The blue dash charger “mystery” has been bandied about for over a century. Were these tin-glazed plates made as propaganda for the Stuart kings of England? Were they camouflaged signals of affiliation? Were all of them even “blue dashed?”
Backing up a bit, blue dash chargers were made from the early 17th century, initially as English spin-offs of faience from Urbino, Italy, until the 1720’s. Blue dash sported a bright color palette of blues, greens, yellows, and purples. A row of blue daubs around the down turned rims set blue dash apart from other English delft.
“Chargers” were made specifically for serving large chunks of meat. Surviving blue dash chargers defy that function by showing no sign of wear. Holes poked through the chargers’ feet to facilitate wall hanging also belied the standard charger function. Blue dash was perhaps the only 17th century English pottery made purely for show.
Edward Downman coined the phrase “blue dash” in a 1917 monograph on early English pottery. He also set the tone for the ensuing ‘political’ debate by reading allusions to Stuart history into practically every aspect of blue dash imagery and color palette.
But not all blue dash chargers were complimentary to the Stuarts, nor were decorative themes confined to politics. Tulips might nod to the House of Stuart but a wide range of floral patterns are boldly splayed across many blue dash chargers. The Fall of Adam and Eve was another popular subject (Downman argued the “apple” was often depicted as an orange representing William of Orange who supplanted James II, the last Stuart king). Some chargers show jesters or town criers. The “Green Man” even made an appearance. Several don’t have blue dashes at all – leaving for the ages the question of why they should be classed as such…
Still, the majority of blue dash chargers were made during the highly politicized and often bloody years of Stuart rule and decline, including the Puritan Commonwealth interlude. Potters naturally turned their decorative attention to issues of the day. Some potters undoubtedly were partisan. Maybe their political blue dash survived in numbers because loyalist families took extra pains to protect them. Perhaps other potters simply catered to topical concerns with ‘editorial cartoon’ imagery to sell their wares.
Or maybe – from the perspective of later pottery – they sold and survived simply because they had blue on them.
Blue Dash Chargers and other Early English Tin Enamel Circular Dishes. Edward Downman. T. Werner Laurie, LTD/London. 1919.
English Delftware. F.H. Garner. Faber and Faber/London. 1948.
If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noël Hume. University Press of New England/Hanover, NH. 2001).