite a lot of lying around on the lawn trying to persuade someone else to go and make another tray of tea, and a bit more lying on sofas and picnics that lasted all day,” Emma, who has returned to north Oxford to live, recalls.

“I know I have to really remind myself to do that, because work life had me by the throat.”

Toast & Marmalade And Other Stories by Emma Bridgewater is published by Saltyard Books, priced £25