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Blue Staffordshire: timeless elegance in deep, rich hues

NEW YORK – Thanks to the plentiful availability of clay, salt, lead and coal in the area, Staffordshire, England became a bustling center of ceramic production starting as far back as the early 1600s. Hundreds of firms make all manner of pottery, from tableware and decorative pieces to more industrial items. Earthenware, stoneware and porcelain were all produced in huge quantities and Staffordshire became a major innovator of bone china, jasperware, transfer printing and glazing.

Staffordshire had a major advantage over other potteries of the day: it was the strongest in the middle and low-price ranges (although fine and expensive types were also made). It was the affordability factor that helped propel North Staffordshire to the largest producer of ceramics in all of Britain by the late 18th century, even though there were many significant centers elsewhere. Starting in the 1800s, large export markets took Staffordshire pottery literally around the world.

Historical blue Staffordshire ‘New York Heights from Near Brooklyn’ platter, 19th century, by A. Stevenson, with repaired rim, 12¾in x 16¼in, est. $150-$250, sold for $1,200 at an auction held Oct. 21, 2017. Image courtesy Nadeau’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Blue Staffordshire is what caught on most quickly with the buying public, for its deep, rich color and gorgeous, intricate patterns. Flow blue was a style of white earthenware that originated in the Regency era, sometime in the 1820s, also in Staffordshire. The name was derived from the blue glaze that blurred or “flowed” during the firing process. Most flow blue could be categorized as transferware, as the decorative patterns were applied with a paper stencil to white-glazed blanks.

“Blue and white is a timeless combination that will be popular in perpetuity, for its classic elegance and versatility,” said Pam Briggs, a pottery and porcelain specialist with Leland Little Auctions in Hillsborough, N.C. “The blue transferware styles adopted by makers like Staffordshire in the 18th and 19th centuries made finely decorated tableware accessible to an ever-growing middle class.”

Group of flow blue tableware, Staffordshire, England, 19th century, three tea bowls, a covered sugar, three saucers, a low bowl, three plates (two decorated in the Sheltered Peasant design). Eleven pieces total. Largest plate 10¼in diameter, sold for $240 at an auction held Aug. 4, 2018. Image courtesy Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Briggs added, “Traditional designs have lost some popularity in the past 15 years but have recently made a comeback as consumers begin to incorporate classic elements in their home décor to soften other, more modern pieces. The blue Staffordshire pieces that command the highest prices, and are most likely to hold value, are those with historical interest, like ones that depict a landmark building or scene, or those that evoke a personal connection with buyers.”

The multi-cultural element that went into the development of blue Staffordshire was explained by Tom Curran of Litchfield Auctions in Litchfield, Conn. “There’s a reason it’s called royal blue, particularly in England,” Curran said. “Historically expensive, the pigments were originally from the Middle East and used to decorate pottery with classic Islamic motifs, then perfected by the Chinese with their discovery of porcelain. Added to the enormous risks and expense of the early China trade was the closely guarded secret of porcelain.”

Lot of 15 blue Staffordshire dinner plates English, circa 1800. Clews, Adams, Wood, Stubbs & Kent, Longport and others, ranging in diameter from 9¼in to 10½in, est. $600-$900, sold for $700 at an auction held Oct. 13, 2016. Image courtesy Litchfield Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

He went on, “So, blue and white ceramics just screamed class and wealth and we saw the Dutch first copying the Chinese with primitive pottery imitations from Delft. In the 19th century, English potteries in Staffordshire found a huge demand among the general population for affordable imitations of the fine porcelain owned by the upper classes, with blue and white remaining the standard. Even when porcelain and bone china became more common and affordable, the charm of antique Staffordshire made it appealing to 20th century antique collectors for their mantels, china cabinets and plate racks.”

Not today though, Curran remarked. “Antique Staffordshire often has minute chips, crazing and knife scratches, isn’t dishwasher or microwave safe and screams ‘grandma.’ So, collections built over the years have plummeted in appeal and value contrasted with decorative blue and white Chinese ceramics still warm from the kiln stepping in at Walmart and T.J. Maxx prices.”

Historical Blue Staffordshire Soup Bowl the Beach at Brighton with Shell Border, 9¾in diameter, in very good condition, est. $50-$100, sold for $550 at an auction held Nov. 7, 2015. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. (division of Hess Auction Group) and LiveAuctioneers

In his experience, Curran concluded, “It’s unusual subjects and the earliest examples of American historical or commemorative subjects that still sell decently – John Paul Jones, the Boston Massacre, General Lafayette. While the prices aren’t what they were, they’re still terrific examples of the creativity and marketing reach of the Staffordshire potteries of the 19th century.”

Joseph Perron of Merrill’s Auctions in Williston, Vermont, said the intense blue hues of early Staffordshire held an appeal for both collectors and decorators alike, one that endures today. “Whether it be a small arrangement of blue Staffordshire items on a wall or a shelf, or a large collection in a cabinet, their rich colors can have a truly dramatic effect in a room,” he said.

Circa 1819-1835 deep blue historical Staffordshire porcelain plate with transfer decoration titled ‘America and Independence’ showing scenic landscape and Washington memorial cartouche, surrounded by festoon bearing the names of 15 states, 8¾in diameter, est. $100-$200, sold for $175 at an auction held June 21, 2019. Image courtesy Duane Merrill & Co. and LiveAuctioneers

“Also, despite massive quantities of this type of ware being exported to the American market in the 19th century, due to the delicate nature of the porcelain, it is quite remarkable that any of it survives, which makes it all the more coveted by collectors. The combination of the potter’s art combined with the skill of the printmaker executing the transfer designs also broadens the appeal of this type of porcelain. Strong visual themes delight the collector, and detailed depictions of historic events appeal to those seeking a greater understanding of the past.”

As most of the best examples of blue Staffordshire are now in public and private collections, Perron believes the opportunity for discovery of unknown or scarce examples becomes rare, so collectors will compete more for the best examples when they come to the market. “However,” he said, “condition and subject matter will continue to be important drivers of demand. Unusual forms and scenery will continue to demand increasing prices, but more average examples with heavily floral decoration may stagnate.”

English dark blue Staffordshire soft paste pitcher with repair to rim, 7½in tall, est. $100-$200, sold for $110 at an auction held April 22, 2014. Image courtesy William Bunch Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Perron added, “We see collectors particularly interested in pieces with fantastical depictions of quadruped animals because they’re flamboyantly graphic and employ an endearingly naive sensibility about what was considered ‘rare’ and ‘exotic’ in the 19th century. The historical scene decorated pieces were produced in less quantity than the more typical wares to begin with, so their desirability by collectors will continue to increase. It seems that this type of porcelain is an exception to many other ceramics in that it will continue to hold appeal to both older and younger buyers.

Production of blue Staffordshire, which had already begun to decline in the late 19th century, took severe hits during and following World Wars I and II. Some production in the area still continues to this day, but only a fraction of what it was during its peak years and heyday.

Tracing the History of Chinese Porcelain

Porcelain is often recognized and celebrated for its translucence, but it is far from delicate. In fact, by its very nature, formed and forged by fire, porcelain is like a beautiful phoenix rising out of the flames.

Pinpointing the period when porcelain was first developed is a bit tricky. According to some resources, it was at least two millennia ago. There are reported discoveries of “near porcelain” in regions active with civilization during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), as well as examples dating to China’s Eastern Han Dynasty (221-206 BC). Other resources point to the Tang Dynasty era (618-970 AD) as the period in history when porcelain became widely known.

Copper-red dragon and phoenix vase, Qianlong seal mark and of the period, sold at auction for $259,708 (inclusive of buyer’s premium) in February 2017. Image courtesy Rob Michiels Auctions

One thing that seems to be apparent is that each dynasty in the history of porcelain helped to hone its production and presentation. Be it techniques used to make porcelain, methods of exporting, development of regions rich with firing kilns, or variation in design and decoration, it’s evident that porcelain’s history is one of multigenerational influence and evolution.

Not unlike most antiquities today, porcelain rose out of necessity. Creating utilitarian vessels to serve people’s day-to-day needs led to the creation of the remarkably durable, yet luminous medium that could be molded, dried, and fired. During the Tang Dynasty, when some of the earliest formal kilns for porcelain production were established in Chinese provinces, new specialities were produced: celadon in the Zheijiang province, and white porcelain in the Hebei province.

Porcelain Point: The city of Jingdezhen in China’s Jiangxi Province is one of the most prolific and longest tenured porcelain-producing regions, dating back more than 1,700 years. Today many traditional porcelain-making techniques are being passed on to artisans attending classes at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen.

Celadon green vase with floral motif, Qing Period/19th century, Qianlong mark, 14” h. x 9-1/2” w. Estimate: $600-$800. Image courtesy Jasper52

In the beginning, export of porcelain for monetary gain wasn’t a consideration. However, that changed as visitors became more prevalent in China. With porcelain finding favor among the elite of Chinese society, it was not uncommon for leaders to bestow gifts of porcelain to visitors from abroad. After a trip to China around 850 AD, Muslim explorer Suleiman wrote that he had viewed porcelain for the first time, a revelation that attracted widespread interest. Paraphrased, and based on various reports of the translation of his writings, Suleiman reported that Chinese artisans used a fine clay to make vases that were both transparent and strong. Curiosity in the Western world led to a demand that turned porcelain into a product for export.

Porcelain Point: For centuries porcelain ranked #2 among China’s leading exports, just behind silk. This included years when Chinese emperors banned the export of all goods, including porcelain.

Porcelain Chinese punch bowl, 18th century, offered by Cohen & Cohen, during the 63rd Annual Winter Antiques Show in New York. Image courtesy Christie’s

Even with its deep and diverse history, the popularity of porcelain is far from a thing of the past. Today it takes pride of place in museum exhibitions, is a popular attraction at antique shows around the world, is the subject of study by academics, and is the focus of bidding battles at auction. Reporting on the 63rd Annual Winter Antiques Show held in New York earlier this year, former New York Times columnist Wendy Moonan selected not one, but two items from the porcelain family to include in her compilation of 10 stand-out items from the show. The highlights included an 18th-century punch bowl featuring a scene taken from a theatrical presentation, and a circa-1990 celadon platter made by Kawase Shinob – yet another example of porcelain’s appeal, whether it is of ancient past or contemporary times.


Sources:
A History and Description of Chinese Porcelain by William Cosmo Monkhouse
UNESCO
Gotheborg.com
Encyclopedia Brittanica
Independent
China Museums

 

KPM Berlin Porcelain Boasts Royal Lineage

Just as the secret formula for making porcelain eluded Western ceramics manufacturers for centuries, understanding its many facets can be confounding for today’s novice collectors. Take, for example, KPM porcelain. KPM factory marks yield few clues as to the actual origin or age of a piece because “KPM” was not an actual company name.

KPM Berlin is known for its useful wares, especially dinner services. KPM Berlin coffee set, Kurland pattern, 20th century, porcelain, polychrome painting with flowers and butterflies: coffee pot, six cups with saucers, cups, sugar bowl, creamer, six dessert plates, cake plate. Henry’s Auktionshaus AG image

The KPM mark was applied to porcelain made over a period of 250+ years by various owners, including European royalty. Collectors now use the term KPM to refer to porcelain produced in Berlin in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Porcelain, the translucent white material made from kaolin (a fine white granite clay) fired at a high temperature, was developed in China nearly 2,000 years ago. Porcelain is also commonly referred to as “china” because its first appearance in the Western world was in the form of wares imported from China.

Chinese porcelain was once so highly regarded in Europe that monarchs competed to acquire the finest pieces. They also attempted to unravel the secrets of its manufacture in hopes of producing elegant wares in their own royal pottery works.

Porcelain plaques were often decorated by independent artists. KPM hand-painted portrait plaque, signed on the back with impressed KPM and scepter mark, plaque measures 12.5in high x 10 in. Fontaine’s Auction Gallery image

Prussian King Frederick II (Frederick the Great) had a passion for the commodity known as “white gold,” and in 1751 gave permission for Berlin merchant Wilhelm Caspar Wegely to establish a porcelain factory. Most surviving examples of his wares are white figures, which are marked with a “W” and a combination of numerals. Plagued by the economic hardships brought on by war, the factory closed in 1757.

Purchasing Wegely’s tools and raw materials, and enlisting his top modeler and decorator, Berlin entrepreneur Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky resumed porcelain production in Berlin in 1761.

With the Seven Years’ War at an end, Frederick II bought the struggling company in 1763 and named in Königliche Porellan-Manufaktur Berlin (Royal Porcelain Manufactory of Berlin). The king allowed the Royal Berlin factory to use his emblem, a cobalt-blue scepter mark, in combination with KPM, an acronym for Königliche Porellan-Manufaktur.

Porcelain plaques from Berlin tend to fetch higher prices than comparable examples from other manufacturers. Fine Berlin KPM plaque of the five senses, impressed monogram and scepter marks, measures 16in x 10in. Fine Arts Auctions image

Until the abdication of Emperor William II in 1918, the company was owned by a succession of seven kings and emperors. It is still in operation today.

Through the years, competitors also used the KPM mark, muddying the waters for collectors.

The original KPM Berlin factory is famous for its dinner services, three of which were introduced in 1767.

Because Frederick II was the owner of the company, he often gave KPM porcelain as diplomatic presents. He personally strived to maintain and promote the porcelain’s quality, and to ensure factory employees worked in a satisfactory environment.

Hand-painted porcelain plaques are a popular collecting category. Monumental Berlin KPM porcelain plaque, 19in x11.25in, signed J. Wagner Wien, ‘Triumph of Ariadne,’ circa 1890, 11.25in x 19in. Royal Antiques image

The company flourished under Frederick the Great’s successor, his nephew Frederick William II, who came to power in 1786. The factory utilized the latest technology, installing efficient kilns.

Napoleon’s troops occupied Berlin in 1807-1808. They seized KPM’s cash and auctioned off the factory’s inventory for the benefit of French authorities. During this period KPM ran up huge losses.

The chemist Hermann Seger joined the company in 1878 and began to develop new glazes. Among his inventions were oxblood (sang-de-boeuf), celadon, crystal and running glazes. They were inspired by ancient Chinese ceramics.

KPM Portrait floor vase, signed Wagner, circa 1900, 50in high x 15in diameter, white glazed porcelain, polychrome overglaze painting. Auctionata image

Theodor Schmuz-Baudiss was appointed artistic director in 1908 and began to make greater use of the glazes developed by Seger. KPM porcelain of the Jugendstil era such as the Ceres dinner service made in 1912 is generally considered to be a paragon of perfection.

After the demise of the monarchy in 1918, KPM became the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur. However, the KPM and scepter marks were retained.

On the night of November 22, 1943, an Allied air raid destroyed the KPM Tiergarten buildings in Berlin. The factory moved into temporary quarters in Selb.

After World War II, the company became the property of the state of Berlin. In 1957, manufacturing returned to the rebuilt KPM buildings in Berlin-Tiergarten.

In 1988 KPM became a limited company known as KPM Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin GmbH. No longer a state-owned enterprise, KPM was placed in the hands of Gewerbesiedlugnsgesellschaft, a subsidiary of state-owned Investitionsbank Berlin.

Berlin banker Jörg Woltmann took over the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin in 2006 and became the sole shareholder. KPM celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2013 and continues to be a leading manufacturer of fine porcelain that is sold worldwide.