The process of transfer-decorated china began shortly after the mid-18th century. It was one of the few British contributions to the art of pottery, and one that became of great importance to the ceramic industry. Until this time, wares were painted by hand, but now industries were looking for new methods of production that were cheaper, had the ability create wares in larger quantities, and could be done with mechanical processes. In the early days, transfer-prints were always applied over the fired glaze, and were mainly done in black, sometimes brick red, and later in shades of brown and purple. At this time, the colors would not survive under the glaze during the firing process. The only color that could survive under the glaze was blue, a pigment from cobalt oxide. This color actually required the higher temperatures of the kiln. The overglaze print gave greater clarity of detail, but lacked the protection of the glaze. This underglaze process was introduced in Worcestor by 1760. The famous ‘Willow’ pattern, designed in 1780 by Thomas Minton, is regarded as the first pattern to be transfer-printed on earthenware. Taken up by the Staffordshire potteries, this underglaze transfer-printing was to become famous throughout the world as ‘Staffordshire blue’.
By 1810, blue-printed earthenware was being produced in large quantities, and after the Napoleonic War and the signing of the peace treaty with America, a growing export trade was resumed between Europe and the United States. The peak of production took place from about 1820 to 1840, with blue-printed wares being exported all over the world. There were likely over 500 pottery firms making these printed wares into the middle of the 19th century. While overglaze prints were finer in detail, and underglaze prints were somewhat blurry, in the 1820s an innovation known as ‘flowing’ or ‘flown blue’ was devised. Cups containing volatile substances such as lime or chloride of ammonia, were placed in the kilns at the time of firing, causing the color to run slightly. It was believed to create a softer effect and reduce the mechanical look of the print. It had the desired effect with lighter blue patterns, but the deep blue pieces have run to such an extent that the designs are almost obscured.
The designs used on Staffordshire blue were mostly influenced by Chinese ware. Nearly all engravings are anonymous and were only rarely signed within the transferred image. However, the sources from which the designs were copied are much more widely known. Tableware with decorative pictures on them were a welcome change from the overdone chinoiseries. Many designs were copied from engravings that had been printed for books, with some well-known titles such as J. Merigots’ Views and Rivers in Rome and its Vicinity, Views in Asia Minor, and Views in Egypt, as well as landscapes, pastoral and genre scenes, hunt scenes, and other sporting events, and various floral and foliate botanical designs. Any engraving was considered appropriate, and was typically copied without any acknowledgement, as copyright laws were extremely lax until 1842. Traditional tastes shifted towards preferences for portraits of country mansions and views of well-known places, colleges, and important buildings throughout England. This was then followed by numerous views of American buildings and scenery for export items. Enoch Wood was one of the first with English views, and probably took the lead with American views. Factories established after 1820 appear to have concentrated on American views only, as the export trade flourished for the next 15-20 years. The American trade in dark blue-printed wares reached its height between 1825 and 1830, with Enoch Wood producing the greatest number of designs. In the 1830s there was much labor unrest in England, and the American trade grew stagnant by 1837. At this time various other scenes were being produced, including those from literary works. Beginning in 1830, the potters began to give up the rich dark blue in favor of lighter and duller tints.
While some firms stamped their wares, after about 1835 marks seem to have become much less common on blue and white wares. Oftentimes the description of the type of pottery and name of pattern were included without the name of the manufacturer. The words ‘Limited’, ‘Trademark’, or ‘England’, denote a later date. The first two not used before 1860 and 1862, and the latter never before the 1880s. The very large number of manufacturers of blue transfer-printed earthenware makes it difficult to attribute unmarked pieces. Occasionally, the maker can be identified through the pattern or border patterns. It is rarely possible to date pieces exactly. Cases occur where firms deliberately used misleading marks, hoping they would be mistaken for those of a more reputable potter. Others were accustomed to marking only a certain number of pieces in each service. In the case of impressed marks, these had to be applied to the ware prior to firing, and were nearly always the plain name mark of the potter or firm. This was used almost universally on blue-printed earthenwares in the last two decades of the 18th century. In the 19th century when underglaze printing was fully established, the practice of using printed marks was quickly developed. Impressed marks were still used, but these were often accompanied by a further printed mark.
By 1850, the Staffordshire Blue craze had died down, and color printing surpassed it. Today the demand for such wares is low, and many of the pieces have sustained damage. Pieces depicting unusual subjects, or very early examples of American history, still bring decent prices at auction. Most of the best examples are in public and private collections, making quality examples rare in the market. Condition and subject matter will continue to be the important factors for demand by collectors.
Photo 1: Copyright of DuMouchelles Auction, Detroit, MI
Photo 2: Copyright of Bourgeault-Horan Antiquarians, Portsmouth, NH
Photo3: Copyright of Pook & Pook Downingtown, PA
Little, W.L. Staffordshire Blue, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1969