History never repeats itself. It just rhymes. Example, the trajectory of blue and white pottery. Arab attempts to duplicate Chinese porcelain resulted in tin glazed enamel earthenware. When Arabs added cobalt blue decoration, Chinese porcelain was forever changed – all this thanks to Kublai Khan’s globalization zeal. Enter the Europeans, hooked from the first anchor dropped in Macao harbor. Their quest for easily reproducible porcelain (or white clay, anyway) eventually led to Wedgwood’s “Creamware.” Then to whiter “Pearlware.” Then to even whiter “Ironstone.” (An abridged history, but there it is.)
Blue was the spice that fed this circular feeding frenzy. What emerged was the ultimate in English blue and white transfer printed ironstone. At it’s best the cobalt saturated transfer print ink made the designs barely distinguishable. Intensity incarnate. “Flow Blue.”
Was this just a happy accident? Cobalt easily “bleeds” in the glaze melt if you’re not careful. But the subject of blue and white’s addictive appeal fills entire libraries. That appeal was in full swing long before Flow Blue appeared. Additional ammonia and calcium in the ink made the blue really flow. There was nothing accidental about it. But Stoke-on-Trent potters who began this madness were happy that Flow Blue hid faults in decoration, glazing and firing.
Some Flow Blue was indistinguishable from regular transfer print ware, blue but hardly ‘flown’ at all. Such variations merely exemplified how the period’s myriad decorative styles were driven by economics; mass production begat mass marketing which begat mass consumerism. The result? A fundamental change in how we approached the dinner table, how we took our tea.
Flow Blue has been called a “poor man’s china.” But price lists of the time belie this notion. Flow Blue was the most expensive transfer print pottery up to the 1850’s. Flow Blue stood out from the crowd. It spanned the arc of Queen Victoria’s rule, if not (entirely) epitomizing Victorian decorative values. (Flow Blue: 1825 – 1910, Queen Victoria 1837 – 1901.)
The other day I added to my meager “poor man’s” collection of early pottery with a set of cracked, chipped Flow Blue plates (Joseph Heath, “Tonquin” pattern, 1840-1850). Super cheap because of the cracks. But they are addictive. I feel their presence without even looking at them. They sit on my shelf, a throbbing reminder of a time when pottery defined an era.
Flow Blue. A Collector’s Guide to Patterns, History, and Values. Jeffery Snyder. Schiffer/Atglen PA. 2004.
Staffordshire Pottery and Its History. Josiah Wedgwood. McBride Nast & Co./New York & London. 1913.