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( Originally Published 1913 )
I suppose you know the romantic tale of how two Staffordshire artisans in the butter-pot and tilemaking industry discovered the trade secrets of John Philip and David Elers, mysterious brothers from abroad, who had settled at Bradwell and Dimsdale Hall, near Burslem, and were making wonderful "red thea-pots" there? It is part of that neverending, entrancing serial story, "The Romance of Trade," which somebody will write some day, I suppose, when people tire of novels all about love-making. The brothers would employ no "hands " but those who seemed to be small-witted; Astbury and Twyford pretended to be semi-imbeciles, and so gained entrance into the guarded works.
"Thea" had begun to be drunk in England in the year 1657. In the year 1693 John Dwight, the first great English potter, cited the Elers brothers before the Court of Chancery, alleging that they had infringed his patents for "the mistery of opacous red and dark coloured porcelaine or china. In response, David Elers allowed that about the year 1690 he and his brothers had begun to make "broune muggs and red thea-pots." The first red-ware tea utensils made at Meissen, near Dresden, date back only to the year 1706. So that Elers-ware is earlier than Meissen-ware. But red Dwight-ware must be earlier than both.The earliest red ware of all was, of course, Oriental in origin, and brought to England by the Honourable East India Company for sale in connection with tea.Coffee began to be drunk in London about the year 1652. What is called "Elers ware" was all intended for use with coffee or tea.
Elers-Ware Described. What is generally known as Elers-ware is rare, and will become increasingly valuable. It is beautiful in colour, shape, and ornament. One finds it difficult to believe that the coffeepot standing before me, as I write, was made in England so long as 210 years ago.This coffee-pot-I got it for half-a-guinea-is ten inches high to the top of the knob on the lid. All but the spout is perfectly simple in shape, but the decoration is richly tasteful. A classic mascaron, or moulded face and hair, lies under the spout, and suggests a modification of the head under the neck of the Bellarmines.Raised upon the surface of the pot and lid are wreaths of delicate ornament, small conventional flowers, curves, and scroll-work, which suggest a Renaissance influence, and, but for colour and material, might well be repousse silver. And I remember that, in Dwight's citation of the brothers Elers, he called them "silversmiths" by trade. A "Greek key" ornament runs round the base. The surface is perfectly smooth, and has an ivory-like gloss, which is not the result of a glaze, however. None of Wedgwood's rosso antico ware, even, can compare in thin solidity, rich colour, and fine surface with this.It also surpasses the "red thea-pots" from China and Japan, in every technical quality. I consider it a very lucky half-guinea's worth indeed.
Which is Elers, and which Dwight, or Astbury? The puzzle is to distinguish between what the Elers brothers made in this ware, and what was made by Dwight, and by Astbury? I fancy the style of orna ment must be the best guide.In the British Museum there are two pieces which have-lately only-been assigned to Dwight; the red of them is yellower than in others, the gloss on them is more shiny, and the ornament is Oriental, sprigs of the prunus-blossom being the style. As Dwight was earliest in the field he would probably copy the Oriental ornament, and confine himself to that.
On some pieces you see figures of men, birds, dogs, and so forth, in a style which seems to me particularly English; in fact, I own certain small brass chimney-piece ornaments of old-English origin which resemble these figures very closely indeed. These pieces, if one goes by the style of the ornament, must be, I think, assigned to Astbury, who set up for himself in this style of ware, after he had robbed the brothers Elers of the secrets which they practised unlawfully, infringing a patent as they did themselves.
But when you come to pieces which were ornamented in silversmith style, by the use of finely cut dies which stamped a decoration resembling German, Flemish, or French Renaissance ornaments in silver, it will not be a wild guess to ascribe them to the Elers brothers themselves. It is stated-I do not know upon what authority-that true Elers pieces are all very small in size. Mr. Solon said so, and he also thought that the colour of the body is of a lighter tint than that of the red ware made by other makers; but, again, I do not know other authority for that ; the " Dwight " pieces in the British Museum are lighter in colour.
Here, then, is a pleasant mystery for somebody to unravel. Marks tell us nothing about it, comparison and philosophical deduction are the only modes of research in this. At any rate, "Elers-ware" is a delectable and appreciative kind of thing to collect.