Further examination of Liverpool's porcelain trade, with an innovative decorative process, and the development of a world-wide brand !

So, we’ve seen that Liverpool’s first forays in to the production of ceramics centred almost entirely around earthenware – particularly Delft-style work, with its finely glazed finish. The industry had attracted a great many capable potters and painters to the city, and it was a natural progression for these folk to hone their talents and attempt to produce increasingly impressive and more saleable material. Before looking more at the development of the porcelain trade itself, though, a brief departure to look at one of the most significant developments with regard to the decoration of pottery – that of transfer printing, which can first be attributed to Liverpool from around 1752. This marks the city as the UK’s first centre of such an enterprise, certainly in a commercial capacity. The craft is attributed to a gentleman by the name of John Sadler, son of a book printer who had moved on the fringes of high society, having been marked out as a “fine sort of chap” during his time in the army under the Duke of Marlborough. Sadler (junior) bought his father’s house on Harrington Street in 1748 for a nominal fee and, having married the daughter of a highly regarded watchmaker, pursued a career initially in law. He quickly became disillusioned with life at the bar, having been required to spend most of his time defending himself against restrictive charters with which the city’s guildsmen sought to make his life difficult, supposedly through little more than small-minded jealousy born of the fortunate circumstances which saw John established in their midst. Fully appraised of the art of engraving, having spent a great deal of time observing his father about his work, John then somewhat fortuitously chanced upon an opportunity to really make his mark.

There is an apocryphal story of unconfirmed substance as to how Sadler’s “eureka” moment occurred, which suggests that the location of his dwelling – near to the “veritable nest of potters” on Shaw’s Brow – played an integral part in its coming about. It’s been suggested that local children would use broken or imperfect wares discarded by sundry potteries as playthings, and would similarly take spoilage material from the Sadler print-works and use these to decorate their pots. John noticed that, when damp, the printed image would be transferred from the paper to the pots, even if impressed over curved surfaces, leaving a sharp image which could be used either as an outline for subsequent further decoration, or as a finished design in its own right if the original image was of good enough quality, and the transfer completed with sufficient care. John’s father had recently passed control of the print-works to Guy Green, and the two men worked on the development of the process to a point where – so contemporary documents would have us believe – they had “experimentalised until…they ultimately succeeded”.

In spite of having noted the way in which the process lent itself to work with curved surfaces - bowls or coffee cans, or teapots or ewers - the partners initially set out to perfect the art of printing on flat, glazed surfaces – the Delft tiles which were produced in the city by the thousand. In a few short months, they were able to turn out an extraordinary amount of these tiles in a given period – with sworn statements, endorsed by any number of worthy gentlemen, stating that tiles could be printed at the rate of 200 per hour, matching the output of 100 accomplished hand-painters over the same time span. Not only this but wastage was minimal, the quality of the tiles absolutely uniform and – crucially – they could be sold profitably at a price which was less than half that charged for the traditionally hand-decorated tiles.

The most ringing endorsement of the quality of Sadler and Green’s work was to come when no less than Josiah Wedgewood himself employed their talents to print the designs on to his celebrated Queen’s ware material, shipped to Liverpool for the purpose from the Etruria works in Stoke-on-Trent ; it was now up to the city’s ceramicists to see if they were able to produce home-grown wares which were able to do justice to the quality of decorative application now at their disposal….

Perhaps the foremost name in formative years of Liverpool’s fine china industry was that of Richard Chaffers; a long-standing apprentice to the Delftware pioneer, Samuel Shaw, Chaffers first set up shop in the city’s renowned ceramics-making quarter in 1752. Having been content to continue production of his master’s signature product at the outset, Chaffers soon became obsessively devoted to replicating the much finer material produced by his contemporary, the same Josiah Wedgewood who was patron of Sadler & Green. He looked far and wide for a source of china clay which he could use to this end – eschewing the indifferent quality of clay available more locally – and he eventually chanced upon a supply in Cornwall which enabled him to embrace porcelain manufacturing more fully. By now in league with one of Wedgewood’s own former colleagues, Robert Podmore, and further locally-sourced talent in the shape of Philip Christian, Chaffers was able to turn out creamware to such a level that Wedgewood himself admitted that it was at least the equal of his own wares, though the compliment carried with it the somewhat caustic rider that it was produced for two fifths of the cost, and was therefore little more than a cheap imitation. Chaffers traded a significant amount of his wares to North America, making full use of the burgeoning trade routes across the Atlantic from Liverpool’s growing sea port – so much so that, in the colonies, folk in a bad temper were often said to be “as hot as Dick’s (Richard’s) Pepper Box” referring to pounce-pots bearing his name which were shipped in such bulk as to become figuratively commonplace. Chaffers and his business were going from strength to strength, but he was somewhat cruelly cut down in 1765; Podmore was taken seriously ill, called his trusted partner to his bedside for one last audience, and evidently transmitted whatever fatal ailment afflicted him, as both men promptly died !

This pair of untimely expirations left the way clear for any number of aspirant potters to step in to the breach. William Reid and his Liverpool China manufactory had been trading on a small scale since 1753, but had tended to deal mostly in earthenware without making the transition to the use of the whiter china clay substrates. Reid stepped up the volume of production at his bank, but did not actively pursue the manufacture of china to any great extent, although his development of high-quality glazes and a clean firing method was to be subsequently of benefit to the industry at large.

The three Pennington brothers, Seth, James and John all experimented in the trade with varying degrees of success. James turned out common earthenware for a time, then gave up on an abortive attempt to produce china and decamped to the employ of one of the Worcester factories instead, lacking the wherewithal to finance his own extended research; John followed a similar path, though soliciting outside investment to continue his “experimentalising”, but also gave up on realising that in spite of throwing not inconsiderable funds at his project, his material – though far better than it had been at the outset – still fell considerably short of what was being produced in Staffordshire and elsewhere.

Seth was the youngest of the three, ran the largest factory, and was to enjoy by far the better fortunes. He first produced outstandingly high-quality earthenware, developing an excellent bright white slip and vitreous glaze (the family had bought in to Reid’s business after its demise and reaped the benefits of its ground-breaking work in this area), and was able to employ some particularly fine artists who undertook the finishing of most of his wares. He was however, undone by his brother James – an inveterate drunkard in later life who divulged Seth’s production secrets to competitors in Staffordshire during a particularly garrulous session on the ale. Thusly undermined, Seth turned to china production in an attempt to re-establish a degree of pre-eminence, and in doing so, was able to produce some remarkably good examples, superbly decorated by his incumbent studio of painters.

Richard Chaffers’ one-time colleague Philip Christian took over his partner’s premises after the former’s death, and was able to continue the production of octagonal dining plates and large punch bowls which had been the works’ signature pieces. He diversified in to the production of full dining sets, coffee services, vases and ornamental pieces, but was unable to maintain the degree of separation in quality from the increasingly fine material produced by other sources in the city, which had formerly set the outturn of the factory apart.

Numerous other capable potters all helped to enrich and entrench the city’s reputation as the site of a very highly regarded industry, Thomas Deare, Messrs Rigg & Peacock – who took over Okell’s Flint Pot Works on the former owner’s death – Samuel Gilbody and Thomas Wolfe, to name but a few.

Ultimately, this enduring level of fictile prominence lead to a group of investors establishing the city’s largest-ever pottery – the Herculaneum works on the site of old copper smelting furnaces on the Mersey shore near Toxteth Park. Established in 1793, it initially grew slowly, turning out earthenware under the direction of Richard Abbey and John Graham. This was transfer-printed ware (using the contemporary evolution of Sadler and Green’s technology) much of which was traded to North America. So profitable was this export business that the premises were significantly expanded, and a great many workers were recruited from established factories in the Staffordshire potteries; it’s noted by commentators writing at the time that “the peculiar dialect of language as spoken (in this enclave) is almost unintelligible” – fine words indeed from Liverpudlians, known the world over, as they are, for their unaffected, precise and articulate enunciation of the Queen’s English; ahem….

The Herculaneum company traded successfully for some five decades, during which time it adopted the distinctive Liver-bird as its own distinguishing trademark, perhaps denoting the high-water mark of the city’s ceramic trade, and establishing it as a brand of renown across the United Kingdom and North America, a full century before the footballing endeavours of those from Anfield would ensure that the city was famed and feted to all points once again., albeit for something rather less prosaic than fine china !

Pictures below showing numerous Liverpudlian pieces with the name of the producing factory below each item.

As ever, here’s the link to the site-search for all our Liverpool wares.

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