During the 18th century, the world's best pottery pieces were made in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. Learn about how the work in the area can today be compared with the ancient pottery of Roman, Chinese and Persian cultures.
The craftsmanship of ceramics dates back to ancient times, when, in the earliest period of human society, man found it necessary to manufacture vessels for food and water. Naturally, the methods of ceramic production has been refined throughout the following thousands of years, alongside the modernization of society.
The art of creating pottery is recognizable in tangent with some of history’s grand empires, such as the Chinese, the Persian and the Roman, from which many highly distinguished and skilled craftsmen mastered the fine art of producing ceramics.
There are as also outstanding European manufacturers to acknowledge, amongst them we can without doubt include the British potters and pottery manufacturers, especially those from the area of Staffordshire. The county borough of Stoke-on-Trent is the result of the formation of six neighboring towns, formed in the year of 1910: Burslem, Hanley, Tunstall, Stoke, Fenton and Longton.
Northern Staffordshire became the center of ceramic production in the early 17th century, the local surroundings having all that is necessary for a pottery business. Staffordshire had the required clay – and large varieties of such – and coal to fire the ovens and producing equipment, as well as local salt and lead. Struggling families were able to support themselves through their small pottery businesses. These enterprises were financed privately because there were no loans from either banks or state; those who needed financial support for their enterprises found their investors in close relatives or friends. By doing so, families kept full control over their own business and could remain independent. The potteries were often run entirely by one single household.
The trade was highly respected in the area and time, families of less means hoped to send away their sons to become an apprentice to learn the craft by semi-skilled or master potters, though this would depend on what the parents could afford. The trade would follow through generations: many sons would learn from their father and follow the family trade to hopefully one day become master potters themselves.
The skilled handcraft of their work did not abandon them; the talented potters’ heritage goes on throughout the many generations of the Staffordshire potters. This is something you can easily notice when comparing early pottery pieces to the older ones, the quality remains steady from the 17th to 19th centuries. The potteries were from the beginning very simple, all pieces manufactured through genuine traditional craftsmanship.
The competition grew stronger between the potteries as the interest in British pottery expanded onto European markets. The potters found themselves in a constant battle against one another, highly pressured to develop their craftsmanship in quality and in presentation. Secret recipes of clay mixes and glazes were kept safe from ‘outsiders’, and the potters were very careful whom to trust with the family’s ‘pottery treasures’.
Staffordshire was at an early stage of industrial greatness, and from the 18th century on its enterprises scaled up in both size and production. The well-known Josiah Wedgwood from the Wedgwood company expanded the craft enormously during the 18th century and is known for his clever entrepreneurial skills and business acumen. Wedgwood came from a family of potters dating back to the 17th century and was one of the world’s most outstanding English potters.
The ambitious and curious Wedgwood constantly experimented with the craft of ceramics, having a great interest in technology and science combined with art. These experimental tryouts led to his invention of the pyrometer, an instrument for measuring high temperatures, particularly in kilns and furnaces. Wedgwood surrounded himself with the right people and quickly modernized his business. He was later awarded the title of ‘Queen's Potter’, after presenting an outstanding set of newly improved creamware for Her Majesty Queen Charlotte, who granted Wedgwood the permission to name the collection ‘Queens Ware’, and thereafter commissions came from nobility from all over England, as well as from the rest of Europe. One particular outstanding order came from Russia from none other than the Russian Empress herself, Catherine the Great, in 1774 for an order of 952 pieces.
Wedgwood is best known for his famous ‘Jasperware’: pieces with one colored body, often in blue with low-relief with scenes inspired from ancient Greek and Rome. At the time, Jasperware reached enormous popularity since it was on track with the then popular style of neoclassicism, highly influenced by an interest in the ancient antique world. Wedgwood is an important figure of the Staffordshire potters, and the true antique pieces of his late 18th century manufacturing can reach incredible prices at auction.
This antique-inspired vase is one of the six 'First Day’s Vases’ from the opening of Josiah Wedgwood’s new Etruria factory in 1769, designed together with his business partner Thomas Bentley, who was known for his refined tastes and knowledge within classical art. The vase was passed through generations of the Wedgwood family line and was sold at auction at Christie’s for £482,500 ($641,000) – 302% over its estimated price. Therein lives the proof that the Wedgwood legacy and popularity continues to live on.
Alongside the refined and exquisite works of Josiah Wedgwood and his Jasperware, Staffordshire is also famous for its charming figurines, which are some of the world’s most copied pieces through time. This, however, has made it far more difficult to recognize a true antique piece, particularly as the reproductions have become better with time thanks to clever tricks to make the figurines look dated and antique.
See also: Lucie Rie: Art of the Tea Ceremony
The popular figurines of Staffordshire often demonstrate the life of Victorian England, which is why we often find pieces inspired by royalty and other famous figures of this time, such as politicians. Animals is another favorite, where you can find anything from the exotic, like parrots and zebras, to farm animals, like hens, sheep, cats and dogs. These Staffordshire dogs, made up of several breeds, are the ones which have reached an immense popularity. The Spaniel is the one considered the most famous and popular, with their sad but amusing facial expression and with a chain and locket. These come in pairs of two and are made for decoration for the fireplace or tabletop.
In regards to Staffordshire dog figurines and their popularity on the market, Cecilia Nordström, a specialist in Asian ceramics and works of art and European ceramics and glass at Bukowskis auction house, Stockholm, says “The Staffordshire dog figurines, dated back to the earliest production in the 18th century, are the most rare objects, especially if you find one of the more unusual pieces, such as an unique dog figurine of an unusual breed. The objects from the early production days are the ones which are most valuable and also desirable. Since the Staffordshire dog figurines have been a collector’s item, this is also why you might not see them too often on display for auction, the collectors come and go with the shift of generation.”
These charming pieces have spread all over the world. Of her experience with clients who have inherited dog figurines, Nordström says, “The clients, several of them, have shared that their fathers or grandfathers were away at sea and bought the figurines in English harbors and brought them back home as souvenirs or gifts.”
The Staffordshire dog figurines are most popular in English houses. Christie’s London confirms that a rare matching pair from the early production can be sold at auction for considerable sums. Since the Staffordshire figurines have been some of the world’s most reproduced objects, this has resulted in a large quantity and therefore the later productions are not as valuable.
To make sure you have a true antique piece on your hands, there are a few things you keep in mind. Investigate the figurine all over: back, front, sides and bottom; an antique piece has features that the reproduced pieces lack. Inspect, in particular, the bottom of the figurine to see if there are holes. Larger holes the size of a coin means these are not antique. However, older pieces can also have fire holes, where the gas was let out, though these are quite small. The bottom is not smooth or perfect on an antique piece and drips of paint have often slipped down to the bottom.
The entire figurine should be painted with small, thin strokes from a paintbrush, which indicates it is hand-painted and in not large, fat strokes of manufacturing trade. If you can see any mirror-like reflection in the decoration you can be sure this is not an antique piece. For the figurines which as a pair, these are never identical in old figurines – they are similar to one another but never perfectly identical. Some of the Staffordshire pieces are marked with the letter 'S', however this is not always the case with some of the old figurines.
Text: Kristina Gyllenberg