The roots of Royal Worcester date to 1751, when a group of 14 English businessmen, including Dr. John Wall, William Davis, and Richard and Josiah Holdship, signed a deed of partnership to produce porcelain. This early incarnation of the company didn’t start from the ground up. Most of its know-how, equipment, materials, and workers initially came from an existing porcelain factory in Bristol, which had been housed in a building called Lowdin’s China House in Redcliffe Backs and owned by Benjamin Lund and William Miller.
The English were relative latecomers to porcelain. For centuries, China had held the secrets of making what’s called hard-paste porcelain, which used kaolin clay. Because the body and glaze of this “china” ware was made out of the same substance in different stages of decay, the firing process created a hard product that was impervious to liquids and resistant to scratching.
Europeans coveted this imported china dinnerware, and struggled to figure out how to make it, creating lower-quality soft-paste porcelain out of various materials. Finally, in th...
Despite these advances on the continent, British potteries still didn’t have as much access to kaolin, and relied on their own trademark soft-paste porcelain formulas. The porcelain factory in Chelsea combined chalk and lime with ground-up glass; in Bow, soft-paste china was improved with the addition of animal-bone ashes, producing what is known as bone china.
The Bristol, and then Worcester, porcelain stood out, however, as perhaps the finest soft-paste china of its time. It was made out of a steatize granite known as soapstone. It seemed to have many of the qualities of hard-paste china, it was finer-grained than other soft-pastes, and its glaze rarely crazed, which is when the surface is broken by fine lines.
Much of the Bristol china—also call Lowdin’s, Redcliffe Backs, or Lund’s Bristol porcelain—is similar to early Worcester porcelain, with the same shapes, molding, restrained cobalt-blue underglaze painting, and Chinese designs rendered in overglaze enamels and painted with delicate hair lines. This is because two of Bristol’s best-trained workmen, Robert Podmore and John Lyes, moved to Worcester with the factory.
Collectors love to find pieces of Lund’s Bristol, but they’re difficult to distinguish from Worcester items. Just a few sauce and butter boats have “BRISTOLL” or “BRISTOL” embossed on the bases. Bristol shapes include small hexagonal bottles with bulbous bases and long necks, as well as vases as tall as 14 inches, including their covers.
The earliest Worcester and Bristol pieces can be identified by holding them up to the light. They often appear to have a greenish translucency, caused by the touch of cobalt added to the yellowish clear lead glaze. Another trademark of early or “First Period” or Dr. Wall Worcester porcelain is that the thin, clear glaze appears to be shrinking away from the foot rims of bowls, cups, plates, and other dishes. This is because excess glaze was wiped away from the edge. Even Worcester’s cobalt underglaze is distinctive—it exhibits a violet tinge.
Easily recognizable First Period Worcester pieces include a globe-shaped teapot with a flower knob for the lid, an oval “sparrow-beaked” jug with a grooved loop-handle, a mask-lipped “cabbage-leaf” molded jug, and an oval tea-pot with a tiny lid. Figures, and even vases, were rare during this time, but the factory did produce cornucopias, trellis-sided openwork baskets, decorative tureens, shell-shaped centerpieces, and pickle-trays shaped like scallop shells or ivy leaves.
Early Worcester is often unmarked, but several different marks were used including an open and solid crescent, a fretted square, the initial letter “W,” as well as crossed swords copied from Meissen and accompanied by a “9” or “91” with sets of fake Chinese characters painted in underglaze blue or overglaze black. Often, a tea cup and a saucer clearly belonging to the same set feature two different marks, say the crescent and the fretted square—these may have been taken from different stockpiles and then sold as part of the same service.
Most of the early Worcester patterns were characteristically uncluttered in design, displaying a British spin on the Chinese blue-and-white style. Imagery included slender Chinese women, landscaped pagodas, boat scenes, and exotic trees, flowers, and shrubbery. The porcelain itself was textured with brocaded patterns.
Around 1755, Worcester was also imitating styles created by Meissen in Germany, using a new style of multi-colored floral imagery, as well as “dry blue” enamel and fine-brush painting techniques. The Meissen influence also led to the use of naturalistic birds, figures in landscapes, and Rococo scrolls.
By 1760, Worcester was also copying French potteries, an influence seen in the formal Hop Trellis patterns featuring red berries, foliage, and trellis-like “hop poles.” Another style, featuring wheat sheaves and quails, floral arrangements, and beasts, was knocked off from the Kakiemon family of potters in Japan. From Sèvres, Worcester picked up the popular festooned-wreathes motif. Around that time, the copper-plate transfer process—already created for the overglaze designs by engraver Robert Hancock—was perfected for the cobalt underglaze. The blue-and-white Pine-Cone and Strawberry patterns were made using this technique.
In this era, Worcester sent much of its porcelain to outside decorators to be painted. James Giles of London in particular was known for his exotic birds, based on the Chinese Golden Pheasant and painted with a full brush—examples include the “agitated bird,” with its raised plumage, as well as realistic looking sliced fruit. His workers were usually known by only their nicknames, such as Sliced Fruit Painter, but Jefferyes Harnett O’Neale became well-known for his images of Aesop’s Fables, which were used by Worcester and other potteries.
When the Chelsea factory closed in 1768, Worcester hired several of its top painters, which led to the introduction of ground colors like mazarine blue, sky blue (or turquoise), multiple greens, purple, and scarlet to the Worcester palate. A popular yellow was a uniquely Worcester invention. Worcester also introduced its own dull “honey gilding,” which was made by mixing ground gold leaf with honey.
In the 1770s, Worcester dinnerware typically had a blue border with gilded patterning, usually paired with a painted-flower design. More Japanese-inspired patterns, like the blue-and-white Old Mosaic Japan, with its four panels radiating from the cherry blossoms in the center, were also developed. Others copied the orange-red underglaze of Japanese potteries, while a pattern called Joshua Reynolds, with its bright “ho-ho bird,” was fantastically polychromatic.
Collectors looking for First Period Worcester should be wary of knock-offs, like those made by Samson of Paris, whose brassy gilding and blurry maker’s marks betray their obvious mass-production. Some genuine articles can have hard-to-spot underlying damage that has been well repaired. This lessens a piece’s value, so smart collectors should know to test for weaknesses in both the porcelain and the glaze.
Other original pieces have been repainted by artists, who added enamel flowers, insects, or birds, using apple-green or claret colors. Look for the telltale signs of refiring: stains, blackening, rough patches, extreme iridescence and/or bubbling, as well as overly thick ground colors and blue underglaze showing through. Apple-green and claret paints also have a tendency to flake.
Seven years after Dr. Wall’s death, Thomas Flight bought the Worcester porcelain factory from Davis for his sons John and Joseph. The new marks included a smaller version of the crescent, the square mark, the word “FLIGHT,” and, after the company’s first royal warrant in 1789, “FLIGHT” paired with a crown.
Worcester’s opulent services, with their magnificent painting and gilding, were coveted by royalty, who frequented the factory, commissioning their own special dinnerware sets. In 1789, the Worcester porcelain factory received its first royal warrant from King George III, which allowed the company to use the Royal Coat of Arms and the words “Manufacturers to their Majesties.” From then on, the factory was known as Royal Worcester.
The porcelain artists who lived and worked in Worcester tended to alternate between rival factories, working for both the Flights and the Chamberlains, a Royal Worcester competitor that made a gray and slightly wavy porcelain with a glaze that tended to craze. Thomas Baster painted delicate shells and feathers; Moses Webster was known for his naturalistic flowers.
Soon, the traditional blue-and-white porcelain—with the exception of the Royal Lily pattern selected by Queen Charlotte in 1788—was all but abandoned. Thanks to Regency tastes, it became standard for Royal Worcester painters to cover their porcelain entirely with colorful decorations.
Barr developed a new harder and whiter soft paste in 1795, which lead to innovations in design, making the porcelain more of a canvas for brilliant artists rather than the main event. Landscape images of familiar places like Malvern Privy, Witley Court, and Worcester Bridge were painted on the china.
In 1840, the Chamberlains’ factory, which had made a name for itself with its special body known as the Regent and a very opaque porcelain called “stone china,” agreed to a merger with Royal Worcester. This led to many quarrels and a near-failure of the company.
Royal Worcester was saved in 1851 when it was taken over by businessman W.H. Kerr, related to the Chamberlains through marriage, and artistic director R.W. Binns. They hired the son of a famous Dublin sculptor named Kirk to make a 24-piece dessert service. This stunning and technically perfect work, known as the “Shakespeare Service” and featuring characters from “The Midsummer Night’s Dream,” restored Royal Worcester’s good name.
The factory was also buoyed by noblemen who lent great works of art to Royal Worcester for its designers to copy. Around 1862, Royal Worcester also developed a new soft-paste body known as “Raphaelesque porcelain” for its gentle ivory tone.
In 1862, the factory was transformed into the joint stock company known as the Worcester Royal Porcelain Company Limited. This new incarnation was esteemed for its dinnerware copies of old masters’ artworks as well as its ornate, gilded ivory-body china, decorated in Japanese, Persian, Florentine, Italian, and Louis XVI styles.
George Owen’s 1890 Royal Worcester pieces are among the most coveted, thanks to his hand-molded lace-like perforated dinnerware items. Some of his best are “double-walled,” with a solid outer wall and pierced inner wall. His pieces are usually signed, which is a good way to distinguish them from mechanically made knockoffs.
The 20th-century Royal Worcester factory continued the traditional of hiring highly specialized painters to create dinnerware images of Highland cattle, pheasants, swans, fruit, and flowers. These painters would sign their highly gilded works, distinguishing them from cheaper versions produced using transferware techniques.
It wasn’t until the Chamberlains era that Worcester made sizable numbers of figurines in a wide range of sizes and shapes. By the 20th century, Royal Worcester was renowned for these beautifully enameled figurines, especially the Doughty birds and Lindner horses.
In 1976, Royal Worcester and another esteemed British porcelain company, Spode, came under the same ownership. Even though Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Royal Worcester for the factory’s 250th-anniversary celebration in 2001, by 2006 Royal Worcester had hit hard times and had to lay off hundreds of employees. Both the Royal Worcester and Spode brands were saved, however, in 2009 when the company was purchased by Portmeirion Pottery.
Interviews & Articles
Is business bad? Is unemployment increasing in your town? Don't wring your hands and cry for the good old days! Start something ne… [more]
I’m the curator of the ceramics bit of the Bowes Museum. It’s a big museum with 30 galleries of which three or four are devoted to… [more]