English Antique Tableware a Popular, Practical Collectible

This Staffordshire transfer-printed and polychrome decorated creamware pitcher by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, features a portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on obverse and first stanza of Longfellow’s poem “Keramos on reverse.” This piece sold for $103.50 in 2007.

In the mid-18th century, potters of England’s Staffordshire district began experimenting with new clays, forms, glazes and decorative techniques in creating tableware. This explosion of innovation owes much to the relative freedom granted to British businesses during this period that allowed the traditional craft and cottage industry to evolve into what would become a large, well-managed capitalist enterprise.

One of the leading lights in this field was Thomas Whieldon, who opened a pottery in 1740 and trained both Josiah Spode and Josiah Wedgwood—two of England’s greatest potters. Whieldon encouraged his apprentices’ experimentation, leading to the development of new ceramic bodies, glazes and decoration techniques.

The freedom of capital in Britain gave potters a ready source of venture capital to finance their experiments. The development of inexpensive, cream-colored earthenware—called Queensware by Wedgwood—was one result. Along with the invention of transfer printing in 1756 by John Sadler and Guy Green of Liverpool was an explosion of potters in England who came out with their own versions of both creamware and transfer printing. (This was also due in part to the poor patent protection then prevalent in the country.) Creamware was closely followed by the development of an even whiter earthenware, dubbed pearlware, and a softpaste porcelain made with bone ash (bone china) that was more stable and stronger than both hard-paste and earlier soft-paste porcelains.

While both the freedom of business and venture capital in Britain were quite important to the spread of English Staffordshire tableware across the world, perhaps the most important advantage to English potters was the British Royal Navy. As masters of the sea, the Navy provided enviable protection to Britain’s commercial shipping fleet, giving England’s potters ready access to markets around the world. As a result, the potters developed transfer-printed tableware specifically designed to appeal to various markets across the globe. They also expanded their potteries and introduced standardized methods of production, giving them the advantage of economy of scale. Dozens of English potters produced lines of transfer printed ware for markets such as Germany, the US, Mexico, Argentina, the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Spain and others, with local landmarks featured on the tableware.

Within a single generation, English potters making tableware had basically driven most of their European and Western Hemisphere counterparts into bankruptcy. They were even hurting the European producers of fine china, such as Meissen in Germany and Sevres in France.


An example of Ottoman Empire and English Views Staffordshire Transfer Printed Pearlware, circa 1830-50. It fetched $791 at auction. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

Staffordshire potters’ interest in experimentation did not wane until after the midpoint of the 19th century, when ironstone and later improvements in white earthenware came to dominate the world markets of tableware. But its dominance wasn’t seriously threatened until the 1880s, when France and Germany began producing mass quantities of cheap bone china. Markets such as the United States also began competing in the production of both ironstone and whiteware.

Threatened as it was, today much of the finer tableware around the world is still made in Staffordshire. Among many others, firms such as Wedgwood, Spode and Royal Doulton are still in strong competition with products made in both Japan and China.


Pick a type of British ceramics that you enjoy and that will either enhance your home or your personal aesthetics, whether it is creamware, pearlware, bone china, majolica, ironstone or any of the other general ceramic types. Narrowing your focus will allow you to establish a worthwhile and valuable collection, rather than a miscellaneous accumulation of unrelated items that will depreciate, rather than appreciate, in value. Buy what you love, and the best that you can afford.

Educate yourself within your chosen area of collecting. Start with the purchase of reference materials from one of the major booksellers. Better yet, attend quality auctions, antiques markets, exhibits and museum collections, where the best examples are available and may be examined “in hand.” There is no substitute for learning the look and “feel” of genuine antique ceramics. An excellent web site with multiple links regarding collections of British ceramics is English Ceramic Circle.


A pair of English Bone China Cache Pots, circa 1810-20, with minor damage, were auctioned in February 2005 for $75. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

Look for a maker’s mark or “backstamp.” Since 1842, British decorative art designs were registered at the British patent office, but not every registered piece is marked. The diamond-shaped registry mark, in use between 1842 and 1883, provides an exact date the design was registered, and information regarding the maker.

Try and purchase ceramics with few, if any, major flaws. Pieces with minor imperfections, if priced reasonably, are useful for “reference” purposes, but must be recognized as decorative articles which will not increase the value of your collection if, and when you decide to dispose of some of your collection.

Be aware that reproductions abound on the open market in certain popular areas of collecting. Until you are comfortable with recognizing the genuine article, purchase primarily from reputable sources that will authenticate what they sell.

Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at info@historicamericana.com.


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