LIVERPOOL’S POTTERS AND THE QUEST FOR FINE PORCELAIN
Today’s piece is a porcelain tankard, which is a very fine example of the work of one of the leading protagonists in the formative years of Liverpool’s notable ceramics industry – Richard Chaffers. Potteries on the banks of the Mersey grew up as an integral part of the expansion of the port itself; as it grew, so more workers were required and, in turn, more domestic wares were needed to fit out their homes. In common with the majority of seaports in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were a disproportionate number of Dutch sailors amongst the visitors, as their nation forged its reputation for being one of the foremost centres of nautical adventuring. These ‘zeeleiden’ brought with them the knowledge of the predominant pottery type from home – Delftware – and as a result, Lowestoft, London, Bristol and Liverpool all developed their own form of the finely-glazed earthenware.
Chaffers was an apprentice to the pioneer behind Liverpool’s Delftware production, Samuel Shaw, who gave his name to the “nest of potters” who gathered in an area that became known as Shaw’s Brow. Chaffers served nearly three decades under Shaw’s tutelage, and – as you might expect during such a prolonged apprenticeship – accumulated every last trick of the trade. By 1750 or thereabouts he evidently decided that he’d taken his craft about as far as was possible, and he determined to strike out on his own and attempt to make genuine porcelain, rather than the rather utilitarian facsimile of the same which was Delftware. He turned his back on the indifferent local clays – quite sufficient for earthenware, but nowhere near fine enough for porcelain production, and cast his net far and wide before chancing upon a source of soapstone in Cornwall, which suited his purpose. With Liverpool’s burgeoning trade connections on his doorstep, importing the resource was not a problem and – in cahoots with Philip Christian and a recruit from Josiah Wedgewood’s own manufactory, Robert Podmore, Chaffers set out to produce the highest grade of genuine porcelain he was able to contrive.
The new triumvirate did not, however, forget their roots, and they also pursued the production of fine glazed earthenware, known as creamware. Up to this point in time, this had been the preserve of Wedgewood, the acknowledged master of the art, but even he was moved to comment than the rival material emanating from Liverpool was at least the equal of his own, but he was careful to underscore this compliment with the rider that it was “available for two-fifths of the price” – intimating that, though good, it was very definitely a cheap alternative, and not for the properly discerning customer.
Chaffers was able to keep his output competitively priced largely due to the volume of material he was able to produce, and the fact that – once again – being on the doorstep of the country’s leading trading port, he had unfettered access to trade routes across the Atlantic in to North America. Chaffers’ material was so commonplace in the colonies as to take its place in the colloquial language of the settlers there.
With creamware production underwriting an ever-growing business, Chaffers allowed the quest for fine porcelain to take something of a back seat, although he was constantly experimenting with different recipes, glazes, production techniques and kiln technologies in pursuit of his goal – this lead to the production of a number of very fine pieces, but only in limited quantities as they are tantamount to being prototypes – our tankard being an example of such exploratory work.
It’s almost certain that Chaffers & Co were on the brink of “cracking the code” to make commercially viable, top quality porcelain when – in 1765 – the company was dealt a catastrophic double blow. Robert Podmore was struck down with a fatal ailment and, before expiring, called Chaffers to his bedside for one last confabulatory communion; Chaffers contracted whatever contagion it was that was to do for his friend, and fared equally badly – they both died within a few weeks of one another. Philip Christian manfully kept the company operational after the demise of his two partners but was unable to further improve upon Podmore and Chaffers’ formulation, and their experimental porcelain pieces from the early 1760’s remain the company’s finest output.