Monday, 4 June 2012

Early English Plates: White Salt Glaze Stoneware, Creamware and Pearlware 1720- 1780

The history of English tableware is scattered across the Thames foreshore, something I’ve never been particularly interested in until I started wondering about the origins of the pottery I’d found.

As ever those modern looking ‘finds’ turn out to be quite old, so for anyone else interested in identifying pottery from the Thames and finding out about its history here goes..

In 1720 potters succeeded in producing the white pottery with a glossy sheen people had been hankering after. High stoneware kiln temperatures gave the kaolin clay durability. The first sets of matching tableware were produced and were far cheaper than porcelain alternatives. Less expensive plain white plates, sometimes with relief patterns were the most popular. They were considered very fashionable in their day.

Large amounts of the stuff was exported to the US and Europe, Staffordshire potters had begun an international industry. Whilst there was clear demand, the cost of producing stoneware prevented it from becoming widespread. Consequently potters sought to develop cheaper refined earthen wares.  Creamware was the first mass produced tableware from 1750. Iron oxide in the glaze gave it a yellow cream colour. Very functional, it was the first widely available ceramic that enabled you to cut food without chipping the glaze.  Again the centre of production was in Staffordshire (plus Yorkshire). Wedgewood came onto the scene in 1759 and although not the ‘inventor’, was at the forefront of developing both Creamware and Pearlware. Not satisfied with Creamware, Wedgewood’s letters reveal the search for ‘a white Earthenware body, and a colourless or white opaque glaze, very proper for Tea & other wares’, From 1775 Pearlware moved the industry one step closer. China clay was added to the creamware body and cobalt blue to the glaze, giving it a blue tint  and a whiter appearance– a blueing technique of course still used in our washing powders and clothes manufacture.

A detail from Grace at Table by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1740) Photograph: © Francis G. Mayer/CORBIS 

The introduction of the ceramic plates coincided with a change in table manners, I wonder if they were related?.  'The children learning their table etiquette in Chardin's 1740 painting are in the avant-garde of a cultural revolution. Cutlery, as opposed to eating with your fingers; sitting up straight in a high-backed chair; these were innovations in the way people defined themselves at table in 18th-century Europe'. (Jonathan Jones Guardian)
By 1750 white salt-glazed stoneware had caused the demise of the delftware industry and by 1760 the refined earthenwares, Creamware and Pearlware, were superceding white stoneware.

My initial impetus for returning to the Thames was to collect pottery for mosaic making, not something I’d ever done before I might add. Playing around with blue and white pottery, I soon realised that I’d need large amounts of white crockery to surround the interesting bits. A month ago I therefore collected a bag of white pottery, extremely abundant as I assume no one else bothers to pick this up. Now that I’ve found out a bit about the different types of ‘white’ pottery, I can see that virtually all the fragments I’d picked up were Creamware- which fits with its ubiquitousness. 

From the 1740s  block moulds were used, each imprinting one of several  standard patterns around the plate rim. I’ve found  a handful of these over the past 8 months. By far the most popular was the ‘barley’ or ‘basket’ design. My favourite is the feather pattern,  I haven’t yet spotted any of the  nicely named ‘dot, diaper and basket’.

Clockwise from top R, feather edge white stoneware salt-glaze, creamware, barley pearlware, barley white salt- glaze
When you see the different types of pottery side by side it’s easy to distinguish the creamware from the slightly grey stoneware. The two feather edged pieces illustrating this nicely above. I’ve found it quite hard to distinguish the White salt glaze stoneware from  Pearlware, eventually concluding the easiest way is to catch the salt glaze pitted ‘orange peel effect’ in the light. Although when together as the two barley pieces above show, you can see the pearlware does appear whiter than the stoneware. Apart from the blue and green ‘shell edged’ pottery, to be covered in the next post, I believe I’ve only found two  fragments of Pearlware, one shown below with rather crude enamel overglaze, the bluey tinge created by cobalt blue is really clear.

Thames Mudlarking: Close up of Pearlware Pottery Fragment with enamel overglaze  
Meanwhile my internet ordered box of mosaic materials sits in a corner whilst I'm preoccupied with classifying, sorting, researching, documenting and pondering my finds. Not to mention the still frequent trips to that intriguing river with all its secrets.  It’s going to take a while to get this mudlarking thing out of my system. 


  1. Dear Julia, I am LOVING your blog, just in case you ever have a day at the screen thinking, damn, nobody cares what I write here. You don't give much away in your 'profile' female, London, Julia but as a potter with a huge interest in the history of ceramics I'd love to know how you know what you know. Are you a potter too? Have you read the same kind of stuff as I have? Your banner photo is a thrill of colour and history. I used to live in London but rarely got near the real Thames except to cross the Westminster or Battersea bridges on the way to work. A friend is currently experimenting with piping (slip trailing) feathery patterns on her work - but hers is to emulate Russian motifs from her homeland - and this in an Australian college!! I must show her your blog and those images in today's post. Thank you Julia. I really enjoy finding your posts in my inbox!

    1. Dear Elaine, thank you for taking the time to comment, it is good to know other people are enjoying it. No, I'm not a potter and part of the fun of mudlarking has been the detective work afterwards. I knew nothing about pottery before I started and when I decide to write something about a find or set of finds, I just google for a few hours (often more than a few)and write up the 'research'. I started working part time in Feb 2012 and this has enabled me to find the time to do all this - although the plan was photography! Julia

  2. I wanted to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked your site to check out the new stuff you post. best salt lamps