Workshop: Understanding English Delftware 1680-1720

The workshop presented by Amanda E. Lange, Curator of Historic Interiors, was a component of ‘The Material World of 1704, Colonial Culture and Decorative Arts’ at the Historic Deerfield Forum.

Dozens of extraordinary collections are part of the Historic Deerfield experience, but few surpass the depth that can be found in the assortment of Delftware at this museum. Last November, the Esleek Room at the Flynt Center of Early New England Life was set up with padded tables arranged in a horseshoe shape in preparation for Amanda Lange’s Delft workshop. To one side was a king’s ransom in English Delftware laid out on a trestle table. Ms. Lange, author of Delftware at Historic Deerfield, 1600-1800, immediately began to pass priceless examples from the Deerfield collection as she explained the character and process of production used in making Delftware.

She began by discussing ceramics in general, telling attendees that each type is defined according to the ingredients used as well as the firing temperature. For example, English earthenware is low-fired at temperatures reaching about 1000 degrees Celsius. Some of the clays are red because of iron impurities; of these, many bear the name redware. Stoneware is fired at 1100-1200 degrees Celsius to make a vitreous non-porous body that is often glazed. Porcelain is fired at the highest temperature to create a glass-like vitreous body that is usually highly glazed. A piece representing each type of ceramic was handed around the tables and examined with interest by the attendees.

The 1707 Act of Union

A gorgeous tin-glazed earthenware plate with multi-colored bands around the rim was passed next. Featuring decoration of a rose and thistle surmounted by Queen Anne’s crown and the legend ‘AR’ for Anna Regina, the plate celebrated the creation of the Kingdom of Britain bringing together England and Scotland in the Act of Union in 1707. The Act brought the two countries together in matters of royal succession, government, rights and privileges, trade, and currency. To illustrate the differences between the border on this plate and the ermine border, a plate showing Queen Anne in a half-length portrait holding an orb and scepter was handed around the room. Dating from 1702-1714, the border is characterized by wavy dashes of blue pigment, often called an ermine design.

Amanda explained that Delft is earthenware with a buff-colored body that is quite porous unless glazed. Because of the low-firing temperature, the very nature of the ware makes it not sturdy. Plates chip easily and hollow pieces like cups, pitchers, and teapots break. The rarity of Delft today is a testimony to the fact that most of it didn’t survive at all. The next item passed was a choice item, a cup decorated in cobalt blue, antimony yellow, and manganese purple. It depicts a portrait of Charles II (1630-1685) in an ermine robe, long full-bottomed wig, and crown, flanked by the initials “C R D/2.” The reverse indicates the date in which he married Catherine of Braganza – 1663. A great rarity, this cup was formerly in the Geoffrey E. Howard collection.

How Was It Made?

Delftware is a term that came into use by the late seventeenth century. A contemporary term for the pottery was limeware. Generally tin-glazed earthenware, the body is coated with a lead glaze that has tin ashes added to make the glaze opaque. Copper filings will give it a bluish tint. First the potter brings it into its basic shape; then he fires it to the biscuit stage. Amanda passed around a contemporary example that demonstrated both biscuit color and texture. After this stage, the object is dipped into a lead glaze consisting basically of sand, lead oxide, and tin ashes. Most of the decoration is applied directly to the newly glazed surface. The painting tends to be spontaneous, naïve, fun, and frivolous. You get loose designs because the surface the decorator is working on has a finish similar to chalk on which it is very difficult to correct mistakes. Alterations can easily turn to smudges. After decoration, the piece is fired.

As an illustration of how elaborate decoration can get in Delftware, a posset pot was passed hand to hand very carefully. This domed covered piece is decorated in blue, green, orange, and red. The vessel was used for the service of a drink called posset which is made with milk or cream, eggs, spices, and either wine or ale. The survival of this pot in perfect condition is a marvel because Delftware can’t handle thermal shock or abrupt changes in temperature. Hollow objects used for the service of hot beverages like teapots, posset pots, and cups often didn’t survive.

Utilitarian Forms in Delft

Some of the most common forms take the most abuse, and have the least chance of survival. A lovely porringer (1680-1700) with an outward flaring rim decorated in manganese purple and cobalt blue was handed down next. Its design was little more than splotches of color. On the underside remained the label of Mark and Marjorie Allen, its source. We studied a simple white salt with spool shaped curls at the top, which suggest that it could have been used to raise a plate or bowl on the surface of these. The soft pinkish white color and satin texture was stunning on this rarity made around 1660-1680. Plain white glazes achieved enormous popularity during the seventeenth century. The total lack of painted decoration draws attention to the beautiful form.

A newly acquired chamber pot that usually resides by the bed in the East Parlor of the Wells-Thorn House at Historic Deerfield was passed around. Pots like these are good examples of undecorated utilitarian objects that serviced the most fundamental of life’s necessities, bur rarely survived. Similar to those excavated at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg and other sites, this pot was found in the Thames River in London. It was nearly complete except for a V-shaped loss in the front. It has been restored to its whole appearance. It still bears the label from Jonathan Horne on its underside.

Luxury Items, Too

Lange talked a bit more about luxury items in her advanced session. She first offered a magnificent salver as an example. Often referred to as teapot stands, the forms could also have served as stands for wineglasses or mugs, or as trivets for hot vessels. This English Delft salver is flat-topped and octagonal, with four knob or bun feet. The initials “I/I/M/1718” probably commemorate a marriage and appear on the underside of the base. The decoration is superb, featuring seven reserves, each containing a Chinese-style pagoda and tree. According to Lange, this decoration imitates the chui qing, developed in China during the Kangxi period and the early Qing dynasty (1662)-1722). “Chui qing decoration involved masking the reserved panels, then blowing powdered enamel through a tube closed at one end with gauze. This example achieves a similar effect by painting the blue background.”

Other forms like a candlestick of London origin with a manganese purple and cobalt blue powdered ground were shown. A pair of candlesticks produced in Delft, Holland with cobalt blue decoration of outlined scrolls and floral reserves were also presented. These had interesting holes in the candle cups that enabled the removal of melted candle stubs.

Delftware was well-known in Deerfield and the Connecticut River valley in the 1680-1720 period. Based on surviving historical records, archeological artifacts, and objects passed down to us, the sale and consumption of Delftware can be clearly documented. The rising standard of living and the increasing personal wealth of the people who settled here enabled more and more of the populace to indulge in the purchase of imported and manufactured goods. Each piece of Delftware exhibited at this workshop could conceivably have been used as part of the material culture of 1704.

For further research, refer to Delftware at Historic Deerfield, 1600-1800, by Amanda E. Lange, Curator of Historic Interiors. The book is available through the Antique Collectors’ Club, Ltd. or through the Historic Deerfield museum store at 413-775-7170.

Written By: Randall Decoteau
Source: New England Antiques Journal