This article details the history of 18th-century English porcelain manufacturers, such as Chelsea, Bow, and Derby, and notes some of the most popular items produced. It originally appeared in the November 1941 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Whilst much thought and attention has been given to the purely decorative figures and objects produced by the 18th-Century English porcelain factories, little study has been given to the many and varied accessories they manufactured, which have both a decorative and utility purpose even in these modern days.
Perhaps a slight résumé of the history of the foremost English porcelain factories might be of some assistance to the student of the potter’s art.
The exact date when the Chelsea factory came into being is unknown. Neither is the name of the founder known, but it is assumed that the factory started about 1745. This assumption being based on the existence of the Goat and Bee jug dated 1745, to which reference is made later. Although it is one of the earliest dated pieces of Chelsea porcelain known, it does not necessarily indicate that the factory began to operate in that year.
From a technical point of view, it is highly improbable that such a jug could have been made when the factory commenced production as the potting and porcelain employed is far from elementary, and obvious skill and knowledge is portrayed in its production. Therefore, it would be more reasonable to assume that the factory was founded in 1743 rather than 1745.
Charles Gouyn is the first name known to be connected with the factory. He was the proprietor and director prior to 1750, at which time he was succeeded as manager by Nicholas Sprimont who acted in that capacity until 1769 when he retired owing to ill health. Sprimont then sold the works to James Cox, who a year later sold them to William Duesbury, the owner of the Derby porcelain works.
Duesbury maintained the works at Chelsea until 1784 when the molds and models were transferred to his factory in Derby. It was during this period of the Chelsea factory’s existence, namely 1770 to 1784, that the products known as “Chelsea-Derby” were made.
On the site of the old Chelsea works now stands a small laundry, but many of the original surrounding houses still remain. A great number of these near-by houses were built about 1725 on property where once stood the country house of Henry VIII. Within half a mile of Lawrence Street, the site of the old Chelsea works, there still stands one of Henry VIII’s shooting boxes, and his mulberry trees bear fruit to this day.
It is indeed unfortunate that much of this part of London, so rich in the history of every form of art, has now been razed to the ground through aerial bombardment. Old Chelsea Church, where Francis Thomas, who was for some years Sprimont’s manager, was buried is now no more.
With the Bow factory, there is a little more definite data regarding its foundation, as a patent for the manufacture of porcelain was taken out in 1744 by Edward Heylyn and Thomas Frye, apparently as a result of a meeting with a man recently returned from America with several samples of earth brought from Virginia. The patent mentions that “the material is an earth, the produce of the Cherokee nation in America, called by the natives ‘Unaker.’” But there seems to be some doubt as to whether any quantity of this earth was actually imported from America.
Thomas Frye was an artist by profession, and one of his best known works is a portrait of Queen Charlotte. Not only was he manager of the works, but also decorated a number of figures. His daughter, Anna, was also employed as a decorator. One occasionally finds initialed examples of the work of both father and daughter. The factory originally was called “New Canton Porcelain Works.” An inkstand with the inscription “Made at New Canton” is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This name, undoubtedly, originated from the desire to imitate the imported wares from the East. Frye retired in 1759, but the factory continued to operate until 1776, when it was bought by William Duesbury and transferred to Derby.
As to the Derby factory, there is likewise a great uncertainty as to when porcelain was first made in Derby. It is, however, known that a young Frenchman named André Planché was modeling figures of animals and birds prior to 1745, which he had fired on a pipemaker’s kiln until he eventually built one of his own.
In 1747 he was employed by the Cockpit Hill Pot Works, which at that time had been in existence some three or four years. It was in 1756 that William Duesbury joined the firm, prior to which he had carried on a very successful decorating business in London, decorating Chelsea, Bow, and Derby to suit individual taste.
Soon after Duesbury’s association with the factory, John Heath, who had financed the works, became bankrupt, thus giving Duesbury complete control. During the following thirty years, until his death in 1786, he built up the finest porcelain works in the country, absorbing, as already mentioned, the Chelsea and Bow factories. The factory was then carried on by his son, William, who died ten years after his father’s death.
William Duesbury, Jr., took into partnership a man named Michael Kean, who, after the former’s death, managed the works, as well as marrying the widow. He retired in 1811, selling his interest to one William Sheffield, the firm then being styled Duesbury & Sheffield. In 1815, William Duesbury III, who never having taken any active interest in the works, leased the factory to Robert Bloor, the bookkeeper, who a few years afterwards was joined by his brother Joseph.
Eventually the Bloor brothers bought the Duesbury interest in the business and carried on until Robert Bloor’s death in 1845. The works were then purchased by a Thomas Clarke, who, apparently through lack of knowledge of the business, was forced to close the works only three years after taking them over.
The molds and models, including those of the old Chelsea factory, were purchased by Samuel Boyle of Fenton, Staffordshire, who alternately sold them to Copeland of the Spode works. There they remained piled up in heaps until 1924, when the author had the pleasure of discovering them.
It is generally accepted that the primary object of the earliest European porcelain factories was to endeavor to manufacture a porcelain body that would be comparable to that of the Chinese ware which was then being imported into Europe. Having thus succeeded, their first products were naturally influenced by the Chinese examples which they copied, and many of the early products of both the English and Continental factories have very obviously been decorated in the “Chinese taste.”
As the potters grew more experienced they turned to other sources for ideas whereby to express their newly acquired art. Local contemporaries, their costumes and customs also greatly influenced the potters’ modeling, and such romantic characters of the Italian Comedy Players, then touring Europe, proved a great inspiration to them. They also found that they were able to reproduce many domestic articles which up to then had been made of silver, giving to them at the same time a definite decorative value.
Perhaps the most widely known example of this influence is the Goat and Bee jug made by the Chelsea factory, a specimen of which is in the collection of Lord Fisher, inscribed “Chelsea 1745.” This jug was copied from the silver model made in London in 1737-1738. Nicholas Sprimont, who became manager of the Chelsea factory in 1750, was by trade a silversmith, having finished his apprenticeship in 1742. Therefore, it is easily understandable why so many of the Chelsea products of this period were taken from silver models. Not only do we find cream jugs, but salts, teapots and coffeepots, all inspired by original silver models.
As the various factories became more versatile with the passing of time, they concentrated more and more upon developing the utility side of their products. One of the first steps in this direction was the introduction by the Bow factory of a square hole in the back of their porcelain figures, a characteristic of this factory which is borne out in most of the figures they produced. The object of this was for the purpose of mounting the figure with metal branches decorated with painted leaves and porcelain flowers, supporting a candle sconce, thereby serving as a medium for illumination as well as decoration.
Progressing from vases, which, incidentally, were amongst the first pieces made by the china factories, to tea services and dinner services, they turned their attention to accessories which could be combined with these domestic wares; such as, wine coolers, sauceboats, sweetmeat dishes, and so forth. Sugar boxes were made in the form of fruit and vegetables — such as melons and cauliflowers. Honey jars were likewise made in the form of fruit, which gave the table or sideboard a cheerful form of decoration. Also, made with the same idea, one finds soup tureens in the form of a rabbit, and sauce tureens formed as birds, a typical example being a dove, decorated in natural colors, as shown in Illustration I.
One of the most popular forms of table decoration was the sweetmeat stand, though it is a matter of conjecture why so many of them were made in the form of a conventional shell with relief decoration in coral, coquillage, seaweed, and crawfish.
It might be easily assumed that these articles were made to hold the condiments and accompaniments for the serving of fish rather than to perform the simple duty of a sweetmeat dish, but there appears to be no proof available to uphold this theory. Whereas, it must be remembered that Sprimont, when working as a silversmith, was remarkable for his many silver representations of shells, coral, and rockwork.
This accomplishment undoubtedly influenced his work at the Chelsea factory as well as proving an inspiration to the other English porcelain factories. About 1750, both Chelsea and Bow made white salts in the form of a scallop shell supported by a crawfish. Some five years later the Bow factory became a little more ambitious and joined together three shells, very simply decorated with flowers in the Chinese taste, to form a sweetmeat dish, see Illustration II. Five or six years after this, Derby produced the spirited example shown in Illustration V, with three tiers of scallop shells supported by clusters of applied coral, small shells and seaweed, all in natural colors.
Only occasionally does one find dessert knives and forks made by the Bow and Chelsea factories, about 1755, or similar products of the Worcester factory made about 1760. The Continental factories were much more prolific in the manufacture of such objects. The Derby factory was undoubtedly the most versatile of English factories in the variety of objects it produced as accessories to domestic ware.
But it must not be forgotten that Chelsea likewise manufactured many remarkable domestic accessories: large soup tureens in the form of rabbits, swans, boars’ heads, and so forth. These were mostly made prior to 1760, whereas the majority of the Derby domestic accessories were made from 1760 onwards. The Chelsea factory at this time ceased producing such objects and turned its attention to the manufacture of another type of accessory such as scent bottles, bodkin cases, patch boxes and bonbonnieres, which were not only made for the English market, but for Continental markets, especially the French.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.