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CERAMICS

the Staffordshire district must have spread by the time of the Revolution, for soon after 1690 John Philip Elers, a Dutchman of good family, settled there and began to make a superior pottery to any previously made in the district. Elers is generally described as a great inventor who brought all kinds of knowledge into the district, but the only wares he is known to have made were singularly like those of Dwight, and, quite recently, records of a lawsuit in which Dwight charged Elers and some other Staffordshire potters with suborning his workmen and infringing his patents have been brought to light. It is certain that, from the time of Elers, the Staffordshire potters made great advances in the fabrication of their wares, and during the 18th century they evolved two distinctively English kinds of pottery, (1) the white and drab salt-glaze, (2) English earthenware.

Staffordshire Salt-glaze.—It is uncertain when and how the Staffordshire potters learnt that a highly siliceous pottery could be glazed by throwing common salt into the kiln at the height of the firing, for the practice had originated in the Rhineland more than a century before. Many writers have maintained that the practice was introduced by Elers, but this is uncertain. Early in the 18th century a fine, white, thin, salt-glazed ware was made in Staffordshire, in many quaint and fanciful forms largely influenced by Chinese porcelain—still an object of wonder and mystery. Teapots, coffee-pots, tea-caddies, plates, dishes, bowls, candlesticks, mugs and bottles were made in great variety, and at its best the ware is a dainty and elegant one, so that a brisk trade was developed in the district, and, for the first time, a distinctively English pottery was exported to the continent and to the American colonies.

English Earthenware.—The manufacture of tin-enamelled pottery scarcely obtained a foothold in Staffordshire, but the invention of the white salt-glazed ware paved the way for one of the greatest revolutions in the potter’s art that the world has ever seen. This was nothing less than the abandonment of the ordinary red or buff clays with a coating of white slip or of tin-enamel, and the substitution of a ware white throughout its substance, prepared by mixing selected white-burning clays and finely-ground flint (silica).[1] The change has generally been associated with Wedgwood, most famous of English potters, but he really only perfected, along with his contemporaries, the Warburtons, Turners and others, the work of half a century’s experiment and discovery. The ware compared most favourably, from the point of view of serviceableness, neatness and mechanical finish, with all that had gone before it, and as the tin-enamelled wares had almost everywhere in Europe sunk to the position of domestic crockery—for the Chinese, German, French and English porcelains had displaced it with the wealthy—this better-fashioned and more durable English ware gave it its final death-blow. English earthenware in its various forms was to be met with all over Europe, from London to Moscow, and from Cadiz to Stockholm; and, aided by emigrant English potters, the continental nations soon began a similar manufacture for themselves. Everywhere this great change was encouraged by the growing fondness for mechanical perfection, and it is not without a sigh that a lover of pottery can witness the gradual disappearance of the painted tin-enamelled wares—degenerate survivals though they were of Italian majolica, French faience and Dutch “Delft”—before the unconquerable advance of another form of pottery which in its inception was based on technical rather than artistic qualities, especially as nearly a century passed before the new material was turned to artistic account.

By general consent the name of Josiah Wedgwood has been pre-eminently associated with this great change, and with good reason, for though he had many contemporaries who equalled or even excelled him in certain kinds of pottery, no other potter ever approached him in the range of his products and the varied applications to which he turned the exercise of his remarkable talents.[2] True, he soon abandoned the simple Staffordshire wares, coloured with mottled glazes or clay-slips, to which the names of Astbury or Whieldon are commonly attached, but the varied productions of his factory united the best work of a district fruitful in new kinds of pottery, with something especial to Wedgwood himself. Thus he adopted and improved the green and yellow glazes which had come down from medieval times (see the cauliflower ware piece, Plate X.), and gave a new direction to their use in his green-glazed dessert services, candlesticks, &c. He carried on the manufacture of hard-fired red-clay teapots, mugs, coffee-pots, cream-jugs, &c., introduced by Elers; and, along with his fellow-potters, he invented drab, grey, brown and other colours in similarly hard-fired unglazed bodies. He neither invented nor alone perfected the Staffordshire cream-coloured earthenware, but he made it so well that his “Queen’s ware” was the best of its class. He undoubtedly invented the Jasper ware, in which on grounds of unglazed blue, green, black, &c., white figures and ornamental motives, adapted from the antique by Flaxman, Webber and other sculptors, were applied; and he even attempted to reproduce the painted vases of the Greek decadence in dry colours painted over a hard black body.

Wedgwood’s “Jasper ware,” his most original production (see Plate X.), differed both in nature and composition from all the species of pottery that had preceded it. In an attempt to obtain the qualities of the finest porcelain biscuit, Wedgwood discovered, after years of experiment, that by mixing together a plastic white clay and “cawk” or barytes he could obtain a “body” which might be “thrown” on the wheel or “pressed” in moulds, and which, while it fired to a white and sub-translucent pottery, was capable of being coloured, by the usual metallic oxides, to various shades of blue, green, yellow, lilac and black. The ware resembled “biscuit” porcelain in that it needed no glaze to render it impervious to water, and it thus marked the culmination of those “dry” or unglazed wares that had been so largely made in China, Japan and Europe, where the quality resides in the fired clay material without any adventitious aid from a glaze. The general practice was to make the body of the vessel of a coloured material and to ornament this with applied figures or ornamental reliefs, in “white” of the same kind, “pressed” from intaglio moulds and then applied by wetting the surface and squeezing—leaving the fire to unite the vessel and its applied ornament into one piece. Sometimes the ornament was in a coloured clay applied on a white body, and we get in the same way black on red, buff on red or black, and red or black on buff and drab bodies. The variety of bodies produced by Wedgwood and his followers in this way is exceedingly great, and is only to be equalled by the diversity of their application, for the pieces made include plaques, vases, plates, dishes, jardinières, bulb-pots, teapots, cups and saucers, inkstands, scent-bottles, buttons, buckles, and, in a word, every kind of thing that could be made in clay. Many of the applied designs, whether of figures or ornament, were very beautiful in a way, being copied or adapted from Greek and Roman gems, vases, &c. At their best they are marvellous for the precision and delicacy of their execution, and it is impossible to imagine that anything better could have been done in this style. So perfectly did they represent the taste of their period that attempts were made at Sèvres, Meissen, Berlin and Buen Retiro to produce something of the same kind in porcelain; but none of these can be compared with the works of Wedgwood, or his great contemporary Turner (see Plate X.), in beauty of colour or perfection of workmanship.

It is obvious nowadays that much of this work was inspired by mistaken motives; that it was founded on an imperfect view of ancient art; and that it was marred by its mechanical ideals; but it must be remembered that it was in perfect harmony

  1. For a discussion of the stages through which this was achieved the reader is referred to special works, such as Prof. A. H. Church’s English Earthenware, and W. Burton’s English Earthenware and Stoneware.
  2. It is amusing or annoying to find in European museums the wares of Wedgwood, Turner, Adams and one of the Leeds potteries, all lumped together as “Wedgwood,” and yet one can hardly wonder at it, remembering how much has been written of Wedgwood and how little of the other English potters of the 18th century.