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Museum Feature

Victorian Rococo Bone China

The Victorian Rococo Coalbrookdale Bone China by Coalport that is our Museum Feature represents the culmination of a remarkably competitive and innovative period in the history of English china.

Before the 18th century, porcelain was made only in the Far East. As the exotic material made its way to Europe (Marco Polo is often credited with introducing porcelain to the Occident, or western European region), pottery makers on the Continent became fascinated with trying to reproduce it. Their early efforts utilized soft-paste porcelain, which was fired at lower temperatures, was more porous, and far less delicate in form than the Oriental hard-paste porcelain. Over hundreds of years, artisans in Europe began to unlock some of porcelain’s secrets. By the early 18th century, often under the cloak of state secrecy, European artisans in Meissen, Limoges, and Sevres were producing beautiful, hard-paste porcelain pieces, so rare and expensive, that they were likely to be found only in the courts of kings, the estates of nobility, or the manor houses of wealthy mercantilists.

Manufacturers in England both admired and envied porcelain makers on the Continent. Unlike their European competitors, who enjoyed the benefit of royal patronage to underwrite their costs and guarantee their markets, English manufacturers were private enterprises, entirely dependent upon commercial sales in a highly competitive marketplace. As Simon Spero notes in his chapter in the wonderfully informative book, “Sotheby’s Concise Encyclopedia of Porcelain,” edited by David Battie, “Of the fifteen or so factories established in England prior to 1780, only two sustained production into the nineteenth century.”

But change was in the air. In 1751 Dr. John Wall, founder of Royal Worcester, developed a soft-paste porcelain using soapstone that would not crack or shatter in boiling water. Now pots could be produced for the tea lovers of England – who were legion. About two years later, Royal Worcester perfected a method for transfer printing over glaze to imprint designs on china, greatly reducing the expense of items that previously could be decorated only by hand painting.

Josiah Wedgwood was also experimenting with ways to refine English porcelain. He developed black basalt, fine-grained stoneware that was superior to any that had been previously produced. Wedgwood also developed “creamware,” true fine china that was easy to produce, relatively inexpensive to make, easily decorated, and attractive to royalty and commoner alike. In 1775 Wedgwood introduced his crowning achievement, “Jasperware,” the unglazed porcelain with classical figures in white or cream against a contrasting background, now virtually synonymous with his company’s name.

With these marketing advances and cost-reducing measures, English manufacturers could produce items affordable to the middle class, where sales volume would support their factories, while they continued their experiments to match the delicacy of the porcelain wares of their European rivals. One such experiment is attributed to Thomas Frye, who in 1748 added bone ash to his soft-paste porcelain formula. A few years later, the process would be popularized by a man named Josiah Spode. By 1820, bone china was the predominant type of dinnerware produced in England, and the phrase, “English fine bone china,” would become known around the world.

Change was in the air for the art world as well. The restraint of Neoclassicism was beginning to give way to the lavish designs of the Victorian era, including a revival of Rococo. And here is where we return to the lovely Coalbrookdale pieces, made by Coalport sometime between 1820 and 1835, in our Replacements, Ltd. Museum collection.

English pottery makers now had developed the materials to form, decorate, and glaze such intricate pieces, and had built the market to support their production. In design and manufacture of these items, Coalport of Shropshire excelled.

Coalport was owned by John Rose, who at the very beginning of the 19th century was involved with different partners, and manufactured primarily hard-paste porcelain wares, sometimes supplying them as blanks for final decoration in London. Around 1814, Rose apparently began working mostly in bone china, and the pattern name, Coalbrookdale, began to emerge.

Authors Henry Sandon, Joan Jones, and Garrison Stradling point out in “Sotheby’s Concise Encyclopedia of Porcelain,” that Rose, strongly under the influence of manufacturers in Sevres, employed “two artists, Cook and Randall. Cook’s specialty was flowers and Randall’s fancy birds.” It would seem that no artist’s abilities exceeded those of Cook – for Coalport, he must have been an invaluable asset. “Flowers and leaves are the very embodiment of Victorian Rococo,” the authors note, “and were applied to a wide range of objects.” Some objects, like teapots, were so covered with delicately pointed, easily chipped blossoms that they were “almost unusable.” Not only were specialized artists required to make such pieces, but specialized workers were as well. Sandon, Jones, and Stradling continue, “Flower-making is a highly specialized craft and only the nimblest, smallest female fingers could fashion the single petals, stamens and stems which were joined with liquid slip to build the flower.”

The detail work on these Coalport pieces is hard to believe. The small sugar bowl with lid stands just 4 1/4 inches tall (with rose lid handle) and 5 3/4 inches wide (with twig-shaped handles). A total of 42 individually colored blossoms decorate the piece, along with gold trim, and yet the design remains light, elegant, and balanced! The footed candy dish stands 8 inches tall (with rose lid handle) and 6 1/2 inches wide (with twig handles). The yellow flowers on the base are just 3/8 inch in diameter. This piece counts an incredible 145 individual blossoms, each one hand crafted and painted!

While these Museum Coalbrookdale pieces by Coalport are not for sale, we have a number of Coalport patterns that are available, along with a wide array of other fine bone china patterns from England. Be sure to browse our web site. And remember that we always invite you to visit! Here you can see an absolutely stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles! Our Showroom and Museum are open from 9:00am to 7:00pm ET, 7 days a week (except holidays); free tours are available from 10:00am to 6:00pm ET, 7 days a week. The Showroom and Museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you!

Click here to view our Featured Museum Pieces Archive!

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