Thursday, May 24, 2012

A World Class Ceramics Collection


The displays at the Commissariat Store Museum are impressive, containing artefacts that have been recovered from archaeological digs in World Heritage Listed KAVHA. Norfolk’s British settlement began within months of Sydney’s in 1788 yet the level of disruption that we have had to our landscape since then is minimal in comparison to Sydney. The result of that circumstance is that the archaeological digs here were able to uncover many unique and rare objects including ceramics. As a whole our ceramics collection is impressive in terms of the range of styles, makers, techniques used and patterns.

The museum produced a book on the collection in 2003 called “Kingston Ceramics”.  Written by Nigel Erskine it is a dictionary of the ceramic wares held in the museum and while on sale at the REO CafĂ© and Bookshop to our visitors, is also regularly sold to academics and researchers who are aware of the importance of the collection.

A unique feature of ceramics from the Kingston area is that some bear personalised marks of identification, know as Pitcairner scratch marks. This practice was common amongst sailors and continued by the Bounty mutineers when they arrived on Pitcairn Island. These scratched markings were used to denote ownership of a wide range of property - including trees, bottles, crockery, cutlery and tools. At first a single letter may have been used, however as the population increased the use of more complex marks evolved. These personal scratch marks were inherited down through the generations of families and a register of 150 personal marks dating to about 1893 still survives on Pitcairn Island. While personal marks are still commonly used on Pitcairn today, the custom appears to have declined amongst the Pitcairn Islanders on Norfolk Island during the second half of the nineteenth century and is no longer in practice.
Pitcairner Scratch Marks
The history of ceramics is fascinating. In the 18th century, most inexpensive earthenware came to England from China through the East India Company. English potters had been unable to match the quality and durability of white Chinese earthenware. When the East India Company's trade began to decline in 1773, English potters had the chance to wrest the ceramics market out of the hands of Chinese potters and exporters. Possibly as early as 1762 Josiah Wedgewood perfected 'Creamware' which was thinner and harder than earlier English pottery and by 1765, on the basis of this, King George III's wife, Queen Charlotte, solicited Wedgewood to be "Potter to His and Her Majesty". As a result of his new title, Wedgewood changed the official name of his creamware to "Queen's Ware". Wedgewood continued experimenting, increasing the flint content in the body of the ware itself and adding a small quantity of cobalt blue to the glaze to offset the natural yellow tint of the body. He produced a ware with a very white surface which was named 'Pearlware'. Pearlware completely eclipsed the creamware market and was manufactured by many potters, one of them naming it 'China Glaze'.

In the 1820s pearlware was replaced by the stronger earthenware 'Ironstone' developed by James Mason, and by bone china developed by Josiah Spode. Ironstone was given a variety of names emphasizing either brilliant whiteness or immense strength. The use of  'China' in some of the more creative earthenware names, such as Ironstone China', 'Granite China', 'Opaque China' and 'Stone China' conveyed a sense of strength associated in the public mind with Chinese ceramics. An invoice from Josiah Spode to William Tatton in 1796 contains the first reference to 'English China' as a general term to cover ironstone ware. The best ironstone wares rivaled porcelain and were quickly in use for everything from tea services to chamber pots.
The Copyright Act of 1842 meant that English decorative art designs had to be registered at the British Patent Office. This seriously limited the range of subjects available for reproduction, which in turn inspired many 'romantic' patterns and artistic designs. From 1842 to 1883 registered designs were marked with a diamond-shaped stamp that indicated the day, month and year the patent took effect. Patents were initially for periods of three years. After 1883 registered designs were marked with an identifying number.

 The printing process also has an interesting history. Transfer printing allowed a potter to duplicate a pattern by transferring it from a copper plate to a ceramic vessel via a specially treated paper. The vessel was then glazed and fired in a kiln. This process was much cheaper and quicker than the hand painting techniques used prior to 1751. Transfer printed patterns afforded consumers complete sets of identical dishes that were never possible before. The first successful colour used in transfer printing was deep blue cobalt. This was the only colour that could withstand the high temperatures needed for the underglaze transfer process. By 1828 new techniques allowed black, green, yellow and red enamels to be transferred resulting in prints of two or more colours. The process was expensive, however, with each colour requiring its own transfer and separate firing. By 1852 multiple colour underglazing techniques were developed and also included the colour brown.

Blue and white continued to be the cheapest process with the most favoured patterns being Willow, Tower Blue and Blue Italian. A minor problem facing manufacturers was acquiring pictures to copy. Copyright laws did not exist in England until 1842, so many pictures were simply copied from books. Pictures of stately buildings, European scenes and great events such as battles were favourites.

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