The Story of English Transferware
The transfer-printing technique, developed in England in the eighteenth century and perfected in the nineteenth, is considered one of the most successful forms of mass production ever. The process permitted the application of a printed decoration, using copper plates and tissue, successfully eliminating hand painting and enabling potters to produce tremendous quantities of ware in little time. By expanding the range of pieces available, the potters of North Staffordshire became the first to offer, on a large scale, full sets of dinnerware. Readily available and moderately priced, transferware magically transformed the daily life of ordinary households, in England and around the world. With this important development, England began its domination of the tableware industry and was destined to become the world’s pottery center. Today, the focus of most transferware collectors everywhere is this charming English pottery, “particularly that made in the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth centuries.” 1
On Tuesday, July 27, 1756, John Sadler and Guy Green, both of Liverpool, issued an affidavit proclaiming that they had “without the aid or assistance of any other person or persons, within the space of six hours, print upwards of 1,200 earthenware tiles of different patterns, which were more in number, and better, and neater than 100 skillful pot painters could have painted in the like space of time in the common and usual way of painting with a pencil.”
Although Sadler and Green diligently worked to retain the details of their invention, the secret quickly leaked and other factories immediately began to print their own wares. Once again, the British moved toward domination of the world’s dinnerware market.
Between 1815 and 1835, transfer prints rose to their greatest heights of creativity and quality. By then, the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 were over and British trade with North America, Europe, India and the east was growing. Even the English home-market was expanding, keeping every pottery hard at work producing transfer-printed tableware in enormous quantities.
English transferware was extremely popular in the United States, a fact that British potters embraced. A number of the major tableware firms produced goods exclusively for the American market. In some cases, specific colors, in particular pink and very dark blue2, were exclusively produced for export to this country. Domestic American potters simply could not produce wares that could compete with the pottery of Mother England.
English manufacturers are historically known for their keen insight into the development of markets worldwide. In the later part of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, English potters established a highly profitable trade in the young American nation by employing a unique appeal theretofore unseen. “They decorated the pottery destined for the new market with faithful views taken from America itself, many of which have been perpetuated in no other manner.”3 The number of American views found on English pottery is enormous, and Americans purchased the wares in immense numbers.
The great demand for the English transferware, coupled with the desire of potters to use, in many cases, a different view4 on every shape piece, kept pattern designers scrambling. It is said: “Enoch Wood & Sons alone used over fifty different patterns for a single dinner service.”5 Relief for the harried industry came from Hampshire clergyman William Gilpin, who toured England around the turn of the nineteenth century. Gilpin wrote and illustrated his way around the country, and the scenery books he published stirred the imagination of the British, leading to a flood of illustrated travel books. Acknowledging Gilpin’s success, artist Thomas Rowlandson emulated the work, publishing three volumes of aquatints. All these illustrations were reproduced as transfer-printed patterns on dinnerware.
Their unprecedented success prompted designers to use more of the scenic views, in turn creating a greater demand for scenic prints. A few of the potteries even sent their own artists to this country to sketch illustrations of important American buildings, monuments, waterways, and even battlefields where American patriots had defeated their British foes. English potters also used illustrations of statesmen, naval heroes and pioneers in their successful attempts to appeal to American buyers. Several series were produced, based on the work of the finest artists of England and Ireland.
The illustrations used on transferware were surrounded by a border pattern, usually floral, many of them featuring small designs inside decorative medallions. While the views often varied – in most cases – all the pieces in a single dinner-service pattern used an identical border. It was a common practice for potters to use a particular border as their trademark, and identifications are often made this way.
Before 1828, cobalt blue had been the color most often produced in volume and, its great popularity has never waned. As early as 1776, it was the mainstay of transfer printing, remaining primary until 1828. Green was the first of the “other” transferware colors, appearing in 1828, followed by black, light blue (1845), brown (1852), flow-blue, mulberry, purple, sepia, yellow and others including English Pink in 1830.
Patterns were often manufactured in two colors, but this process of using more than one transfer was expensive, as each color required its own transfer and firing. In 1848, an advanced technique allowed three colors to be applied in a single transfer with only one firing.
Unfortunately, there was a gradual decline in the quality of the ceramics produced in the years 1815 to 1835. Because of its superlative durability, Victorian buyers found no need to replace the transferware they inherited from previous generations; it remained in excellent condition, creating a need for the potteries to target customers with lower incomes and, ultimately, resulting in standardized wares that could be produced more cheaply than ever before.
The English Copyright Act of 1842 greatly affected production of transferware patterns. The law provided for the registration of patterns and made it illegal to copy a registered design for a period of three years. In addition, at the end of the three-year period, the registration could be renewed, virtually eliminating the almost casual copying of book illustrations. In an attempt to fill the gap, designers hastily created imaginary romantic scenes that were quickly made into new patterns. Despite their lack of true artistry, the quality of the transfer-printed ware remained high; only the design quality decreased. For today’s collectors, the diamond-shaped British Registry Mark or the “Registered Numbers” (Rd. No.), allow us to pinpoint when a pattern, material or shape was registered, an important fact when dating a piece of the ware.
The ever-changing English pottery industry has been traditionally known to re-invent itself whenever necessary. Transferware has always been amazingly durable, giving consumers fewer occasions to need replacement pieces. Consequently, over the years, companies have developed ever-new design philosophies, new patterns, new shapes and new materials, constantly enticing consumers to investigate their offerings once again. To this day, largely due to the scrappy resourcefulness of the pioneer English potting heroes, a small area in the north of Stafford County, England, remains the pottery capital of the world.
1 Moore, The Old China Book, 1903, (2)
2 According to the writings of David Arman, “Staffordshire Toys and Miniatures” (The Transferware Collector’s Club website, www.transcollectorsclub.org.)
3 Camehl, The Blue China Book, 1916 (ix)
4 Meaning views in this case.
5 Snyder, Romantic Staffordshire Ceramics, 1997, (5)