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Old Blue Staffordshire
(Part 1 Of 2)



"Why do you collect old china?" I asked a connoisseur in Chinese antiques, after inspecting his marvelous specimens of the Chinese potter's art.

"To me they are old masters," said he; "as much so as paintings. They are works of art and skill. Each piece means the labor and the genius of some little yellow man-centuries ago, perhaps-who put all the soul he had into it. Each is the achievement -perhaps the lifework-of a man; as much so as a cathedral. There is a personality about them that makes me love them, and are they not beautiful!" They were. But I had in mind a little woman who gloats no less lovingly over a lot of thick earthenware, printed in blue.

"Don't you care for such ware as blue Staffordshire?" I asked. "Pie!" said he. "The plates always make me think of pie, and the cups of baked custard. My Chinese vases were never intended for any purpose but to be admired."

Then why did my other acquaintance treasure her domestic old blue? I asked her.

"Well," said she, with a little smile, "I don't know that I can explain it exactly. You see, there were some pieces that my grandmother had when she was married-those over the mantel. Of course I'm attached to those. Then I got a plate with a picture of the old Pittsfield elm on it. I was born in Pittsfield. Then I saw other pieces, and somehow I wanted them. The blue is very beautiful to me, but I suppose it 's because I'm a Daughter of the Revolution that I really care for most of them. They all belonged to somebody's grandmother, you know, in the brave old days of buff and blue."

All of which was answer enough for me, but I fancy there are plenty of people to whom it is no answer at all. For after all, china-collecting is simply a hobby, and a hobby is its own justification or no justification at all, just as you choose to look at it.

To read about other people's hobbies isn't particularly interesting, but it is amazing to find how wide spread this particular hobby of old china collecting really is. And the hobby is subdivided. There are collectors of Dutch blue Delft ware, of Limoges, Rouen, and Sevres, of German, of Indian and Mexican pottery, Scandinavian, Chinese, Roman, Greek, and Egyptian ware, besides the English. And of the English there is the salt-glaze ware, the Worcester, the Crown Derby, the Lowestoft, the beautiful Wedgwood, and the rest. But none of these is so widely collected and so generally treasured in this country as the historical old blue Staffordshire. There's a reason.

Until much less than a century ago there were no potteries of any consequence in this country, and our grandmothers and great-grandmothers used tableware made in England. With an eye on this growing trade with the young States, certain potters of Staffordshire began decorating dishes with American scenes. The idea "took," and historical and political subjects followed. It is amusing to note to what an extent the lust for trade swallowed up the political animosities of these British potters.I have seen a pitcher bearing a print of the surrender of Cornwallis, an event that even to-day is treated by some British historians as a mere incident of a somewhat unfortunate period.

Many of the scenes on these plates are a11 the evidence we have of how the old buildings and places looked a hundred years ago. As the pictures were for the most part drawn in this country from the actual models, we may assume that they are fairly trustworthy.

It is the historical character of the old blue, therefore, that accounts chiefly for the interest and value attached to it. Now just what sort of ware is it?

American subjects were first used for decorating tableware in the latter quarter of the eighteenth century, in Liverpool. The patterns were printed on thick, strong, rather coarse earthenware, and the aim was to meet the requirements of the not overstocked American purse. Hence, in quality, this ware cannot compare with Wedgwood and other kinds. Plates were made to sell for from sixpence to a shilling.

The transfer printing process, which had been practised since about 1752 in Worcester, Liverpool, and elsewhere, is rather interesting, and explains the appearance of the patterns on some old pieces. The designs were engraved on copper plates and printed on tissue-paper with a preparation of color mixed with oil. This was transferred from the paper to the ware while wet. A light creasing or folding of the damp paper, or a slight pulling or slipping, produced little imperfections in the pattern on a considerable proportion of these pieces, and the color is not always uniform in different pieces of the same pattern.

The Staffordshire potteries made use of American portraits, views, and historical subjects on both table- and toilet-ware, but chiefly the former. Various colors were employed-brown, pink, green, plum, etc.-but most of the Staffordshire potters used dark blue almost exclusively up to about 1830.

Now this dark blue is a truly remarkable color, and on it the Staffordshire ware rests its chief claim to beauty. It was not an expensive color to use, it made the patterns stand out strongly, and it served to cover up certain blemishes in the ware. It caught the popular fancy and it paid.

As in the study of old Georgian furniture, one must know something of the makers to understand their wares. Each of the Staffordshire potters had his individual defects and excellences. Nearly all made use of exclusive border patterns, and the maker of a piece of Staffordshire can usually be determined from the border, even when his name or mark does not appear on the back.

Most of these potters, of course, catered to the English as well as the American trade, and there are English and French scenes and other subjects well worth collecting. But few of these subjects found their way into this country, and the majority of American collectors are not interested in them. In our present consideration we will deal only with American historical subjects and such others as found a ready market in this country-like the Syntax plates. This is what may be termed Anglo-American or Colonial blue ware.

Enoch Wood, who started in business in 1784, was perhaps the first of the Staffordshire potters to see the possibilities in the American market and to print American subjects on his ware. His productions, therefore, while less attractive in some respects than the work of other potters, are much sought after by collectors. Fortunately he made so much of it that it is still possible to obtain pieces. His designs include over forty American views.

Much of Wood's work is in a blue too dark to be clear. His favorite border was a sea-shell pattern, though he used a grape-vine pattern and others to some extent. Most of his dishes bear the name of his firm on the back, or the imprint, "Wood." In 1792 the firm became Enoch Wood & Company, and in 1818 Enoch Wood & Sons.

Wood's ware is not valued as highly as some. Large platters have sold for as high as $100, but are not usually considered worth that. Plates in most of the styles are worth from $ 10 to $20, according to condition and rarity of pattern.

More sought for than most of Wood's patterns is "The Landing of the Pilgrims." It is in a lighter tone of blue than some of his ware, and the pattern is clear. Plates in good condition are worth from $30 to $40.

Some of Wood's ware was produced in the form of dinner sets. Very few complete sets are intact today, and the collector is lucky who can get together half a dozen pieces of the same pattern. A plate showing "Lafayette at the Tomb of Washington," for example, is from such a set, and its value is thus enhanced. It is worth $30 to $35. One such plate sold not long ago for $75. Such extreme prices are occasionally paid by collectors desiring to complete or add to a set.

Wood's cups and saucers are also to be found and are valued at $5 to $15 a pair. The Niagara Falls platter, with typical shell border, fourteen and a half inches long, is valued at $75.

Another one of the first potters to print American views was Andrew Stevenson. He and Ralph Stevenson, who is to be spoken of later, both used the imprint "Stevenson." Andrew Stevenson's patterns, most of them drawn by W. G. Wall, are finely executed. The borders are handsome and varied, and the blue is lighter than Wood's. Some collectors consider the Stevenson plates to be the best of the Staffordshire, but in general the Wood pieces are most highly prized.

Andrew Stevenson was succeeded by James and Ralph Clews, who were perhaps the most famous of the Staffordshire potters. Their ware was chiefly in a dark blue, not quite as deep as Wood's.

First there are the "States" plates and platters. In the center is a small scene, supported on either hand by figures representing Justice and Liberty. The former holds a medallion of Washington. The border consists of festoons bearing the names of fifteen States.

Then came the series of "American views," in dark blue, and the "picturesque views," in dark blue and other colors. The border shows flowers and leaves. In the first-named series is one of the most popular of the Clews patterns-"The Landing of Lafayette." It represents Lafayette's arrival at the Battery, New York, on his second visit to this coun try in 1824. At the right of the picture is the old Castle Garden Fort, with the foot bridge leading to it, crossing water since filled in.

There are three series of patterns by Clews which, while not historical, find a place in American collections because of their great popularity in this country, as well as in England, when they frist appeared. They are "The Three Tours of Dr. Syntax," from drawings by Rowlandson, the "Don Quixote" series, and a set of pictures by Sir David Wilkie, the the famous Scotch artist. All are quaintly humoruos and well executed. The color is the same dark blue, and the borders are floral and rococo design.

Different values are attached to the various Clews patterns. Most of them command good prices, though plates in some of the patterns may be bought as cheaply as $10. States plates are worth from $15 to $25; a States platter in good con dition is worth from $35 to $45. Syntax plates bring good prices, occationally from $35 to $45 a peice.

The Wilkie plates bear an interesting border, chiefly of passion-flowers. The one illustrated is worth from $18 to $25. Don Quixote plates are somewhat less in demand in this country and may be bought for $10 or $15. "The Landing of Lafayette" platters are worth from $20 to $50, according to size and condition; plates from $4 to $10. The latter are comparatively common.

Clews pitchers are highly prized by those who own them. The Lafayette pitcher is valued at $65 or $70.

John Ridgway established a pottery at Hanley in 1794, which was in existence well into the nineteenth century and which was destined to produce some of the most delightful of the old blue Staffordshire Patterns. The business later became known as Ridgway & Sons, and, in 1817, as J. & W. Ridgway. Among their products was a series of twenty or more views of buildings, called "Beauties of America." The printing was finely done, and the blue was clear and not as heavy as Wood's. The border design for the series is a regular pattern of rose-leaf medallions.

Plates in this series may be obtained for comparatively small sums, though some of the subjects are rare. A 19-inch platter with a view of the old Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia, is worth $50.

John Ridgway and William Ridgway & Company later made series of interesting dishes, but they were not in the old blue.

Joseph Stubbs manufactured for the American market from ygo to 1829. His patterns were not numerous and are held in high esteem for the quality of their color, design, and finish. The blue is deep and rich, and the border design is a handsome combination of scrolls and flowers, broken into sections by eagles with half-spread wings.

Stubbs's best-known pattern is the Boston State House. The plates in this pattern are of average value, but the platters come somewhat higher. Sixteen-inch platters have changed hands for from $50 to $60. An 18-inch Stubbs platter showing the Upper Ferry Bridge over the Schuylkill is worth about $50.

Another well-known name is Stevenson. Plates marked "Stevenson" may be the work of either Ralph or Andrew, but the former stamped some of his work "R. S." and. "Ralph Stevenson." There are about twenty-five American views with the latter mark, bearing a border of vine leaves. "The Battle of Bunker Hill" is a subject especially sought for. The Stevenson plate showing the Capitol at Washington is valued at $q.s or $so. It is stamped "R. S." and is one of a series of seven or eight patterns in dark blue. Platters of this series have brought as high as from $7s to $125, according to size and condition.

Among the best drawn designs of American subjects were those produced by a firm who stamped their ware "R. S. W." or "R. S. & W." These pieces have been attributed to Ridgway, Son & Wear and to R. Stevenson & Williams. Consensus of opinion favors the latter theory. The designs are in dark blue, and the border pattern is an artistic wreath of oak leaves and acorns. These pieces are found not infrequently. The plate showing the Park Theater, New York, is valued by the owner at $40.

Another maker of dark-blue ware was Thomas Mayer. His best-known work is a series of plates and platters bearing the coats of arms of the various States, in a border of trumpet-flowers. These are not easy pieces to find. An 18-inch Pennsylvania platter is owned by a collector who has refused $ioo for it. Cracked plates have brought as high as $15. A perfect Rhode Island plate cannot be had for less than $35, and the South Carolina plate is valued at $40. The record price is $250, paid for an Ohio State platter.

Names of minor importance which are found on old blue ware are Adams, Rogers, Phillips, and others, and there are some excellent dark-blue patterns which are not marked at all, which are unquestionably genuine Staffordshire. There is a theory that political feeling about 1812 caused the potters to issue their American dishes anonymously, but this is doubtful.

In addition to the American views, there are Staffordshire portrait pieces, of Washington, Franklin, Lafayette, etc., of which some collectors prefer to make a specialty.

Most of the unmarked Staffordshire crockery, however, belongs to the period after 1825, when the blue became lighter and the designs deteriorated. The best work then began to be done in brown and other colors.

No treatise on old china would be complete without mention of the inevitable willow pattern. First brought out by Thomas Turner at Caughley, it was copied by almost every potter in Staffordshire. The pattern gained a popularity about as enviable as that of "Annie Rooney" and "Dan McGinty." It has been much sought after and much counterfeited, until intelligent collectors have come to regard it with indifference little short of contempt.

As produced by some of the makers it is a beautiful design-probably Chinese in origin-and it is a pity that it was so overdone. It is very seldom that a piece of it is discovered that will bring over $3, though much higher prices have been paid by persons who have attached a false value to it.

People who know nothing of the beauties of the true old blue still cling to the notion that the willow pattern is the sine qua non of every well regulated household, and there is no pattern so widely or profitably reproduced. Good, honest reproductions may be had at retail for fifty cents, and not long ago I saw the window of a "5 and 10 cent store" full of willow plates in any shade of blue desired. The clerk told me they sold like hot cakes at ten cents each. I learned afterward that the manufacturer turned them out by the car load at seventy-two cents a dozen.


[Continue To Part 2 Of Article]




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