Everything about 18th century English Agateware was odd. Maybe curious is a better word. Production, sales, and public interest rose and fell in tandem with lulls between other ideas and fashions. That is, agateware was so bizarre that people took note. Until something else came along…
Of course, “agateware” (sometimes called “scroddled” ware in the US) refers to swirled layers of colored clays mimicking agate-like surfaces. There were, are, two kinds. Thrown (on a wheel) and laid (molded).
John Dwight made the first recorded thrown agateware in the 1670′s. Dwight’s Fulham shop was an innovation hotspot but he didn’t make much agate. When Thomas Whieldon began, in the 1740′s, staining white clays instead of combining different clays of different color breakage dropped and production rose. By the 1750′s Stoke-on-Trent potters were laying pre-mixed agate strips into molds giving more finely striated surfaces. Production and sales jumped further, but continued to fluctuate until mass produced English porcelain nailed the coffin lid in the 1780′s.
Current opinion regarding this temperamental pottery’s inspiration points to T’ang Dynasty China; European excavators (robbers) of T’ang funeral sites brought (smuggled) examples of T’ang agateware back to the curiosity cabinets of European gentlemen collectors (fences).
Potters by then could (and did) copy anything these gentlemen might show them. Laid agate from 1750 onwards certainly looked technically similar to T’ang work. This was the era of cheap European knock-offs of up-scale Chinese products. But China was weakening. European missionaries and other no-account foreign devils freely roamed the countryside, digging up whatever they chose.
Dwight’s thrown agate happened much earlier, however, when controls were not so porous. Even if T’ang relics were smuggled out then, Dwight was still “just” a potter – industrial pottery magnates were a couple generations away. Could he have been that close to the Gentleman collector strata of society? Or did Dwight rather see humble marbled pilgrim costrels from France or Italy and, in pondering those, he stumbled upon agate layered clays?
Or maybe he thought it up all by himself. Of course, the idea that an old potter could think something up all by himself, when someone on the other side of the planet did it 900 years earlier, is ridiculous. Where would be the fun in that?
Ceramics in America, 2003. Robert Hunter, Ed. University Press of New England/Hanover, NH. 2003.
If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noel Hume. University Press of New England/Hanover, NH. 2001.
China-Trade Porcelain. John Phillips Goldsmith. Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA. 1956.