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The Origins of Blue and White Ware
by Bob Brooke

 

In the mid-18th century, wealthier British and colonial housewives began using blue and white porcelain ware. Over time, it has become one of the leading favorites of china collectors.

The Chinese first produced porcelain painted in under-glaze blue during the 14th century, but it wasn’t until 300 years later in 1604 that a Dutch ship captured a Portuguese carrack, the Catharina, returning from a voyage to China loaded with 100,000 pieces of blue and white porcelains. The Dutch East India Company auctioned them off in Amsterdam, which prompted all the East India companies to begin trading in porcelains.

These first imports, called Kraak porselyns by the Dutch, were usually thinly potted and sand from the saggars in which they were fired was often not properly cleaned off of the deep- footed rims. This, together with the watered down, deep purplish blue used in painting them, made them a distinctive group. The name Kraak, rather than referring to the crackled glaze on some pieces, came from the type of Portuguese trading ship, the carrack.

While certainly used at the Chinese Court, these wares found success not only in the Near Eastern Courts of Egypt and Persia, but also in the ports of India, Burma and the Malay Archipelago.

The Chinese traded with Turkey before the 15th century, and even then Europeans considered blue and white ware comparatively cheap and more satisfactory for daily use than any European ware available at that time. Diluted blue wares made for everyday use, unlike the deeper ones made for the Emperor, had a calligraphic style that formalized flowering branch and animal subjects, as well as Imperial five-clawed dragons rushing through cloud scrolls above great waves breaking onto rocks, to grasp at the flaming pearls at which they feed.

Try as they could, European potters couldn’t reproduce the Chinese technique, but the state potteries of Germany, France and Italy did produce beautiful imitations. In northern Europe, the closest in appearance was tin-glazed earthenware, believed to have been developed first in England but soon established so firmly in the Netherlands that it became known as Delft ware, after the town where much of it was made.

The British Compete With the Chinese
When the English factories began to manufacture porcelain in the late 1740s, they immediately tried to meet the demand for under-glaze blue china. Their ideal was to imitate the Chinese ware as closely as possible and their fine, translucent delicate porcelain filled the bill. With few exceptions, blue and white porcelain was made for everyday use. And it was a good seller and cheap to produce.

The Bow Company of London began making blue and white porcelain in 1747, but, although it was able to make flat wares, the demand for dinnerware of plain shape was far greater than it could supply. Thus it imported chinaware to fill this need, as well as for the increasing need for inexpensive teaware, catering to the popularity of tea drinking.

The Chinese were the first to use cobalt blue as a painted decoration on porcelain. After a potter shaped the bowl or vase and it had dried, he painted the design with cobalt oxide--called an underglazebefore he applied the glaze. Only one firing was necessary since cobalt oxide resists the change in heat needed to melt the glaze, allowing the decoration to be applied before the glaze was fired.

Nearly all the underglaze blue decoration came from the Chinese but the effect produced by the English potters was unintentionally different. While much of the symbolism and subtlety of the Chinese designs was missing, their designs, while truly English in style, were completely Chinese in inspiration.

While the painted designs show a Chinese influence, the potters looked elsewhere for the inspiration for their shapes. Some came from contemporary English pottery, others from European factories. But the main inspiration came from English silver designs--sauce boats, cream boats, mugs and coffee pots. Of the 18 or so factories that produced blue and white porcelain in England, 15 made soft-paste and 3 made hard paste.

The process of transfer printing on china originated about 1751, when John Brooks, an Irish-born engraver, attempted to patent an invention for printing decoration on china. The first printing on ceramics occurred at Worcester in 1761, when some jugs bearing a portrait of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, with the initials of the engraver, Robert Hancock, and the date 1757 were produced. Soon after, Worcester and other factories began making large quantities of blue-printed ware imitating the Chinese imports. The Shropshire factory of Caughley, operated by Thomas Turner, followed its lead 14 years later.

But it took another nine years for the transfer-printing process to be perfected for use on earthenware, since the more porous surface of earthenware made it more difficult to transfer designs effectively. Also, this product was much cheaper to produce than porcelain and a process had to be found that would increase production at a lower cost.

By 1780, Josiah Wedgwood had introduced a whitened version of his creamware and before long found that his new china, called “Pearl ware,” formed an excellent background for blue printing.

As the spending power of the public increased in the 19th century, blue-printed pottery became immensely popular and nearly all the factories in Staffordshire made it in quantity. Also in 1784, Parliament reduced the heavy tax on tea, thus stimulating the demand for teaware. At the same time, England was at war with France. To raise funds, the government imposed a duty on silver, leading to a greater demand for pottery teapots. At the same time, imports of chinaware began to decline until, in 1799, the East India Company of London had none for sale and import duties on porcelain increased 109 percent.

Blue and White Staffordshire Appears
North Straffordshire potters led by Josiah Spode introduced blue printing into Stoke, England, in the mid-1780s. Although several other potters tried the process earlier, it was Spode who perfected it. Skilled craftsmen from the Caughley factory joined him in 1783 to help produce blue prints of exceptional quality.

Those owning Chinese dish sets found it hard to obtain replacements or additions and turned to Spode and Caughley, who had previously copied the Chinese patterns on porcelain. Many other potters did likewise, as well as created new designs with an oriental appearance. Thus blue and white probably became popular due to its similarity to Chinese porcelain.

North Straffordshire became a center for blue and white because of the ample supply of coal to fuel the pottery kilns. These potteries and others in Liverpool and Swansea produced huge volumes of blue and white earthenwares. While some specialized in designs for the British market, others produced designs especially for North America.

Identifying Authentic Blue and White Ware
Beginning collectors usually can’t tell if Chinese blue and white ware is authentic or not. Only an advanced collector who has studied the designs and knows the shades of blue can tell the difference. While late 18th-century Nanking ware was the finest made, most of the Chinese ware wasn’t finely done.

First, a collector must determine the composition of the body. Few manufacturers of bone china produced blue and white, and fewer still made stone china and porcelain. Second, a collector must assess the quality. Is it finely or coarsely made, is the print smudged, how fine is the engraving, and are there spur marks resulting from stacking on fine wire spurs in the kiln on the face of the plate?

Collectors must learn to distinguish pieces of blue and white by their decoration, glaze, paste, design and foot-ring. No amount of reading or visits to museums can compare with the instinct, knowledge and experience which comes with the actual handling of porcelain. Later Chinese export ware usually bore no mark, but earlier pieces often bore the emperor’s reign mark.

Very early prints were line-engraved and dark blue, while those after 1805 are lighter blue. Third, is the pattern a popular one. If not, try to find a picture of it in a book from the public library. It’s possible that the design has been recorded even if the maker is unknown.


When identifying a maker, three possibilities exist: possibly Spodepattern and quality are typical and it would be nice if it was from that factory; probably Spode--this maker was known to have produced this pattern, but this piece has certain untypical features which prevent attribution; and attributed to Spodea piece with the maker’s mark has been recorded that’s identical in every respect with the specimen.

Most of the early pieces are thickly potted and the underglaze blue is usually remarkably bright and vivid. Floral decoration predominated, with stylized Oriental motifs and borders, with the ware left mostly white with touches of blue.

By the late 1750s, the pottery had become less clumsy and the blue tone somewhat darker. At this time, powder blue decoration—called such because the underglaze was blown or dusted onto the porcelain in powder form, rather than painted with a brush—became a specialty at the Bow Company. But by the early 1770s, both the quality of the porcelain and decoration had deteriorated so much they resembled earthenware.

While the Bow factory specialized in blue and white from 1749-1775, the Worcester factory produced the highest quality wares. Its molded tea wares, sauce and cream boats had rococo panels delicately painted with Chinese fishing scenes. Other shapes of this period include jugs, rose-water bowls, tankards, and bowls. Nearly all show a green translucency when held up to the light. By 1775, Bow transfer-printed most of its blue and white. And although its high standards of potting remained, all traces of the former rococo splendor had disappeared.

The Caughley factory in Shropshire specialized in blue and white ware from 1772-1799.
It derived most of its shapes from Worcester. No other factory produced as many tea services. It transfer-printed much of its decoration. However, its shapes are more sought after by collectors than its common decoration.

The earliest surviving examples of this type of ware date from the early 1780s, among them the long-popular Willow pattern. It’s said to have been first used by Thomas Turner at the Caughley factory. The design was created by Turner and engraved by his apprentice, Thomas Minton, who later established a factory of his own. Though Turner didn’t copy the Willow pattern directly from any known Chinese design, it’s very close in its superficial resemblance to imported Nanking ware.

After 1770, the percentage of pieces with hand-painted decoration decreased. Most printed designs were uninspired and artists did much of the painted decoration without the care and individuality noticeable in the earlier pieces. Less than half the porcelain produced during this period bears a factory mark. From 1768 to the mid-1770s, most makers of Worcester wares marked them with a crescent and some pieces of Caughley had their own factory mark. No other factories marked their blue and white wares.

While there are many reproductions of blue and white ware on the market, ranging from the obvious to perfect which only an expert can distinguish, it’s usually easier to tell a domestic reproduction as they usually have flaws in the glaze and color of the cobalt.

Generally, authentic blue and white wares have become expensive. Increasing interest has made them scarce and few pieces remain in excellent condition.

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