Ceramics 101: A sampling of antique English wares

Editorial Staff Art

With the dizzying array of wares on display this week at the New York Ceramics Fair, it seems like an opportune time to review some of the basics of the medium. Though most of our readers are familiar with names like Wedgwood and Grueby, we’ve rounded-up a few quintessential examples of English ceramics as an introduction to the widely varied styles that have been created in clay.

English salt-glaze stoneware teapot, c. 1760 (Leo Kaplan Ltd.)
Stoneware, which previously was mostly imported from Germany, became the most common form of household pottery in England in the 18th century when it was modifiedto have  a lighter clay body and the addition of a translucent salt glaze that lent itself to painted decoration. The colorful pattern on this teapot, which measures 4 ½ inches high, imitates floral designs and complements the naturalistic design of the branch-shape handle, finial, and spout.

Whieldon-type creamware platter, Staffordshire, c. 1760 (John Howard)
This openwork-border platter is in the style of the potter Thomas Whieldon, with a creamware body that has been sponged with colored oxides and coated with a clear glaze in imitation of tortoiseshell. The mottled pattern in a palate of green and brown has become synonymous with Whieldon’s name, though it was later produced by other potteries including those of Josiah Spode, who apprenticed with Whieldon, and Josiah Wedgwood, who became his partner in 1754.

Slipware dish, Staffordshire, c. 1800 (Samson & Horne)
One of the earliest forms of English ceramics, slipware generally refers to wares that have been decorated with a contrasting “slip,” or a clay and water mixture (with varying degrees of iron content), that has been poured, dripped, or painted onto the surface.  Slip can be manipulated to create dynamic marbled patterns, as well as abstract, even primitive looking decoration like that seen on this handsome dish.

Creamware tureen, Spode, c. 1820 (Bardith)
Produced to imitate Asian porcelain, creamware—a buff-colored earthenware whitened with flint—was developed by Staffordshire potters in the 1740s and perfected by Josiah Wedgwood in the 1760s (who called his “Queen’s ware”) to become one of the most popular types of English ceramics. Prized for its lightness and durability, here, a large, undecorated tureen by Spode in the neoclassical taste (in the style of a Greek kantharos vase) shows off the natural beauty of creamware.

Majolica monkey teapot, Minton, c. 1860-70 (Cara Antiques)
Inspired by the lead-glazed Renaissance pottery of Bernard Palissy, in the 1850s the Minton Ceramic Factory in Staffordshire, England, introduced a new line of wares that were bold and whimsical in design. Natural motifs including animals, flowers, and sea creatures were the most commonly produced, and all were covered with bright, colorful glazes in saturated shades such as turquoise, yellow, and pink. Though costly in their day, majolica wares were meant for use, and were made in a number of forms for the table including platters, tureens, and vases. A classic example of Minton majolica, this delightful monkey-form teapot captures the exuberant taste of the Victorian era.

To learn more about ceramic history check out these Closer Look features on American potters Bonnin and Morris and Holland’s Rozenburg Factory.