How to collect British ceramics
Specialist Jody Wilkie outlines the names and techniques to look out for, from Wedgwood creamware to Minton pâte-sur-pâte — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s
Porcelain and pottery were big business in 18th- and 19th-century Britain. Alongside textile production, the manufacture of ceramics played a key role in the Industrial Revolution.
British ceramics factories were fundamentally different from their competitors in continental Europe, says Jody Wilkie, international specialist head of Christie’s European Ceramics department.
‘Firstly, British factories were privately owned, while many of the most successful manufacturers in Europe were established under royal or princely patronage and run with governmental support.
‘Secondly, the ceramic body itself was different. Shipping was costly, so British factories relied heavily on local raw materials, developing individual recipes which today help differentiate the products of one factory from those of another.
‘As a result, British porcelain has a very different feel from that of Europe, although it is a close cousin of the soft-paste porcelain produced in France at Vincennes and Sèvres.’
In the early days, British manufacturers drew inspiration from China and Europe. ‘But as the industry grew,’ says Wilkie, ‘factories employed more skilled potters, modellers and painters to develop their own distinctive styles, in some cases surpassing their counterparts abroad in innovation, creativity and charm.’
Some of the factories closed after just a few decades; others merged with one another. A handful, such as Wedgwood and Spode, have become household names that still produce today. ‘Being able to say “Made in England” still remains a selling point,’ notes the specialist.
Here, she delves into the history of some of the most important British porcelain manufacturers and highlights the key works every new collector should know about — as well as how to spot them.
The Chelsea factory was established in the 1740s by Nicholas Sprimont, a silversmith from Liège. Its location in fashionable West London was ideal for meeting the demands of the area’s wealthy and aristocratic residents, keen to furnish their homes with porcelain.
‘As Sprimont’s first designs were inspired by the shapes of silver goods, many early Chelsea pieces are characterised by strong sculptural elements,’ says Wilkie.
Nature was a dominant theme: plates were often painted with lifelike fruit and flower specimens, reflecting the 18th-century interest in botany spearheaded by the likes of the naturalist Sir Hans Sloane.
Chelsea also produced highly decorative trompe l’oeil objects in the form of animals and plants. ‘These whimsical pieces remain highly popular with collectors today,’ says Wilkie. In 2018, two Chelsea porcelain plaice tureens and covers (below) dated to circa 1755 from the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller sold for $300,000, nearly four times the low estimate.
As well as life-size works, Chelsea made objects on a much smaller scale — including scent bottles, snuff boxes, patch boxes, bonbonnières and seals — which offer an excellent way to begin a porcelain collection.
‘Chelsea was the first British factory to make soft-paste porcelain,’ says Wilkie. ‘It’s distinguishable by a thick-pooled, clear glaze with a slightly blueish-green tint and “crazing” — a network of hairline cracks.’
Other distinctive features include three stilt marks showing where the piece was supported in the kiln, and richly decorated clothing on figurines: brocades were a speciality.
Chelsea was fairly consistent in its system of marks, making its works relatively easy to date. As a rough guide, very early pieces might bear an incised triangle (1745-49); then a raised anchor mark (c. 1750-55); followed by a painted red or brown anchor (c. 1755-60); and finally the gold anchor (c. 1760-65). In 1770, the factory merged with Derby.
Founded in the 1740s, the Derby factory not only produced elegant tableware, but also a broad range of figures and groups.
These often represented contemporary life in 18th-century Britain, with subjects ranging from elegant ladies and gentlemen in courtly dress to shepherds and nuns, as well as luminaries such as Shakespeare and Milton.
‘Early pieces were unmarked,’ says Wilkie, ‘but by 1760 three unglazed patches can be found on the underside of figures, along with an incised model number.
‘Over time, the factory also used a variety of markings, including crowned cross-batons over a script capital D mark in red, puce or blue (c.1782-1820s); and a distinctive crowned garter mark (c. 1825-1848), when the factory was under the directorship of Robert Bloor.’
Derby produced large dinner services, often for specific commissions. ‘These are still very fashionable today,’ says Wilkie. ‘Many people like to use them on special occasions.’
During the 18th century, Derby was the only factory to concentrate on creating sculptures in an unglazed, white ‘biscuit’ porcelain, which rivalled those made at Sèvres in France.
‘Today, these brilliant pieces are prized for their sculptural merit,’ says Wilkie.
Derby remained successful throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, receiving a royal warrant from Queen Victoria in 1890 and changing its name to Royal Crown Derby.
The Bow factory was founded in 1747 in East London. Like its competitors Chelsea and Derby, it produced an array of brilliant figures and animals, as well as imitations of imported Chinese and Japanese porcelain.
‘Bow figures have distinctive, diminutive proportions, and they’re characterised by little pointed noses and Cupid’s-bow lips,’ says Wilkie.
Following the death of its co-owner John Weatherby in 1762, Bow went bankrupt. Weatherby’s partner, John Crowther, continued operations for a few years, but there was a decline in quality as more competitors appeared.
‘The remnants of the factory were sold in 1776 to William Duesbury,’ says the specialist, ‘and all the moulds and supplies were sent to the Derby factory.’
The Bow factory didn’t use a consistent stamp; marks to look out for include an anchor or a dagger — or both together, usually in iron-red. In addition, a square hole can often be found at the back of Bow figures, where a rod was inserted to remove the piece from the kiln.
Established in 1751, Worcester is arguably best known for the blue and white-painted and transfer-printed wares it produced in the 18th century. But like Derby and Chelsea, it also manufactured a large range of other products, from vases to dinner and dessert services.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the factory went through several changes of ownership. Each had its own distinctive style and markings — including a blue ‘W’, a crescent or a pseudo-Chinese mark — which makes dating reasonably easy.
In 1788, following a visit from King George III, Worcester was granted a royal warrant and allowed to use the royal coat of arms on its wares.
By the end of the 18th century, it had developed a new, harder porcelain that competed with the best French examples.
One of the company’s most successful periods was the decade that followed 1804, when Martin Barr junior joined in partnership with the co-owners, his father, Martin Barr senior, and Joseph Flight.
‘Under the stamps “Flight, Barr & Barr”, the Warmstry factory in Worcester produced some of the finest Regency-era porcelain in Britain,’ says Wilkie.
Quality remained high into the 19th century. ‘Later designs drew inspiration from the natural world, with feathers and eggs painted on everything from tea wares to inkstands,’ says Wilkie. ‘This period is also sought after by collectors today.’
Minton was founded in Stoke-on-Trent at the end of the 18th century and became one of the most celebrated factories of the Victorian age.
It was hugely influenced by French ceramics, most notably in its adoption of the ‘pâte-sur-pâte’ technique. First introduced by Sèvres, this involves applying layer upon layer of white slip onto an unfired piece before delicately carving areas away to produce decoration in light relief. The effect is comparable to an ancient cameo.
‘Minton understood the desirability of pâte-sur-pâte and refined the technique to a very high degree, which was incredibly laborious,’ says Wilkie. ‘As a result, it is popular with collectors and can command high prices at auction.’
In the second half of the 19th century, Minton began working with the avant-garde designer Christopher Dresser (1834-1904), whose fascination with the Far East led to ceramics decorated with Oriental motifs including cranes, dragons, koi carp and bamboo shoots.
Many early Minton ceramics are unstamped, but later marks to look out for include the initials ‘M & B’, an arrow, or a globe with the word ‘Minton’ through the middle. Additional stamps, such as a swan, a horseshoe, a shield or a ship, can help pinpoint the year of manufacture.
‘Wedgwood, founded in Staffordshire in 1759, was really the first factory to start producing on a mass scale,’ says Wilkie. ‘It made a huge variety of ceramics, including its famous jasperware, basaltes and, later on, porcelain.
‘The result of this mass production is that some pieces are much rarer than others, and there can be a big difference in quality, which obviously affects price.’
Wedgwood used a variety of marks over the years but kept meticulous records, so its pieces are easy to date. For example, we know that a mark impressed with the word ‘England’ cannot be any earlier than 1891, because that was the year it was added to comply with US Customs regulations.
However, it’s worth noting that a lack of markings doesn’t mean a piece is not genuine — some of the older and rarer pieces were never stamped.
‘Josiah Wedgwood I is arguably the most revered British potter,’ says Wilkie. ‘He is famed for his “Experiment Book”, in which he recorded his trials with different glazes, slips and firing temperatures with great precision.’
He was also a canny merchandiser, explains Wilkie. The company produced a range of creamware or ‘cream-coloured earthenware’ as an elegant and less expensive alternative to porcelain. When visiting the London showroom, Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, was so impressed with it that she commissioned her own set, allowing Wedgwood to become ‘Potter to her Majesty’.
Taking advantage of this ‘celebrity endorsement’, Wedgwood quickly rebranded his creamware as ‘Queen’s ware’.
The style was also popular with the Prince Regent, later George IV. ‘Great pieces with royal provenance attract collectors and can be surprisingly affordable, too,’ says Wilkie.
Wedgwood continued to innovate long after its founder’s death. In the early 20th century it collaborated with the artist Daisy Makeig-Jones (1881-1941) to create a series of fantastically decorated, shimmering pieces known as Fairyland Lustre.
‘They were hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic and remain so with collectors today,’ says the specialist.
Other names to know
There are several other British porcelain makers that collectors are drawn to, including Spode, which was founded in 1770 and helped perfect the formula for bone china in Britain, and Coalport, a favourite of Queen Victoria and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, which later merged with Wedgwood.
Lowestoft, Bristol and Caughley are other 18th-century manufacturers of importance, whose pieces are eagerly sought by collectors.
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‘Many guides are available online to help identify and date British porcelain,’ says Wilkie. ‘But if in doubt, Christie’s specialists are always on hand to help.
‘And when it comes to starting a collection, always remember, first and foremost, to buy what you love.’