Worcester Porcelain – the perfect starter

Forget Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid (Edvard Eriksen’s inanimate version, rather than the Disney/Pixar incarnation), Danny Kaye’s ebullient eulogy and everything else which may espouse the ‘wonderfulness’ of Copenhagen; instead, be advised that if any city should be deserving of that particular epithet, then it is unquestionably our very own Worcester.

If anything should draw your attention to this storied settlement – other than Ryknild Street and the River Severn – then it should be the quivering needle of a metaphorical ‘porcelain compass’ attracted, as it is, to the very heart of the place. In less prosaic terms, the actual centre would be the splendid Cathedral – resting place of both King John who left this mortal coil in 1216 and Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales who in 1502 followed suit at the insubstantial age of just 15. Arthur was heir apparent to Henry VII, and his death meant that his younger sibling, Henry, would ultimately ascend to the throne, taking not just his late brother’s erstwhile kingdom, but also his wife, Catherine of Aragon. Needless to say, the circumstances which gave rise to this union would suit Henry’s purpose once he became besotted with Anne Boleyn, using the marriage to his brother and Catherine’s subsequent inability to bear him a child as reason for her to be cast aside…

This brief interlude alone makes it clear that Worcester is demonstrably awash with history, and there is no shortage of fabulous buildings that offer further insights into the city’s colourful past and the personalities who warrant more than mere footnotes in its archives.

Back on piste, as it were, those of us with an interest in the world of ceramics are duty bound to acknowledge the significance of the early 1750’s. This was the pivotal period when the short-lived Bristol porcelain factory of Mr Benjamin Lund was relocated and merged with the already extant Worcester Tonquin Manufactory, an arrangement facilitated by the directors of the Worcester-based concern.

The most prominent members of this far-sighted board were physician Dr John Wall and apothecary Mr William Davis – the prime movers in attracting Lund to Worcester once they had invited local worthies to set up the company at a site close to the River Severn known as Warmstry House.

The earliest products were initially produced from the original moulds brought by Lund, although the range was to expand quite rapidly with the introduction of new and inventive forms – albeit influenced by contemporary and established shapes which were already commonly used by silversmiths.

As the title ‘Tonquin’ suggests, the company originally endeavoured to produce and decorate porcelains with blue on white designs in order to replicate those being imported into Britain and Europe from China (at the time, the city of Tonquin, or Tongkin, vacillated between numerous ruling dynasties – only becoming irrevocably part of Vietnamese territory in the 20th century).

Unsurprisingly, these early examples are keenly sought-after by any collector of early porcelain worth his (or her) salt.

The 18th century predilection for Chinese-inspired pieces was followed by an equally ardent desire to possess replicas of wares which originated in Japan, with some emulating the colours and designs peculiar to the Kakiemon family and other more fanciful interpretations of those exported from Imari.

However, laudable though it may be to be able to summarise the early oriental influences on European and British porcelain, there is a far more fundamental tenet which any newcomer to collecting 18th and early 19th century porcelains must be able to grasp: how one can tell the difference between hard paste and soft paste porcelain.

It was to the great Meissen manufactory near Dresden where we should turn for guidance here, as the craftsmen on the banks of the River Elbe had, as early as 1710, perfected the formula hard paste porcelain which possessed the same qualities of those ‘true’ porcelains already in production for several hundreds of years by the Chinese.

The oriental masters were extremely secretive of the exact formula used to make their pure white and opaque porcelains which were exemplified by the glaze and underlaying ceramic body being totally fused, so much so that when broken the two layers were almost entirely indistinguishable.

It took many years of trial and error by those involved in both Dresden and Meissen before a close approximation was achieved, with the prime mover behind the discovery generally accepted to be one Johann Gottfried Bottger, although to be strictly fair, Bottger put the finishing touches to earlier work carried out by Ehrenfried von Tschirnhaus who sadly died before the fruits of his labours could be properly acknowledged.

The unexpurgated truth of the matter and full sequence of events that were to lead to eventual success are the subject of a page-turner of a book by my good friend, Janet Gleeson, entitled ‘Arcanum’, to which I give my highest recommendation (Bantam Books – ISBN 9780553506921 )

However, for all its initial pre-eminence, the influence of Meissen upon ceramic design had begun to wane by the 1750’s and was surpassed by the French Royal factory of Vincennes (which was, in turn, superseded when the concern moved to Sevres on the outskirts of Paris.)

The French in the early years however used an artificial or ‘soft paste’ formula that in basic terms made use of a pure white ceramic body sandwiched by a clear glaze which lacked the “invisible bond” of the hard paste variety.

I mention all this as the arcanists at the Worcester factory – along with their competitors and co-conspirators at Chelsea, Bow and Derby – were all to follow the growing fashion and influence for all things French during the latter decades of the 18th century.

The output at Worcester during the fifty-year period from 1751 was prodigious to say the least and – fortuitously and in spite of the inherently fragile nature of porcelain -the marketplace is still able to boast an incredible number of surviving pieces.

This is, to some extent, the result of such wares invariably having been purchased by the monied classes, ever-keen to display their status and wealth. The porcelain obtained by such families was bequeathed to subsequent, successive generations as valuable heirlooms rather than passing in to more general use with the consequent application of more judicious safekeeping than may otherwise have been the case.

My personal interest in all things pertaining to Worcester porcelain was, to a greater extent, fuelled by my good friend and mentor Henry Sandon who I first met in about 1973 when he was lecturing at one of Geoffrey Godden’s celebrated seminars in Worthing.

In 1981 Henry and yours truly became colleagues when I was invited to take part in the BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow – since when I now appear to be acknowledged as the Roadshow’s answer to Ken Barlow of Coronation Street fame – that other doyen of sage Northern longevity…

In the same year that I made my AR debut, Henry and his son John invited me to spend a weekend in their company, along with my favourite shovel, down a very large hole in a Worcester car park upon which had once stood the aforementioned Warmstry House. Should we have been similarly deployed in Leicester, I may have unearthed the mortal remains of King Henry VII, the victor of Bosworth Field, but as it was I am still able to recall the thrill of digging down through a six feet of compressed cinders before unearthing a layer littered with no end of Wall and Flight period wasters and shards (dating to some four to five decades later than the earliest deposits on the site from Wall & Davis’s earlier endeavours from the 1750’s)

I never thought that I could have been so totally enthralled by the glimpse of half a blue and white tea bowl or a broken saucer glinting amongst the dark cinders (considerably more enthralled than were I to have chanced upon any regal remnants, to be fair)

I still have three or four shards of pottery that Henry allowed me to keep as a reward for my two backbreaking days down his exploratory pit. Would I do that again? You bet your life I would!

Trust me when I say that Worcester porcelain is good for the soul, and in the not too distant future we at The Hoard/ScottishAntiques.com are hoping to host a Collector’s Day at the Museum of Royal Worcester so that as many of you as possible can get a feel for what is a truly wonderful ceramic material.

Details will be published nearer the time, please ensure that you are following Scottish Antiques on social media in order to be kept up to date.

Eric Knowles FRSA. TR.

Follow the link to view some excellent examples of First Period Worcester available on our website: 
First Period Worcester

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