What is “first period” Worcester porcelain and what makes it so special? As the name suggests, it is porcelain made during the earliest period of the Worcester porcelain factory, or as it was originally known, the “Worcester Tonquin Manufactory”. In 1751, the physician Dr John Wall, along with an apothecary named William Davis and 13 other businessmen, established the manufactory at Warmstry House on the banks of the River Severn. Although the technical skill and craftmanship of Worcester porcelain has remained high, this first period, sometimes also referred to as the “Dr Wall” period after the co-founder, is a distinctly sought-after period ranging from the foundation until the sale of the business to Thomas Flight in 1783.
Tea first arrived in Britain in the 1650s and gained popularity throughout the early 18th century. Whilst the Chinese typically drank tea from cups (or bowls) without handles, the British showed a preference for the teacup – a cup with handles.
These teacups grew more exquisite and elaborate, however, labour was intensive, and the costs of production were high. Additionally, early British pottery would crack or shatter if subjected to boiling water. In 1752, Worcester acquired the Lund’s Bristol Works and began to introduce soapstone to their soft-paste, producing porcelain that could withstand boiling temperatures. Cobalt blue pigment was one of the few colours that could withstand the high firing temperatures required, and this partly accounts for its long-lasting popularity.
The early decorative influences were largely Chinese and captured the spirit of chinoiserie through Chinese scenes, figures, flora, and fauna. Japanese porcelain began to arrive in Britain in the late 17th century and ceramic designs known as “kakiemon” also influenced the porcelain decorators at Worcester. Kakiemon is recognisable through its well-balanced, asymmetric designs finely applied to a white porcelain background, often featuring flying birds, flowering peonies, chrysanthemums, prunus blossom, pine trees, bamboo, and sometimes figural subjects depicting popular folk tales.
From the mid-1750s, Worcester’s coloured decoration increasingly took inspiration from European sources and particularly Meissen porcelain. Elaborate floral decoration with new patterns and colours including European landscapes and figures featured heavily over the following decade.
Another innovation came in approximately 1757 when Robert Hancock perfected the method of transfer printing on to porcelain. Prior to this, decoration had to be painstakingly applied by hand. This new technique saw both overglaze and underglaze printing used with transfer printed wares typically bearing a variation of the blue crescent mark. Transfer printed designs were then sometimes filled in by hand with colours by semiskilled workers and often featured on coloured grounds. The Worcester palette came to include a huge range of colours, however the deep blue ground heightened with gilding, known as “blue scale”, is perhaps most recognisable. The Dr Wall period came to a close with his passing in 1776, prompting new ownership and a new era in 1783. In 1789, under the ownership of Thomas Flight, Worcester was granted the Royal Warrant and was able to add the word Royal to their name, as it is still known today.
MADELEINE NORTON / Senior Decorative Arts and Fine Art Specialist, Sydney
Banner Image: The Collection of Pamela Massie Greene