Agateware – stoneware or earthenware pottery featuring whirls of contrasting clays – mimics natural agate, a gemstone once prized in jewelry across the Near East, Greece, and Rome. Allan Anawati, Director of Medusa-Arts Gallery, explains, “In those times, similar pieces produced in glass or bronze would have been valued at a fraction of their price. Agate was, more or less, reserved for the elites.”
Pieces designed to replicate agate have been discovered at 8th-century Tang dynasty burial sites. Yet Staffordshire English potters, perhaps inspired by polished pebbles displayed in gentlemen’s cabinets of curiosity, did not create similar ones until the 1670s.
Unlike mugs and jugs which are marbleized on their surface, agateware featured identical patterns inside and out. In laid agateware pieces, components were produced before determining their forms. Initially, bands of light and dark clays were laid alternately, one upon the next, as a baker would when constructing a layer cake. Clays had to be chosen carefully, because despite differing densities, shrinkage rates, plasticity, elasticity, strength and firing temperatures, the whole had to kiln-dry evenly to succeed. Following that step, these so-called “layer cakes” were laboriously and repetitively processed into patterned sheets that emulated the desired scale and complexity of natural agate swirls.
After that, potters carefully pressed completed sheets into delicate molds, one for each vessel component. An agateware pectin shell-shaped teapot, for instance, required separate molds for its finial, lid, body, spout, handle and feet. Once assembled, agateware products were lead- or salt-glazed to a high finish.
Thrown agate, the other technique for creating agateware, was formed by shaping stacked and restacked clays into balls, then throwing them on the potter’s wheel and shaping them into bowls, platters and the like. Though lathe trimming revealed their striped, spiraling patterns to great effect, thrown agateware was thicker and coarser than laid agateware.
In the 1740s, Thomas Whieldon, a Stoke-on-Trent Staffordshire potter, refined agateware production further by staining white clays with oxide pigments. His accounts note small numbers of bowls, tureens, ewers, sugar dishes, plates, trinkets and hollowware teapots and coffeepots, some resembling silver and pewterware designs of the day. Because surviving pieces are unmarked, however, determining attribution is difficult.
A decade later, the well-renowned Whieldon partnered with young Josiah Wedgewood. On establishing a pottery of his own, Wedgwood applied Whieldon’s agateware techniques to his opulent neo-classical urns and vases. Other Staffordshire potters, including Thomas Astbury, Daniel Bird, Ralph Wood, John Thomas and Joshua Mayer also created agateware. So did the Spode Pottery, notably during their Copeland & Garrett period (1833-1847).
Because of the exacting demands of production, most pieces of agateware were small, and took the forms of snuff boxes, sauce boats, cutlery handles, pickle trays, tea wares and charming animal figurines. The smallest of all, however, were agateware marbles, which might have been meant to replicate fashionable natural marble spheres that wealthy 18th-century travelers acquired during a Grand Tour of Europe.
Some may find delicate, kaleidoscope-swirled agateware too dizzying to gaze upon. Others who delight in their richness, refined beauty and colorful backstory prize them as true ceramic gems.