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English Pottery



English pottery, taken as a whole, has not the distinguished record of its porcelain. But it has at least one world-famous name in its annals, that of Wedgwood, and the celebrated factory founded by the first Wedgwood is still in full production.

Some people find this famous ware cold and monotonous in effect. As a rough criterion it may be said that if your tastes lead you to an adoration of Sevres you will not be an enthusiast for Wedgwood. Its cool, pale-tinted grounds of blue and celadon-green, lilac and lavender (though some black ware was made also), relieved by raised white figures, appeal to those who prefer simplicity of form to richness of decoration. But whatever your tastes, and whether you are drawn to Wedgwood or not, there can be nothing but praise for the superb quality of the potting and the technical perfection of the white reliefs.

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) was himself a product of the English potteries. Born in Burslem, he entered into partnership with another potter destined to make a great name, Thomas Whieldon, though they only remained together from 1754 to 1759. The outstanding feature of this period was Wedgwood's development of a beautiful new green glaze to be applied to ordinary biscuit ware. His reputation as a potter grew rapidly and by 1765 he was able to style himself `Potter to the Queen.' His famous `Queen's Ware,' with neo-classical borders, pale cream intint, has been one of the factory's most admired productions over a period of nearly two hundred years.

The pottery of the ancient Etruscans made a special appeal to Wedgwood. When, in 1769, he opened his new works, he christened it `Etruria' as an indication of his intention to revive the glories of Etruscan ceramic art. His pottery was strongly classical in essentials and it was very much to the taste of its contemporaries. Black basalt and jasper ware were also introduced, the jasper being very suitable for neoclassical designs, and a vast quantity of plaques, cameos, vases and bas-reliefs began to appear. These were rapidly successful. Wedgwood also manufactured various other forms of unglazed ware, including `Rosso Antico' (a dark red), `Terra Cotta' (light red) and `Drab Ware' (olive grey), all of which were very much prized.

But it is significant that in the early nineteenth century, when the Romantic Revival was in full swing, Wedgwood's business fell off and there were soon serious financial losses. There were other causes than a mere swing of fashion; business was bad generally as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. But there is no doubt that the Classical Revival had begun to spend its force, and in 1828 the firm's London show-room had to be closed; it was not reopened until the 1870S. By then the Romantic movement had in turn begun to dwindle and from that time until now Wedgwood has been firmly established again in popular favour.

The factory still turns out fine examples of its traditional patterns and some of these are certain to be future collectors' pieces. Wedgwood pottery has a devoted following in America and many fine collections of it have been made there, especially of the black basalt ware and the `Wedgwood' busts, which are much esteemed by the Americans.

Wedgwood is easy to identify. There is no confusion possible over its marks, since the name is plainly indicated, pieces made before 1891 being without the word `England' which was then added. Sometimes the word `Etruria' appears also.

As suggested above, Wedgwood is not to everyone's taste, but few artists in ceramic history have impressed a particular style so firmly on the popular imagination. `Wedgwood blue' is such a favourite that many people seem surprised when they see examples of the firm's work with a lilac or pale green ground. In some ways, the pale green is the loveliest tint of all, but it has never achieved anything like the popularity of the blue and probably never will.

Before leaving china collecting it may be as well to say a little about marks. There are some excellent guides to these and many books on china give an appendix of those you are most likely to meet. The widely famous ones are quite easy to remember-the Red and Gold Anchors of Chelsea, the Crossed Swords of Meissen, the interlaced L's of Sevres, the Crescent and Seal of Worcester, the Beehive of Vienna, the Griffin of Rockingham, and so on. But, however perfect your memory, it is very difficult to keep many of the lesser ones always at your finger tips; I personally find it specially hard to remember Chinese marks, although I have made many efforts to do so. For a time they can be kept fresh and distinct in the mind and then something seems to happen to blur them together so that Yung Cheng and Ch'ien Lung and Ch'ia Ching seem one and the same. For this reason it is best to travel round with a small pocket book of porcelain marks (there are several good ones) which can be readily referred to when wanted. The mark on a piece of china is very far from being a final confirmation of its true origin, but it is helpful to know at least what the object professes to be.

Here then in china collecting is a vast wealth of beauty waiting to be explored. What you cannot buy you can study in the big museums and country houses; if you are not well placed for these you will find some splendid books in most reference libraries, often lavishly illustrated, on porcelain and pottery, and much can be learned from these. (Incidentally, a collection of books on antiques, including some of the magnificent works like Hobson's superb Worcester Porcelain would be well worth making.)

Porcelain is so rich a subject that the collector who plunges straight into it without guidance may find himself at sea for some time. An enthusiasm for beauty of form and a passion for fine decoration will take him far, but he needs more than that. He needs systematic knowledge, and, having got it, the pleasure of recognition can be very rewarding. Moreover, the rewards of ceramic knowledge can be material as well as artistic. It seems likely that of all departments of the antiques market porcelain is the one which will command ever higher and higher prices as time goes on, and an astute purchase now may mean a considerable profit later on. No collector worth his salt collects for money reasons alone; still, there is nothing wrong in honest gain if you have had the skill to use your knowledge of china at the right time and place.

But the hunt is now a stern one and the army of questing collectors and eagle-eyed dealers grows every year. Anything like a real `porcelain bargain' is difficult to come by; in the great sale-rooms of the country almost an impossibility. But this applies only to specimens of the more famous wares. If you can be content with porcelain which is beautiful in itself without insisting that the mark shall be of classic significance you can still do very well for a moderate sum. Certainly anyone prepared to spend up to the cost of, say, a good new car on a collection could have a very handsome assemblage indeed. It wouldn't be all Old Worcester, Chelsea and Sevres, but it could make something very charming to live with, and an investment certain to show a dividend in five or ten years' time.