What is Blue and White Pottery?

Techniques for printing on pottery and porcelain were developed in the mid 18th century and, by the end of the century, had enabled potters in Staffordshire and other parts of Britain to manufacture inexpensive blue and white pottery in large quantities.

Transfer printing was carried out in stages. First a smooth copper plate was engraved with a pattern. It was then inked so that the ink sank into the engraved surface, surplus ink was wiped off and the pattern printed onto thin tissue paper under pressure. The paper was then cut to size, damped and transferred to a white or cream coloured piece of pottery or porcelain that had been fired but not glazed. Pressure was applied to force the ink off the transfer and onto the ceramic body, the paper was peeled off and the item coated with a liquid suspension of powdered glass (the glaze). It was then fired under high temperature in a kiln until the powdered glass melted and formed a smooth coat over the pattern.

The aim of the potters was to produce a blue pattern on a white background that would compete with the hand-painted blue `china' that was being imported from China for those who could afford it. In the second half of the 18th century the most economical approximation was a cream-coloured pottery (Creamware) which was printed in black and other colours. During the 1790s, however, it was discovered that the addition of a little blue to the glaze would produce a pearl coloured appearance (Pearlware) which, when printed in blue with Oriental patterns, gave a very good imitation of Chinese wares. By 1825 a truly white body was being produced (Whiteware), the trade in pottery from China had collapsed and British blue-printed pottery was being exported all over the world.

Although most of the early patterns were derived from the Chinese (the famous `Willow' pattern continues to be made to this day), a much wider range of patterns were soon engraved to meet the growing demand. English country scenes were particularly popular and seem to reflect the nostalgia felt by an increasingly industrialised urban population for the rural life which they had left behind. When, after Independence, trade with the United States was resumed, a wide variety of American scenes were also created.

By the 1850s techniques for multi-coloured printing had come in and, although blue-printed wares continued to be made, the quality declined and by the end of the century blue and white was more associated with poverty than with wealth. For this reason collectors took little interest in the field until the latter part of the twentieth century.

The Friends of Blue were formed in 1973 in order to study blue-printed pottery. A series of books followed, most of them written by our members, and these enabled a new generation to begin to appreciate these neglected wares. We celebrated our 25th anniversary in 1998 with an exhibition in the Wedgwood Museum and the publication of `True Blue' which contains essays by many distinguished authorities in the field as well as over a thousand illustrations of blue-printed wares (These include all of the items in the exhibition).

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