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Blue and White for Everyday
by Bob Brooke

 

By the last quarter of the 18th century, the market for blue and white ware had grown. While it had been only seen on the dining tables of the wealthier class, it began to appear in the homes of merchants and bankers. No longer would it be delegated for use on special occasions, for a new less expensive version appeared in the shops. Now potters could make more pieces for less using the then innovative transfer process.



The Transfer Process
Most blue and white ware made in England after the mid-1780s was transfer printed from hand-engraved copper plates onto white earthenware. The production of a blue print began with a design on paper. The engraver traced the outline onto thin tissue paper and then reproduced it on a sheet of copper using homemade carbon paper. He engraved over this outline with a V-shaped groove and added the details and areas of shading using lines or dots. The idea of using dots, or stipple punching, rather than lines came later in the 18th century. The engraver found the right depth by trial and error, so he took a first print or proof before he reworked the lines and dots to deepen them if necessary. The deeper the engraving, the deeper the deposits of color, thus the darker the result. Early prints were mostly engraved with lines and in uniform dark blue, but as the technique of engraving improved so engravers achieved different tonal qualities.

The next step was printing. A circular iron plate or backstone kept the color—a mixture of metallic oxides and fluxes with printing oils—warm. The printer applied this to the copper plate, which he kept hot on the hot plate, making sure to rub color into every dot and line. The surplus was then scraped off. He removed any film of color by bossing the surface with a corduroy-faced pad. After the copper plate was clean, he laid the tissue paper coated with a mixture of soft soap and water and passed it through the press’s rollers. He then passed the printed image, now in reverse—unlike regular engravings that begin in reverse and appear correct on printing—on to the transfer team, consisting of the transferrer, apprentice, and cutter.

The cutter removed the excess paper leaving only the design pieces. The transferrer laid these pieces, colored by cobalt oxide, on to the ware after its first or biscuit firing, then dipped it in glaze and refired it, where the silica in the glaze helped to convert black cobalt oxide to blue cobalt silicate. A design with an overall pattern would have the center applied first and the border around the rim afterwards. The tackiness of the oily print held it in place while the apprentice rubbed it down vigorously with a stiff-bristled brush using a little soft soap as lubricant.

The apprentice then soaked the earthenware in a tub of water to soften the paper which was removed by sponging, the oil-based color being unaffected by the water. After drying, an assistant placed the ware into the hardening kiln to fire at 1,250-1,290 F. to remove the oils and secure the color. Afterwards, the ware was glazed and refired at 1,940-2,010 F. Sometimes the dark blue diffused or flowed beyond the lines of the pattern because of overglazing or overfiring, thus the term flow blue.

Engraving for transfer printing reached its zenith by 1816. And by 1805, lighter shades of royal blue as well as ultramarine came into use. Though each factory developed its own potting and decorative techniques, considerable copying took place between factories. In addition, each factory experimented with different styles and products changed dramatically over a short time.
Not only did the paste and tone of the under-glaze blue vary from factory to factory, but they also varied according to the stage of each factory’s development. Sound confusing? It is.

Patterns Decorating the Wares
To complicate matters, makers constantly introduced new patterns, while shapes of plates, dishes, tureens varied from time to time according to the prevailing trends. When the Chinese-inspired designs lost favor, manufacturers replaced them with European scenes, which they copied from engravings in books. Floral borders resembled each other in general appearance, although most differed in detail.

Most patterns of Chinese blue and white wares are of purely Chinese origin. The Chinese painter, whether treating natural or contrived subjects, followed conventions set down in artist and calligraphic manuals. The British copied the Chinese patterns faithfully. One of these, called Mandarin, led to the creation of the Willow pattern. The original Chinese patterns were widely distributed, judging from the large number of examples found today. Four Chinese patterns seem to have been more popular than others--Mandarin, Temple-Landscape, Two Temples and Rock.

Perhaps it was the lack of human interest in these original patterns that prompted Spode to add features which he derived from other Chinese landscapes. He added the bridge with three people leading to a pavilion and a fence across the foreground, for example. He also changed the appearance of the tea house to make it more like the original Chinese design.

While collectors of blue and white may not be looking for Chinese porcelain, they’re likely to come across many English copies, especially of Two Temples, which is also called Temple, Brosley or, incorrectly, Pagoda. However many of the manufacturers didn’t mark their products so these pieces often remain unidentified.

Identifying blue and white ware can be tricky. Because many examples of blue and white weren’t marked with the manufacturer’s name, attributing a certain design to a particular manufacturer is often impossible. It’s likely that these duplications came about because independent engravers sold sets of copper plates of the same pattern to several manufacturers who were unconcerned with exclusivity.

Confusion occurs when one firms’s pattern appears on another’s marked pieces. It’s possible that the original maker bought undecorated but marked biscuit ware from a second manufacturer when he had an insufficient supply to complete an order.

Around 1830, designs changed to a more open style. Instead of having bold borders of flowers on a stippled background, the content become lighter, with sprays of smaller flower and no background stipple punching. The center designs also became smaller, with much white space surrounding them. Scenes were often romantic, with strolling figures in Italianate or pseudo-Oriental gardens beside a lake, or views of rivers with castles.

Marks Used on Transfer Wares
Marks can be misleading, however, and should be taken into consideration only after all the features of the piece have been appraised. Marks such as initials, symbols and names may be impressed, incised, printed, or painted and may relate to the manufacturer, factory, workman or even the retailer.

Before 1872, for example, when a workman was paid on the “good from oven” principle, he applied his own mark since it was important that his output of ware be identified so that he could be paid. These marks were simple and workmen in other factories might have used the same marks such as a rough flower shape, an oblique line, or a cross within a circle. However, these marks have little bearing on identifying a piece as being from a certain manufacturer, because workmen often moved from one factory to another when their contracts ran out.

English historic pieces are usually marked with the name of factory and/or scene. Some of the leading makers included Clews, Stevenson, Enoch Wood, William Adams, Ridgeway, Riley, Thomas Minton, Josiah Spode, and Davenport. Plates can also be identified by their borders—spear, butterfly, floral, and brocade. This isn’t only true of Chinese blue and white ware, but also with English blue and white transfer ware from 1815 on. However, it was quite common for a pleasing border or center pattern to be copied and used by several manufacturers.

While some collectors concentrate on a single pattern, others go the eclectic route, collecting whatever fancies them in blue and white. Collecting may follow a theme such as those pieces from one manufacturer such as Copeland or Spode or possibly just Chinese landscapes, or floral designs. In the U.S., flow blue and American scenery are two dominant themes.

Manufacturers made most blue and white into dinnerware, and sometimes, toiletware. Occasionally, teawares can be found but because it broke more often, little has survived. Dinnerware produced until 1825 consisted of 9½ -inch dinner plates, 8-inch pudding plates,
9½-inch soup bowls, plus meat dishes and platters in many sizes, as well as covered vegetable dishes, sauce boats, tureens and stands, and perhaps a supper set, comprised of a wooden tray with four covered fan-shaped sections surrounding a central tureen to hold a sauce or boiled eggs. Complete sets are rare. Members of the household used supper sets for a self-service meal late in the evening after the servants had gone to bed. In those days, dinnerware didn’t include side or bread and butter plates but often had twice as many dinner plates. Other favorite items included fruit baskets and stands, often with pierced borders, especially with plates having pierced arcaded borders with embossed wicker work.

Scenic patterned sets may be divided into three groups--those with the same scene depicted on every object, as in Spode’s Blue Italian or Tower pattern and Wild Rose, made by more than a dozen firms; a multi-subject pattern with a different study on each size of plate and each different item, as in British scenery by an unidentified maker; and a multi-subject set of 12 dinner places, as the Don Pottery’s Named Italian Views.


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