Collecting Romantic Transferware

In retail history, the phrase "new, improved!" has always been a strong selling point. The English pottery industry centered in Staffordshire enjoyed great success in the early nineteenth century with tea and dinner wares decorated with blue and white transfer scenery, often copied directly from travel book engravings. A desire to imitate blue-painted Oriental porcelains in part determined the choice of color, and blue also remained true in tone during firing. Far less expensive than hand-decorated porcelain, printed pottery could be priced to appeal to the fast-growing body of middle-class consumers, and Staffordshire china dominated that section of the market in America as well as in England.

By the 1840s, two important factors changed the look of the transferwares produced by the potteries. Technological advances in the printing process made it possible for manufacturers to offer customers an exciting range of new shades--bright red and green, definitive brown and black.

Even when other colors were added, blue continued to be a favorite, but the shade--a powder blue--was much lighter than the middle to dark hues of ink used to print export wares of the 1820s. Glazes were clearer, losing the blue or green tinge caused by impurities. Most of the new colors were printed on ordinary white pottery, but the bodies became thicker, and thus more durable. This quality was a special selling point of the famous Mason's Ironstone and other so-called stone chinas. Ironstone was the body most often used for "mulberry" patterns printed in a slightly blurred purplish-black ink. Dinnerware shapes of the 1840s commonly have an attractively scalloped edge and a more pronounced foot than earlier pieces.

While these technological developments were taking place, design sources were directly affected by the Copyright Act of 1842. Coysh and Henrywood describe the resulting changes in patterns:

This provided for the registration of original designs to protect them from piracy for a period of three years, with an option of renewal. It also, however, prevented the potters from copying engravings from books, previously a major source of inspiration, and they were forced to look elsewhere for patterns. The result was a shift in emphasis to romantic scenes for which the engravers tended to follow a definite formula.

Whereas the patterns copied from book illustrations had been extremely accurate views of English country houses, American public buildings, or East Indian temples as drawn by traveling artists, the "romantic" scenes used for subsequent designs were usually the creations of imaginative plate engravers who seldom left their offices.

The majority of post-1842 patterns conform to a formulaic Victorian image of romanticism, spurred on by popular literature. Key motifs appear again and again: a body of water--lake or river--and a picturesque structure--pagoda, temple, or castle--preferably in ruins. Mountains hover in the distance, and people and animals are added in the foreground. Pattern titles such as "Verona," "Seine," "Palestine," and "Siam" are commonly printed on the back in elaborate cartouches, which may also identify the maker. Although these exotic names must have evoked a certain mood, the picture on the plate seldom resembled the purported location. Thus Oriental pagodas spring up in "Manhattan," and "Belzoni," a pattern named after the Egyptian explorer, depicts a hunter pursuing ostriches with a bow and arrow.

"Most interesting to me is what the romantic wares tell us about the period in which they were made," says Houston dealer Patty Hurt. "The Industrial Revolution was changing people's lives, and Victorian existence was often dreary. These fanciful and charming designs must have cheered the hearts of their users. That's what I try to get collectors to see, instead of just a pretty color or border design."

Perhaps the ultimate in romantic patterns is the "Scott's Illustrations" series issued from the 1830s to 1860s by the Davenport pottery at Longport. Based on the popular historical novels by Sir Walter Scott, the series depicts scenes from such favorites as Waverly, Rob Roy, and Heart of Midlothian. Sets were printed in blue, black, green, pink, and combinations, with one color for the border and another for the central design. The picturesque castles and elaborately costumed characters from Scott's stories fit easily into the genre of romantic transferware.

Current events gave rise to Ridgway's "Giraffe" pattern, found in light blue and brown transfers, which commemorated the arrival in 1836 of four giraffes at the London Zoo. The animals are not shown behind bars at their final destination, however, but in an exotic African setting with keepers in native dress. One of the period's most unusual patterns was Ralph Stevenson's "Millennium," a vision of the peaceable kingdom with child and lion at center and the eye of God watching from the border above. Blue, black, pink, purple, and brown were used to print this single pattern.

The effect of various massed colors in a single romantic Staffordshire pattern can be seen in the Texas Room at Bayou Bend, former home of collector Ima Hogg and now part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Various Tunstall, England, potters including Anthony Shaw produced "Texian Campaigne" china in green, red, blue, purple, black, and brown. The title's reference to the Mexican War of the late 1840s had a strong patriotic appeal to the American market, although the dashing action scenes are quite generic and could represent almost any early-nineteenth-century cavalry engagement. The Bayou Bend collection includes examples of all colors and rare serving pieces such as a tureen on stand with china ladle. The pattern is a perennial favorite with collectors in the Lone Star State, where antiques dealers struggle to find enough pieces to supply the demand.

"Romantic transfers are without a doubt the best buy in the antiques market," says specialist dealer Mark Brown, who works with partner Tim Sublette as The Seekers of Columbus, Ohio. Their major caveat is to beware of repaired pieces, a problem with all antique china, especially everyday wares that saw hard usage.

Collectors of romantic Staffordshire may take one of several approaches. If you have your heart set on collecting an entire dinner service in one color, however, keep in mind that, then as now, blue was the most popular color and thus remains the most common. Assembling a set of popular mid-nineteenth-century patterns in light blue--"Canova," "Venus," or "Columbia," for example--is still fairly easy and affordable with a little searching. A single pattern in a rarer color will, of course, be more difficult.

Big serving pieces are getting harder and harder to find, but a luncheon set or a course is quite possible in all one color and one pattern." Another possibility is to search out a single pattern in all the colors in which it was printed, the approach used with the "Texian Campaigne" china at Bayou Bend. Dealer Patty Hurt adds, "Collectors sometimes get started with just one color, and then they find out how good the colors look together."

Other collectors become wrapped up in searching for a certain color, whatever the pattern may be. While collecting odd pieces of green, brown, black, or red transferware may sound like a snap, this path also has pitfalls, according to Brown. One can mix the two, but by and large, that tends to get a little tricky, so you have to be focused on which color you're looking for. The greens range from a lettuce green that Spode used to a teal green with more blue to a brownish or taupey kind of green."

As far as price is concerned, numerous nineteenth-century examples with romantic scenes in various colors are still available, in good condition, for $75 to $150. Hard-to-find serving pieces--platters, sugar bowls, tureens--can run from $200 into the $1,000+ range. Plates often became stained and cracked from everyday use, while handles and finials chipped easily. Cleaning and good mends are certainly allowable, particularly for rarer items and colors, but repairs should always be pointed out as a determining factor in pricing items. In the nineteenth century, frugal china owners often had broken pieces rejoined with amazing skill, using not glues but metal staples, and these can add pleasant historical interest to a collection. Even true "shelf pieces" with considerable damage or missing parts, if fairly marked, can be purchased for the color and design they add to interiors.

For Further Reading

The most authoritative references for nineteenth-century transfer patterns are A.W. Coysh and R.K. Henrywood's The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 1780-1880, Volumes I (1982) and II (1989). Although the focus is on blue wares, entries for romantic scenes include a mention of other colors.

Also useful are two volumes on Staffordshire Romantic Transfer Patterns, by collector Petra Williams, printed by Fountain House East in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. These books illustrate various romantic patterns and provide a helpful listing, although caution should be used about the accuracy of the information provided.

Collectors specifically interested in later American historical patterns will enjoy "Texian Campaigne Ware," by Sarah Finch Maiden Rollins, in The Magazine ANTIQUES, February 1983.


Other Travel Tips: