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Although luster ware has been treasured as an heirloom in old American families for a century, and is to be found in many collec tions, it has only recently been generally sought for by collectors, and a majority of dealers in antiques do not carry a piece of it in stock. The precise reason for this lack of interest is difficult to ascertain, for much of the ware is intrinsically very beautiful, and from the antiquarian's point of view it ranks with other English pottery of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The finest luster ware was made in Italy and Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but little of it is to be found in this country outside of the museums, and it does not concern us in the present connection. It was an English product that our forefathers used, and though inferior to the earlier ware in many ways, it is interesting, and practically the only kind collected to-day. After passing through a crude stage in its development in England, lusterware came into fashion here a hundred years ago as "best china," following and rivaling Lowestoft in that capacity. So it is not to be disregarded by the student or collector of early American household furnishings and tableware.
In England all sorts of pieces were made in luster, but the importation here seems to have been chiefly confined to tea-sets, and it is with these that the American collector should concern himself chieflyteapots, sugar-bowls, creamers, tea-plates, cakeplates, cups and saucers, cup-plates (for holding the cups while the tea was cooling in the saucers), saltcellars, pepper-boxes, mugs, and pitchers of various sizes. Dinner-services in luster are seldom to be found here.
There are four principal classes of luster ware: silver or platinum, copper or brown, gold, and pink or purple.
Luster ware was made by applying a metallic solution to the surface of a piece of pottery before the final firing. The metals gold, copper, and platinum were chemically dissolved and applied with a brush or by dipping. On account of the expensiveness of the metals used, the comparatively large surfaces covered, and the need for a low priced product, the solution was made very thin, and the fact that the ware has stood the test of time so well is a proof of the excellence of the work and the effectiveness of the process. The body was generally a coarse earthenware, usually reddish, sometimes grayish in hue. Later a porcelain base was sometimes used.
Luster ware was the work of no one maker, like Wedgwood ware, nor of any one place, like old blue Staffordshire. The time and circumstances of its reinvention or introduction into England are a matter of doubt. Copper luster was made as early as 1770 at Brislington, near Bristol, and prior to i8oo at Staffordshire, Longton, Sunderland (famous for its pink luster), Leeds, Prestonpans, Dillwyn, Swansea, and at other potteries in different parts of Enland. It was also made in small quantities at Wedgwood's Etruria works. The earlier, cruder pieces are hard to place; more is known as to the makers of the later ware, though very few pieces are marked. It is possible, too, that some of it was imported from Holland, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium, but most of that found in this country is undoubtedly of English make.
Copper luster, made with a copper solution, is the commonest, least artistic, and least valuable of the luster-wares, though by no means ugly or uninteresting. The appearance of the ware is that of burnished copper. The body is generally a coarse red earthenware, and many of the pieces are bad in shape and crude in workmanship. During its best period, however (about 1800), some very beautiful pieces were made, and these are well worth hunting for.
Copper luster ware was made chiefly for everyday use, and much of it is plain luster, or with a band or two of white or color. Other pieces were decorated in relief, with the ornament in white, or colored by hand in bright pigments on the copper luster ground.
About 1830 there came a second period of copper luster manufacture, the products of which were inferior to the earlier, though not to be confused with modern imitations. The glaze on these second-period pieces is inferior, showing specks, pimples, holes, or bubbles, indicating haste and carelessness in manufacture. They were frequently ornamented with gaudy flowers, or banded in horizontal rings in blue, cream, or pink. Needless to say, these pieces are of small value to the collector. Both they and modern imitations (of which there are few in the copper luster) are to be distinguished from genuine old pieces by the depth and richness of color, smoothness of glaze, and especially by weight. The modern ware is much heavier, and pieces that seem heavier than known pieces of genuine luster should be avoided. After once comparing the two kinds there is little danger of going astray.
The most valuable piece of copper luster, perhaps, is the Cornwallis jug. On one side is printed in a medallion a scene of the surrender at Yorktown, and on the other a portrait of Lafayette, flanked by emblematic figures holding a wreath. It is a large piece, excellent in shape. These jugs are now difficult to find, and are worth $300 or more apiece. Next in value, in the copper luster, come plain jugs, simple and in good form, and beautifully lustered inside and out, also pitchers of various sizes, more or less decorated. Bowls, tea sets, pepper pots, mugs, goblets, and very rarely coffee pots are to be found in copper luster.
Next in the number of pieces to be found comes the silver luster. It is not quite as old as copper luster, dating from about 1785, but is far superior to it in beauty and excellence of workmanship. In many respects it is the best of the English lusterware, and in artistic quality it rivals the finest English china.
Silver luster was made by a deposit of platinum on pottery or porcelain. The body was usually a reddish or buff earthenware of varying thickness. The tea- and coffee-pots were made thick to withstand heat, while some of the other pieces are as thin as porcelain. Wedgwood used a dark-red clay; a few potters used a dead white porcelain body, and others a yellowish, brownish, gray, or white clay.
The first purpose of silver luster was to imitate solid silver for those who could not afford the precious metal. It was, therefore, lustered inside and out-especially tea-sets, bowls, and mugs. Later the outside only was lustered, the inside being given a white porcelain glaze. The luster itself is brighter than the most highly burnished silver.
Some of the early pieces were excellent in luster and shape, but bore no relief or ornamentation. Others were modeled on the body in fluted and pearl patterns, and the whole dipped in the platinum solution, producing brilliant high lights on the relief. Some of the ribbed or fluted tea-sets are called Oueen Anne, because they follow in a measure the ornamental style of the Queen Anne period, though of course made much later.
Later came the decorated silver luster, the ornamentation of which is often very beautiful. Jugs, tea-sets, etc., began to be made with bands of color and with more or less elaborate patterns, sometimes in relief in white, and sometimes painted in silver on a white ground. Foliage, fruit, and birds were the commonest patterns, though a variety of others were used. Where the pattern was in silver the piece was first given a white glaze and the pattern was drawn very skilfully with a brush. In the relief pieces the silver was put on with a brush around the raised pattern.
Another type of decoration is still more beautiful, and is called resist work; it is found on tea-sets, jugs, bowls, cups and saucers, etc. The piece was given a white or cream colored glaze, and the design was drawn on it with a brush in an adhesive mixture which "resisted" the application of the luster. The piece was then dipped in the platinum solution, which adhered everywhere except on the pattern. The luster was fixed and the resist mixture burned off in a second firing, leaving a clean out pattern in white or cream. Fine examples of resist work are very valuable.
Still another type of decorated silver luster shows silver decorations on a pale canary-colored ground, applied carefully with a camel's-hair brush. This was made chiefly at Swansea. It is very rare; some of it is very crude and some of it very beautiful.
Some of the silver luster is marked, but most of it is not. It was made by many potters. Wedgwood the elder started to make it in 1791, but he died in 1795 and made very little; his sons made more.
Among the pieces to be found in silver luster are teapots, coffee pots, cake baskets, hot water jugs, cream jugs, sugar basins, plates, cups, saucers, bowls, egg cups, two handled cups, mustard pots, candlesticks, mugs, kettles, salt cellars, pepper boxes, vases, and pitchers. The tea sets and pitchers are the easiest to find.
From 1840 to 1850 second period silver luster of fair quality was made, chiefly a gray pottery with silver luster decorations. This is not valueless, cakebaskets of that period having recently brought as much as $50, but it should be distinguished from the older and more valuable ware.
There have been forgeries of silver luster on the market of late years. Though some close imitations are being made in England, most of these bogus pieces can be distinguished by their cruder shapes and duller, darker, cloudier luster. An easily detected fake is made of lead-glass, such as is commonly used for lamp reflectors.
The third group is gold luster, made in the same way by means of a thin deposit of gold on a dark pottery body. In the best pieces it shows the real light gold color, though occasionally it shades off to a copper tone, and hence is sometimes confused with the copper luster. In fact, I find that some socalled authorities do not seem to recognize the fact that there is any such thing as real gold luster at all. To be sure, it is very rare, but actual comparison of the gold and copper luster will at once show the difference.
Gold luster ware is often very beautiful, and is likewise very valuable. Very few pieces are to be found in the shops, but there are a number of good pieces in private collections in this country. Jugs and pitchers of different sizes, honey cups, ciderjugs, goblets, and mugs are among the pieces to be found. On account of the costliness of the gold, the luster was frequently used on only a portion of the piece, the rest being left white or partly decorated in color. Raised bands and relief figures are also found, and occasionally a combination with silver luster.
The term gold luster is further confused by its occasional application to what is better known as pink, ruby, or purple luster. This includes the rosespotted and Sunderland luster. This luster was produced by applying a gold solution, which, in oxidizing, gave a pink or purplish tint. In a few cases the mixture was so fixed as to produce a brilliant gold sheen in the high lights and a ruby or purple color elsewhere, thus adding further to the confusion of terms.
The real pink luster, however, is easily distinguishable. It is less durable than the copper and silver luster, possibly because the gold was used sparingly and was spread on thin. It varies in quality, but the best pieces are a close second to the silver luster in beauty and money value, and these best pieces are rare. A rose-tinted Sunderland pitcher sold not long ago for $500.
Among the desirable pieces are cups and saucers of the best period (1790-1800) entirely covered with a soft rose-pink glaze. Some of the pieces, notably the pitchers, resemble similar pieces of copper and silver luster in treatment, while others are quite different. Sometimes the luster was applied with a brush in floral or conventional designs in two or three tints that were obtained by the amount of the solution used. Others were decorated in spots and blotches varying from a light pink to a purplish color. Cups, saucers, tea-plates, pitchers, punchbowls, teapots, sugar-bowls, creamers, etc., are found in this ware.
Perhaps the most interesting, though not the most artistic, form of decoration on pink luster is pictorial in character. For this work transfer or printed patterns were much used, in brown, black, and purple on the pink luster. Hunting scenes, landscapes, Masonic emblems, and other subjects were employed. Figures of Faith, Hope, and Charity were popular, as well as sentimental sailor ditties, political and religious verses, etc. Portraits and historical scenes are also not uncommon, including American portraits and views, after the manner of the blue Staffordshire ware, which the body of these pieces resembles. In fact, they were made in considerable quantity by Enoch Wood and other Staffordshire potters. Pink luster was made chiefly, however, at Brislington, Swansea, and Sunderland.
Sunderland ware was a popular rose pink luster, shading to purple, the color applied in bands or wreaths, or covering the whole surface. Sailor jugs, Masonic jugs, and marriage jugs, bearing the names of bride and groom, were popular, ranging in size f rom a gill to a gallon.
One of the famous products of the Sunderland factories was the frog mug or jug. It bore the figure of a frog, colored to life, either crawling up the side or on the bottom of the inside, which was revealed when the mug was gradually emptied. Old frog mugs are extremely hard to find now. Another much sought for piece of Sunderland ware is a mug bearing a picture of the famous cast-iron bridge over the river Wear, which was completed in 1796.
Some of the Sunderland pieces bear the maker's mark, such as the impressed "Fell," or "Fell, Newcastle," but so much of it does not that it is scarcely worth while making a study of the marks.
Violet or purple luster is very similar to the pink, except that a slight variation in the process gave it a purple or violet color. Some of this was made at Swansea, but the bulk of it came from Newhall. This ware includes both hard and soft paste, chiefly a delicate white, decorated in black landscapes, hunting scenes, emblematic designs, etc., with bands of purple luster. Two marks were used: a large impressed N is found on the earlier hard-paste ware; later a thicker soft-paste printed ware was made, on which the name Newhall appears, printed in dull red or brown, surrounded by a double circle. Among the prints on Newhall ware are to be found the pictures "Mother and Child," "Reclining Maiden," "Children Playing with Each Other," and fanciful pictures of women in Classic costumes playing with children, dogs, or birds.
Now that a demand for English luster is beginning to be felt, it is safe to say that prices will advance. It is all comparatively rare in this country, and the wise collector will not tarry in securing what he can of it at once. Silver luster is perhaps the most satisfactory to collect. The resist patterns are the most valuable, good pieces bringing from excellent prices.