Construction began on what would become the Belleek Pottery in 1857, although the first objects to bear the characteristically Irish-themed Belleek trademark were not shipped until 1863. Built on the River Erne in what is now Northern Ireland, the Belleek Pottery initially specialized in earthenware, from floor tiles and dinnerware to mortars and pestles. But by the 1920s, porcelain painted with creamy and lustrous glazes began to take hold, and by 1946, the pottery ended its earthenware lines entirely.
The other important clay body used by Belleek's first ceramists and designers was parian ware, which had been developed in Staffordshire, England. Parian was used primarily for sculptural figures. Among those produced by Belleek in the late 19th century were “Erin Awakening from Her Slumbers,” which stands almost 18 inches tall, “Basket Bearing Boy and Girl,” and “Crouching Venus.” The pottery’s work was widely praised, but when Robert Williams Armstrong, the company’s influential co-founder and the inventor of many of its early glazes, died in 1884, Belleek closed its doors until it reorganized under new ownership later that year.
In its second incarnation, Belleek became a bit more of the company we think of today. Under the management of two brothers, James and Edward Cleary, Belleek hired modeler William Gallimore, whose protege, Michael Maguire, created the pottery’s famous “Shamrock Ware.” Edward Cleary also hired an Englishman named Frederick Slater, who came from a long line of Stoke-on-Kent potters, and left his formidable mark on Belleek. But World War I and the lack of exports that bloody conflict created caused Belleek, in 1919, to once again offer itself for sale and hope for the best.
This time, the savior was an area mill owner named Bernard O’Rourke, whose managers got the company through World War II, ended earthenware for good, converted Belleek's coal-fired kilns to electric ones, and focused on parian ware. Today, most of Belleek’s pitchers, vases, jar, jugs, and figurals are slip-molded before being hand painted and glazed. At the base of each piece is one of 15 trademarks, which can be used to date the object. Indeed, many antiques dealers sell vintage Belleek by identifying it as First Mark, Second Mark, and Third Mark, or “third green mark,” “blue mark,” and so on.