Blue and white ceramics are such a classic that you can be sure to find pieces quite readily. Blue and white can sit harmony in a country home, modern or coastal because of its limited palate. While the pieces you find may not be antiques of great value, it is interesting to learn about how it what type of piece you have – what has influenced the design, when was it made?
When you start to research blue and white ceramics, there is a lot of history to dive into – worldwide. If you pick up a piece that you like and want to find out more, starting your research can be overwhelming. Here are the headlines to get you started.
The origin of blue and white ceramics
Originally invented in China, blue and white ceramics were widely circulated, copied and re-created by makers worldwide.
Blue and white decoration first became widely used in Chinese porcelain in the 14th century, after the cobalt pigment for the blue began to be imported from Persia. It was regarded as precious because the pigment was in very limited supply.
Into the 16th century, large quantities of blue-and-white porcelain arrived in Europe, first through Portuguese merchants followed by the Dutch East India Company and other traders where the designs were copied and new styles created.
By the 1850s and 60s, antique blue-and-white ceramics were discovered by a small group of artists such as James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti began collecting Chinese blue-and-white which was seen to embody true beauty in colour, material and form.
Blue-and-white became fashionable, within a growing middle class who collected it in order to affirm their artistic, cultivated tastes – and because the colour brightened up the dark Victorian interior. You can find out more about the history of blue and white ceramics and see pieces that were owned by Whistler and Rossetti at the V&A.
The Staffordshire Potteries is an industrial area comprising of six towns that now make up Stoke-On-Trent. North Staffordshire became a centre for ceramics in the 17th century due to the local availability of clay, salt, lead and coal.
Staffordshire became the largest producer of ceramics in Great Britain during the 18th century – one of the most famous blue and white designs made in the area was the Willow Pattern.
The Willow Pattern, made by Royal Stafford was a European design, although strongly influenced by design features borrowed from Chinese porcelains of the 18th century. The willow pattern was in turn copied by Chinese potters, but with hand painted decoration rather than transfer-printed.
You can learn about the story of the Willow Pattern in this video produced for the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.
Blue and white is famously characteristic of pottery from Holland produced over 400 years. Delftware is a tin-glazed earthenware first made early in the 17th century in Delft, Holland.
The story told simply is that in the 1500s, potters in Antwerp who had been producing pieces based on Majolica pottery from Spain and Italy – they were forced to flee from Spanish conquerors in 1585. The potters arrived in Delft, where they concentrated on reproducing patterns from the Chinese porcelain that was hugely desirable.
For a more comprehensive history, you can find out more on the BBC website.
The designs of early Delftware might feature a Dutch countryside scene in the centre but with the rim divided into panels, characteristic of Chinese porcelain. Sometimes Chinese imagery would be misunderstood for example peaches are a symbol of longevity in China but appeared as oranges on Delftware.
Delftware is still produced today and you can visit the Royal Delft Museum in Delft, The Netherlands.
Ironstone is a type of pottery first made in the UK in the early 19th century. It was developed by potters in Staffordshire, England as a cheaper alternative for porcelain.
Ironstone was patented by the British potter Charles James Mason in 1813 who used transfer-printing techniques in an attempt to copy Chinese porcelain cheaply. Sources also attribute the invention of ironstone to William Turner of Longton and Josiah Spode who is known to have been producing ironstone ware by 1805, which he exported to France and other countries.
By the 19th century a variety of different types of ironstone was being produced and it became accessible to domestic households. Today you can find pieces marked ironstone such as this design by Ridgway made in the 1930s.
The technique of transfer printing designs on pottery was developed in England in the last half of the 18th century. It meant that complex designs could be added to much cheaper potter.
The print came from an engraved and inked copper plate to a sheet of paper which was then applied to unfired clay or china, which absorbed the ink from the paper.
The clay was then fired, and beautifully decorated ceramics were much quicker and were less expensive than hand painting.
Chinese blue-and-white ceramics – The V&A
Blue and white pottery – Wikipedia
The Willow Pattern video – The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery
Delftware porcelain – the global story of a Dutch icon – The BBC
What to Look for When Shopping for Blue and White Porcelain – House Beautiful
Ironstone china – Wikipedia
Transfer printing – Wikipedia