I believe that nothing holds more quintessential charm than early 19th century, English, blue transfer ware, otherwise known as “blue and white”.
Charm is a word we hear very little of these days, although it’s something we naturally look for. We may not often hear the word, but there’s a part of us that seeks it out. Charm can be defined in a number of ways: – to attract, or delight, to enchant. Charm is alluring, or pleasing, a particular quality that attracts and delights.
By charming I don’t mean mawkish sentimentality. That, which charms, never stops giving; it remains delightful and pleasing to the eye and does not change with the vagaries of fashion, so beautifully defined by Oscar Wilde – “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”. Or even people, again an Oscar Wilde quote – “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious”.
English, blue underglaze, transfer printing on pottery was at its peak from the late 18th century when Josiah Spode I, the Staffordshire potter, is credited with the introduction of blue transfer printing on earthenware (1781 – 1784) although printing on porcelain, in a small way, had had a much earlier introduction. The process was probably invented by John Brooks, an Irish, copper plate engraver employed at the Battersea enamel works in London in 1753
There is also an anecdotal story, from circa 1750, about a Liverpool printer, John Sadler, who stood fascinated, watching children at play. The children were pressing damp scraps of printed paper onto the surface of pieces of broken pottery leaving a print behind!
It is said that from this casual observation, the Staffordshire blue underglaze transfer printing industry eventually developed. However, after nearly seven years of trial and error, the earliest examples of printing on ceramics date to 1756 and were produced by Sadler and Green of Liverpool, who began by printing on tiles.
Just like so many industrial “secrets” Sadler and Green felt confident that their little printing secret was safe and had not bothered to patent their technique.
Either by sheer coincidence, or by workmen moving around the infant, mid 18th century, ceramics industry, we find not only early printing on Liverpool tiles, but the process promptly followed with experimental printing on porcelain at Worcester in 1757.
Like many processes, it’s simple, after you know how and printing on earthenware was much the same in its development. The majority of the 18th and 19th century English, printed pottery manufacturers were centered in Staffordshire and by the early 19th century were producing inexpensive blue printed pottery in large quantities, both for the English and the export market, with vast quantities going to nearly all parts of the English speaking world, America, Canada, India, South Africa and Australia.
The process of transfer printing involved a series of steps with each completed step moving on to the next until the piece was ready to leave the factory. Of great importance was the “artist”, or copper plate engraver. It was entirely due to his artistic expertise that produced the quality of the print. The engraver, with a sharp steel point, engraved the pattern on to the surface of a smooth copper plate.
This moved on to the inking shop, where the plate was inked until the ink had filled the engraved plate. Surplus ink was wiped off and the pattern, using a press, was printed on to fine sheets of tissue. The tissue was trimmed to a suitable shape and size and after being dampened, was transferred to the surface of the cream or white, fired, but unglazed, or bisque fired, earthenware shape.
A skillful practiced dabbing technique was used to print the tissue transfer to the surface; the tissue was then gently peeled off, leaving the pattern neatly printed behind. The next step was the glazing shop, where each newly printed piece, now dry, was plunged into a deep tub of glaze. The glaze was actually powdered glass suspended in water and looking a lot like a creamy white soup. The now printed and glazed shape, after drying off, went to the firing kiln. The high temperature kiln melted the powdered glass into a shiny smooth coat over the shape.
The final result was a beautiful sapphire blue image on a white or cream coloured pottery surface, named “creamware”. During the final decade of the 18th century, it was discovered, that with the addition of a small amount of cobalt to the glaze, a fine, delicate blue lustre was produced, this became known as “pearlware”.
Many of the prints can be seen to make social and political comment, humour, rural life and scenery, heroes of the day and royalty. Many were copied from illustrations of India, from hunting and farming. At this period, c1780 – 1830, society was principally rural and unlike today, the world was a much bigger place, with little opportunity to travel very far from home.
As the 19th century progressed, more and more industrial techniques were developed, eventually obliterating the beauty and all the charm of these 18th and early 19th century wares. The shapes lose all their refinement, becoming heavy and purely functional, in fact, the art had disappeared! By about 1850 colour printing had been introduced and although blue printed wares were still being made, the general quality has seriously declined. Just like all artistic forms, the further it gets from the original, the less identified it becomes with the original concept.
There are many “charming” aspects associated with early blue transfer ware, which could be referred to as naïve charm. If you look carefully at a blue and white shape, you will very often see where the transfer design ends and continues, leaving the pattern not quite matching. I have seen several pieces with the finger prints still visible, fired into the glassy glaze as left by the glazer 200 years ago.
A collection, small or large of early blue and white is a visual feast and the crowning compliment is the addition of an early blue and white lamp. Recall that these early pieces were glazed with a fine tight “skin” of glass and lamplight simply does the rest, with light twinkling, reflected from piece to piece and the lamp, of course, completely at home, the shape now being now reassigned as a perfectly appropriate lamp.
The traditional background colour for displaying blue and white is yellow, whether a yellow fabric or wall. Yellow toile printed fabric is very complimentary and can make a stunning accent for a kitchen or as a feature in a formal room. A beautiful big blue and white, flower filled jug in the middle of a small collection, really is a sight for sore eyes! Close to unbeatable is an antique corner cabinet, each shelf aglow with shapes and sizes of blue and white. The result will not only charm, but will certainly add its mystical quality to attract and delight, the early period being the most collectable, from around 1780 up until about 1830.