On Saturday 15th February Lorraine Mepham and I attended the porcelain workshop set up by MOLA and supported by the City of London Archaeological Trust. The turnout was very good, with a large range of people in attendance, both professional and amateur – a few familiar faces and a chance to make new contacts.
It was fascinating to discover some of the history and intricacies of the early English porcelain industry. The workshop presented archaeological evidence from five London manufactories, located at Isleworth, Chelsea, Vauxhall, Limehouse and Bow. Jacqui Pearce gave an overview of porcelain production in eighteenth century London, introducing the main factories and the types of wares they were making.
This was followed up by a more in-depth talk by various specialists on the different factories, Anton Gabszewicz discussed the Bow Porcelain Manufactory. This was producing porcelain from between 1745 and 1775 for the ‘professional classes’. It was the largest English factory of the period, believed to employ around 300 staff at its peak in 1758. The earliest Bow porcelains were ‘soft paste’, incorporating bone ash. The factory moved to the other side of the Thames in around 1749 and ink pots made at that time show the name as ‘New Canton’. They were producing white wares, enameled wares and transfer-printed wares. Designs were imitating imported Chinese and Japanese ceramics. I was particularly interested in the question of miniatures – whether they were being produced as samples or toys!
Roger Massey talked about the Vauxhall Pottery factory; this was operational between 1752 and 1764. Nicholas Crisp, a jeweller in London, alongside John Sanders, a potter in Lambeth, took out a license to mine soapstone in 1751. This was the main ingredient in their soft paste porcelain. Interestingly no pottery from archaeological consumer sites had been attributed to the factory until the excavations which took place in 1987 - because there are generally no factory marks for the London porcelains, it wasn’t until researchers began to come together and there was evidence from the site to suggest styles and fabrics. The early wares (1752-4) are very translucent with a clear glaze – some enamelled and some blue and white wares were produced. On middle period wares (1755-9), the glaze has a blue or green tint, and the paste was smooth and waxy. Blue and white and transfer-printed wares and figurines were being manufactured. Later wares (1760-4) have a more variable paste with a clear glaze, and the subjects are often European. There are decorative similarities with Delftware.
Part of the Isleworth Factory was excavated by PCA in 2015. Chris Jarrett explained that the factory was established by Joseph Shore in 1757 and remained on the site until around 1831 when it moved to Hounslow due to the rerouting of the Thames ferry. A large pit contained cattle metapodials, likely to have been stored for use in the manufacture of soft paste porcelain, and large quantities of calcined flint and animal bones have been recovered in the past from the riverbed next to the site. The main difference with Isleworth seems to have been the diversity of wares being produced - it was not limited to porcelain, but they also made coarsewares, slipwares and stonewares. My favourite find from the site was a ‘gurglet’, which is a jar for cooling water. A design particular to the Isleworth site is the image of the three swans.
There were various ‘chinoiserie’ themes which you’d expect running across all the factories, such as dragons, peonies and watery landscape design. What is unusual is that the London factory porcelains don’t often show up in consumer assemblages. Reasons behind this might be that they were valuable items which people didn’t tend to throw out, even when they were damaged. They’re more likely to have ended up in collectors’ assemblages. The sheer quantity of Chinese import porcelain made it a lot more accessible for many people.