Monday, August 1, 2016

My Not So Illicit Affair with Staffordshire Wares

Transferware in the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont
Certain near relations give me a hard time about the number of plates I have hanging on my walls. (You know who you are).   My collection of Staffordshire transferware is modest compared to those  serious collectors and scholars whom I encounter in the Internet - but my love for it is real and enduring.  

I love to think of the people who worked so hard to make these things out of the earth around Staffordshire (which is a county in the English midlands): the skill, the effort, the quest to make things as pretty  as possible.  The wares were designed to appeal to the sweet tooth of the common man: they were shown off on dressers and cherished as family treasures in modest homes around England, the empire, and the USA.  (Those of you who have read Laura Ingalls Wilder must recall the China Shepherdess that accompanied the Ingalls family on their travels).  The actual creation of these pretty things was, however, a gritty, industrial business.  The towns of the potteries are not and never have been elegant vacation spots, which endears them to me - a native of the similarly-regarded Schenectady, New York.

The output of the potteries in the 19th century was colossal, and much of it destined for the American market.  I often wonder that the whole county of Staffordshire wasn't swallowed by an enormous pot hole. (That phrase, BTW, comes from the practice of digging good clay out of any old place in Staffordshire).
No China Shepherdess in this collection but you get the idea - Shelburne Museum
In Up, Back, and Away I cast Lady Fisher in the role of a Potteries Heiress.  Her industrial-based fortune made her and her brother, who redoubled the family fortune, into earthenware aristocrats - not so good as the old-time gentry but whose money bought grudging entry to the upper class.  There were many self-made men with a genius for pottery production - Josiah Wedgwood being the most famous example.

Whenever I'm out in an antique store, or even a modern kitchen goods store (they are still making pottery in Staffordshire, thank goodness) my eye always goes to the transfer-printed wares.  If you have any interest in the history of the English Potteries, here is a can't miss web site.  I'll venture a suggestion: next time you find yourself presented with a pretty old plate or cup, flip it over and have a look at the mark.  You might then enter that information at that website, or just plain old Google, and find there is story to that pattern and to the history of the manufacturer waiting for you. 

Enourmous Staffordshire jugs - also at Shelburne Museum.