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That Bit Of Old Porcelain
( Originally Published 1913 )
It was a bit of heavy, bluish-white, black-specked china which stood in a corner of the window of the little curiosity shop. I took it up, and the first thing that struck me about it was its weightiness, considering its size ; the next thing I noticed was that it was hardly translucent. The heaviness and the lack of translucency were evidently due to the thickness of the material; the paste was thick, almost clumsily thick, and the glaze had been thickly applied. The result was, so far as translucency is concerned, that even when I held the article up close to the bulb of an electric lamp I could see only a dim, brownishyellow light faintly penetrating that part of the base which neighboured the rim of it, so that the porcelain was practically not translucent at all; a novice might well have thought it a bit of earthenware, for earthenware is, of course, opaque.
The Feel of the Glaze. But it felt like porcelain. The " feel " of porcelain is unmistakable, particularly when it is eighteenth-century English and " soft." Blindfold I should have known it as being china; being " soft " paste with a " soft " glaze over it, the glazed surface of it had an exquisite, velvety feel, yet without the slight roughness of velvet, of course; I cannot call it a silky feeling, neither might one call it satiny; velvety is the best word to use. The glazed surface had almost the springy and resilient feel of velvet when you press it with the ball of your thumb; the ball of the thumb, by the by, is the best part of the hand to use when judging china by the feel.
Understand that up to now I am speaking of the glazed parts of the surface only ; the next thing was to test any unglazed part of the surface by the feel. I turned the article over. It was a butter-dish, I ought to have mentioned: a lidless butter-dish, that never had a lid; oval in shape, with sides the containing vertical lines of which make right angles with the base at any point of the oval. I turned it over, I say, and looked at the base.
The Feel of the Paste. When I looked at the base I noticed the absence of any trade-mark; except for two or three little specks of blue pigment under the glaze of the base, marks of any kind or size were entirely missing; marks were not going to help me to determine to which of the' the butter-dish belonged. Most of the " base " was sunk, being surrounded by a ring-rim, or real base, upon which the butter-dish stood. This rim was a quarter of an inch wide, and the twelfth of an inch higher (lower when standing) than the sunken portion of the whole base. This rim had been ground fairly flat, to enable the butter-dish to rest on a table level; and as the grinding had removed the glaze from the rim, by feeling the rim I could get at the feel of the paste, for the baked paste was exposed there. I noticed, however, that at the edge of this ground rim the edge of the glaze felt lumpy, as though while still liquid it had dripped down in gummy tears, so to speak. And that suggested to me that I was holding a bit of " Bow." The feel of the paste of the rim, to the ball of the thumb, was rather soapy, something like the feel of the surface of a bit of toilet soap, the toilet soap being not wet, nor yet cracking with dryness. So that to the ball of the thumb the rim-paste had all the feel of true "soft" English china, and might be " Worcester," or " Derby," or " Lowestoft," so far as that is concerned. Indeed, the problem was to discover to which of the three makes, Bow, Worcester, or Lowestoft, the butter-dish belonged; for it was blue-and-white, very early, hand-painted, and embossed. Now Worcester paste was soaplike but very soft ; so was Lowestoft paste. I knew that Bow paste was usually harder than either. So I scratched the edge of my thumb-nail along the rim, the nail being vertical to the rim as I did so, " Bow! " I said to myself, for this scratching told me that the paste was rather hard-not hard in the sense and degree that Dresden or Bristol or New Hall or modern chinas are hard; but harder than the soft paste of " Lowestoft" or "Worcester."
The Look of the Glaze. By the look of the glaze I could tell that it was " soft," because (1) I could see the under-glaze decoration through it, as one sees a miniature through its glass, and because (2) when I " flashed " it, or let light shine across it, the decorated parts were as shiny as the rest. In one or two places the glaze had become discoloured to a pale brown, but did not show the fine streaky veining in brown which is characteristic of some old " Derby " ; besides, the piece, as a whole, was too heavy and clumsy and illpainted to be " Derby," for the Derby china works began operations when porcelain-making in England had quite become an advanced art. I noticed that the blue of the decoration had " run " a little under the glaze, and that tiny black specks, due (as Mr. Blacker writes) " to smoke or the incomplete combustion of the wood which was used for firing," were everywhere visible under a lens, and I knew that this " running " and spottiness were signs of " Bow." A certain pitting in the glaze of the sunk base suggested " Worcester," but the glaze there came quite up to the ring-rim, which the glaze on " Worcester" seldom does.
The Decoration. The piece was painted by hand, not printed in blue ; ergo, it is an early piece ; the blue was deep and rich, but not blackish like the Worcester blue. The painting of the little vignettes in the Chinese style was too poor to be " Worcester," and so poor that it might well have been done at Lowestoft. The embossing also, in a floral pattern, might either be " Lowestoft " or " Worcester."The blue flower on a leafy sprig, inside the butter-dish, might either be "Worcester" or "Bow."But one of the vignettes had been strengthened in colour by strokes of blue being applied over the glaze, after the second firing, and the pigment of these strokes had not sunk in, as in "Worcester" or "Lowestoft" it would do; in fact, it stood out in slight relief, as decoration on "hard " porcelain does, and that, together with the feel of the paste, told me that the stuff was harder than " Lowestoft " or " Worcester."
The Decision. All this examination had taken up a tithe of the time it has taken you to read this analysis. I turned to the dealer, to whom I had not spoken so far. " What do you call this ? " I asked.
" It's 'Old Worcester,' sir," said he. "Doctor Wall period Worcester, unmarked."
"No," said I. "I don't think so. I'm pretty sure it is ` Bow.' "