Before presenting this month’s section on the English Potteries, let me apologize for an impropriety in the all-important word that defines this particular section. Please forgive me for the incorrect location of the apostrophe in the word POTT’RIES. The little mark belongs after the double Ts, not between. It seems some of my attempts to Anglicize my writing are quite feeble. A British friend apprised me of this disgraceful error while I was preparing the manuscript of my first book. In my hurried efforts to correct the blunder, I missed a file or two; the last offering was, unfortunately, from one of those files.
‘My humble apologies,
The Pott’ries − July 2008
The English transferware industry was enormous and its significance was felt around the globe. Without noting the very earliest beginnings of the trade, however, we neglect a major part of the story. Although it quite probably belongs before the May offering, this entry from Collecting English Pink fills in some of the most important historical details of that behemoth giant.
English history is replete with events of great historical significance but, without doubt, one of the most interesting chapters involved the chartering of the East India Trading Company in 1600 for conducting business in the East Indies. This company is largely responsible for the introduction of porcelain to the English.
Smuggling was a way of life for the officers of the East India Company’s fleet and, for decades, bits of the Oriental ware quietly found its way to English shores. The English were immediately enamored by the ware. The tempestuous, calculating Queen Bess (1558-1603), in an attempt to control the flow of goods from The Orient, issued a long list of articles that were forbidden for import but she was so enamored with the two pursselyn cups she had received as gifts that she left porcelain off the roll.
By 1631, the firm’s efforts were being rewarded and Chinese porcelain was being exported to England. Nonetheless, East India Company’s smuggling “rapacities became so great that, finally, about the middle of the nineteenth century, the Crown was obliged to step in and take away its charter.” (The Old China Book, N. Hudson Moore, 1903, page 3-4)
The first true porcelain (or hard-paste) was developed in Germany by Johann Fredrich Böettger, an alchemest in the employ of August the Strong, Elector of Saxony. In 1705, because Böettger failed in his attempts to turn lead into gold, Augustus relegated him to the position of ceramic experimenter. Disappointed with the change in his employment, Böettger scrawled these angry words above his workroom door: “Gott, unser Schöpfer hat gemacht aus einem Goldmacher einem Topfer” or “God, our creator, has turned a gold-maker into a potter.”
No doubt, if Böettger had known the enormity of the industry that grew from his early work, he would have felt more kindly about the change. In 1709, after many attempts, he successfully duplicated the Chinese formula for making porcelain using kaolin and feldspar. A year later, the first factory to produce hard-paste porcelain in Europe was established at Meissen. Although the company attempted to keep its formula secret by virtually imprisoning its workers, the formula was widely known in Europe by the end of the 18th century. Apparently, at least one of the workmen escaped, taking the precious information with him.
As the wares of Meissen and other European potteries grew in popularity, the Chinese imports to the continent declined. As if in reverse, some European-made porcelain was shipped to China for decoration, but this too declined as Europeans developed wares, decoration techniques and designs of their own.
Shards of the earliest English pottery show it to be of a mortuary character, found in tombs and including urns, cups, bowls and incense pots. Pieces excavated in old Roman military camp locations (jugs, pitchers, bowls and infant nursers) are glazed on the inside only. In the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Catholic monks made pottery in their abbeys, producing a wide assortment of building tiles, mugs, bowls, jugs, candlesticks and inkwells. One item they fashioned was called tygs, tulip-shaped cups with multiple handles designed for passing among several drinkers.
By the time Henry VIII closed the abbeys in 1539, much of the potter’s art had been taught to laymen helpers who then produced wares for local use and for their own households. Most of the potters were located near Burslem, which later became the center of the Staffordshire potteries. While agriculture was the primary business there, potting was considered – quite simply – part of the job of maintaining a household.
Tin-enameled ware had never established itself in the British Isles. Instead, redware was the primary choice for vessels. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603), stoneware jugs, called bellarmines, superseded homemade vessels for drinking purposes and the English imported them from Germany. Delft ware from the Netherlands, Italian faience, and occasional oriental wares also caught their attention. Since no substitute was yet produced in England, these imported wares were extremely popular with the British citizenry and “brought good prices.” (Moore, 1903, page 2)
English aristocrats of the early 18th century, in a desire to adorn their tables more elaborately, frequently ordered services of Chinese porcelain, decorated in China with the family coat of arms. However, on occasion, Chinese decorators, caught in the language barrier, misunderstood the instructions. “The Blake family found that on every plate their motto, Think and Thank, had been rendered Stink and Stank. Another English client sent an engraving of his arms, writing in the words blue, red and so on. The Chinese laboriously copied out the words, leaving the arms uncoloured.” (Hillier, 1992, page 15)
One potter who enjoyed overwhelming success was Thomas Frye of Bow, or Stratford-le-Bow. In 1744, he and “… Edward Heylin took out a patent for making ware equal to imported china or porcelain.” (Hillier, 1992, page 126) By the end of 1750, Bow porcelain sales were almost ten-thousand pounds, and by December 1754 had risen to eighteen-thousand pounds. Pottery was made at this location for thirty-six years. “… in 1776 Mr. Dewsbury of Derby bought the works and moved them to Derby.” (Hillier, 1992, page 126)
The first soft-paste porcelain made in England was produced at Bow as early as 1730. (Interestingly, Moore refers to early Bow specimens, “made with American clay as early as 1744, being harder than the subsequent productions, which were soft paste.” Moore, 1903, page 128) for an enterprising, talented young Englishman of that time, the porcelain-making industry promised relatively enormous profits. By contrast, the wage for a farm laborer in the mid-eighteenth century was roughly eight pounds a year or about $12.
Bow, not far from the Tower of London, was long ago absorbed into the sprawling city. Over the years, English collectors have garnered and squirreled away any specimens of Bow porcelain. Today, not even a shard of pottery is to be found at the site of the original Bow factory and rarely is a piece found in London antique shops.
Like their European contemporaries, the British potters were stimulated by the accolades bestowed upon the Chinese ware and desperately desired to develop an English counterpart. The earliest English porcelain was soft-paste, with a large portion of powdered glass, and could not compete with the delicate, milk-white, translucent hard-paste porcelain made by the Chinese with petuntse (china stone) and kaolin (china clay). (Hillier, 1992, page 126) With the strenuous experimentation of the 17th and 18th centuries, however, the English did develop a fine, white earthenware.
English whiteware was the first low-fired ware to be made in the West. It was quite thinly potted and had a distinctive salt glaze. In the latter half of the 18th century, Staffordshire ware, as it came to be known, was further developed into cream-colored earthenware of a finer quality than any previously known. English factories that had originally made soft-paste porcelain began to experiment with hard-paste ware, eventually formulating their own product. It was fired differently from continental porcelain and contained animal bone, which made it whiter and more translucent. As an additional advantage, the ware could be produced in large quantities quite inexpensively.
The English were also responsible for the development of transfer printing, perhaps the greatest innovation ever made in decoration technique. This process permitted the application of a printed decoration, eliminating the necessity of painting each piece by hand. By expanding the range of pieces available, Staffordshire potters became the first to offer, on a large scale, what we know today as full sets of dinnerware. Readily available, moderately priced dinnerware eventually transformed the daily life of the common folk. England had begun its domination of the tableware industry.
In subsequent months: More about Staffordshire − and more photographs!
This hand colored print, entitled “Itinerant Dealers in Staffordshire Ware,” was originally published in Eccentric Excursions in England by George Woodward in 1797. The engraving, from which the print was made, was done by Isaac Cruickshank, father of the famous George Cruickshank. The tea set in the bottom left front is, unfortunately, the only Staffordshire ware in the print. (From the Friends of Blue website, www.fob.org.uk)