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( Article orginally published October 1945 )
Of all the delightful china that was made in eighteenth century England the loveliest in coloring is Chelsea. It has other points of excellence as well; in fact, Chelsea shows so many signs of skill that in its own day it was called "the English Dresden," a very high compliment. Occasionally one of its admirers, Lord Chesterfield, for example, turned fickle and waved it aside, saving it was not as artistic as the finest china made in Saxony or France, but such fault finders were few; they did not alter the general esteem and affection in which Chelsea was held. The leading eighteenth century English connoisseur of chinaware, Horace Walpole, often sang its pralses, as we know from his letters, and that he had a collection of it we know from the inventory of his house on the Thames, "Strawberry Hill."
Chelsea china takes its name from the place In which the factory originally was located, the town of Chelsea, at that time a suburb, now a part of London. It was one of the earliest of English china factories though the exact date it was founded has not yet been discovered. The year seems to have been around 1740, for not long thereafter, in 1745, china-makers in France were petitioning the king to let them set up a new fabrique (factory) at Vincennes (to expand the making of Sevres china) since they were losing trade in England because Chelsea was winning so many customers. Just what kind of ware was first produced at Chelsea is also unknown. Tbe indications are that it started by imitating Chinese wares, added adaptations of French and Dresden, and Meissen pieces and meanwhile undertook to develop some English innovations of its own.
As Englishmen had not yet mastered the art of ornamenting china with painted decorations, the earliest Chelsea pieces probably were, white tinged with cream. It was a soft-paste porcelain with a satiny glaze and the creamy white was the tone of the clay ingredient. Of these white examples some dear little jugs, like pitchers, and odds and ends such as salt cellars have come down to us. The little pitchers were called "Goat and Bee" jugs because they were mounted on a base of two reclining goats in low relief, with a bee thrown up on the front. They must have been a Chelsea specialty for a number of them still survive.
Other items began to be made as fast as the business grew-full tea sets, dinner plates, dessert dishes, platters, tankards, candlesticks and so on. Indeed, the Chelsea makers branched out so enterprisingly that eventually they fabricated a greater variety of articles than any other china works in England-every kind of article for use in the dining room; also vases, clock cases, statuettes and figurines for the other rooms in the house; dainty objects such as scent bottles, etuis and toilet boxes for the boudoir, and even fancy little morsels like handles for canes, cases for needles, toys and different trinkets.
Within ten years after the factory was established, experiments were underway toward heightening the decorative charm of the pieces by touching them up with designs in color. Gilt seems to have been the first color used: a border of gilding, or outline drawings in gold, or golden curlicues. Then painting in other tints began, a development that led into a multitude of patterns. The range was from simple traceries and scattered flowers to allover mosaics in beautiful tones with inserted panels of painted pictures-landscapes, still life, sentimental subjects and portrait. Such colors, running from delicate pastel shades to gorgeous hues, have never been surpassed in the history of English china-making. The claret color achieved at Chelsea is perhaps the most remarkable, yet surely the mazarine blue, the pea-green and exquisite turquoise are in their way equally as lovely.
Chelsea china got to be so well liked that, as Gardner Teall has pointed out, "the demand was far in excess of the supply and the prices soared accordingly....By 1765, dealers were surrounding the doors of the factory to buy a set as soon as baked and sell it in London at auction to the highest bidder. The result was that Chelsea became a china for aristocrats. It was produced at a quarter the price of Meissen but practically all of it went into the mansions of the rich. Only single pieces and occasional figurines or candlesticks reached the more modest home.