Collecting Vintage Porcelain, the Basics of Design and Manufacture

Collecting vintage porcelain doesn’t have to be complicated just because there are so many choices and ways to collect. Whether you are collecting by brand names, production types, or style and design, understanding the history and processes of different makers will help you define the focus of your vintage porcelain collection.

Vintage Porcelain
Vintage Porcelain

Many well known names in porcelain collecting are makers’ names, Like Royal Daulton, Royal Crown Derby, or Royal Bayreuth, but many others are not of makers, but of regions, like Limoges or Staffordshire, or processes, like Flow Blue or Transferware. Vintage porcelain collectors are as likely to build their collections around a process or region as they are a maker’s name. Although many of the recognized porcelain makers may have adjusted their manufacturing process with developments in the industry, or even made more than one type of porcelain, most noted names in porcelain collectables are associated with one aspect or the other.

Spode, a respected English manufactory, is a good example of this. Started in 1767 as a soft-paste porcelain maker, Spode porcelain was primarily fine table and serviceware pieces. Its creator Josiah Spode was noted for perfecting a blue under-glaze process that established the prominence of his porcelain pieces among the English aristocracy for Royal dinnerware. Spode was very successful with this design process, but later focused on a manufacturing method that produced a new bone-china porcelain, a much harder and elegant porcelain, and that is what is most associated with the Spode name by collectors today.

 Another English maker, Royal Daulton Porcelain is an example of style and design becoming the hallmark of a company. Daulton started in 1815 as a maker of salt-glazed stoneware, a utilitarian type of ceramic porcelain, but instead of just using the design transfer process to decorate his pieces, he used artists from English art schools, which produced very colorful and artistic designs. This method worked well for figurines and art objects, which were a big part of Daulton’s production. Later Daulton also began to produce his own bone-china pieces, but the company continued to focus on improving the enameling and glazing processes that produced those vivid colors and stylish designs so recognizable on their figurines. Their continued use of distinctive artistic designs make their pieces just as desirable to today’s Royal Daulton collectors as it was for the porcelain collectors of their day.

Regional porcelains like Staffordshire or Limoges became prominent due to location, but for different reasons. The English region of Staffordshire became important because it was the hub for many English porcelain manufactories, and porcelain from these companies generally became known as Staffordshire porcelain. The French region of Limoges, on the other hand, became known because it was a source for kaolin, a rock containing fine white clay used to produce hard-paste porcelain. Discovered in 1768, kaolin was seen as a resource to improve an impoverished French region.  Heavily promoted by the French government, porcelain factories began springing up all around this area. But these porcelain manufactories didn’t usually produce finished pieces; they primarily made what are called porcelain blanks, high quality white porcelain base pieces. These blanks were then shipped out to other porcelain design companies that used various artists to produce finished designs. Collectors of Limoges vintage porcelain are more apt to prize a porcelain piece for the artist that painted it than its manufacturer.

Speaking of processes, that’s the concept behind porcelain collections of Flow Blue and Transferware pieces. Both are processes, but Flow Blue is actually a sub-category of Transferware porcelain. Transferware refers to porcelain pieces decorated with a design process very similar to modern-day screen printing. This involved etching the porcelain pattern on a copper plate, warming the plate and applying the paint color to be used. Then damp tissue paper was placed over the plate to absorb the paint outline of the design to be “transferred” to the porcelain piece. The porcelain finishing process continued from there, but the “transfer” was how the design was put on the piece, and that is how an entire segment of the porcelain market became known as Transferware. With a few exceptions, such as Royal Daulton, this was the primary design method used by the majority of porcelain producers in the Staffordshire region.

Flow Blue has a porcelain collectors niche’ of its own, and gets its name from one of the original design transfer applications. Flow Blue was an attempt to copy Chinese porcelain designs that were not only beautiful, but also very expensive. In their efforts to copy the Chinese designs, which were primarily blues, early English porcelain makers discovered that the cobalt coloring they used flowed easily into the porous unfinished porcelain. It flowed so well that it not only transferred the design, it also helped to cover many manufacturing defects that naturally occur when making porcelain. A double benefit! That is how Flow Blue got its name, and was one of the reasons that Flow Blue Transferware was the primary output of the porcelain makers in the Staffordshire region. Although other colors were used for transferware, it was the emulation of Chinese design and the “flowing” characteristics of the cobalt blue that helped Flow Blue develop into its own segment of the porcelain market.

You can see that regardless of what type of vintage porcelain you collect, knowing just a little about its maker’s history and manufacturing processes will serve you well. Besides looking for the obvious, like porcelain marks or vintage crowns, on collector’s porcelain, remembering some of the basics can help you too. If someone wants to sell you a Spode figurine, or some Spode Vintage vases,  or a Royal Daulton Flow Blue plate or even a piece of French Limoges transferware with an original Limoges pattern, you’ll know to check just a little deeper into its authenticity.

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