The object I chose to write about in my first object essay is a design book for plates from the Staffordshire pottery G.L. Ashworth & bros. and is dated at probably about 1880. I say ‘probably’ because the book shows no date, and pattern books are in general untrustworthy sources for time indications. The book is about 30cm square, and it is neatly covered in blue bookbinder’s cloth, which was possibly a later addition, as the museum liked to neatly organise their books at the time. Inside, the book is exactly what the spine tells us: a design book for plates. It exclusively contains printed and hand-coloured colourful plates, decorated in an extravagant, rich style called ‘Japan’.
It was produced in various stages. Firstly, the pages were lithograph printed with a brown background colour, which evokes the back of cabinets against which the plates could have been displayed in a home setting. Then the pattern lines would have been printed onto the pages. Transfer-printing, which was a reproduction technique enabling to transfer engraved designs onto ceramic surfaces via a special “transfer-paper”, was commonly used in the potteries to reproduce a pattern on wares. Finally, the designs were hand-coloured and then gilded. The colouring was often executed by women and children, as the printed surface allowed for little divergence and required relatively little training. This also meant that this workforce was not very well paid.
At the time, the area around Stoke on Trent, in Staffordshire, was a hotbed of English industry, particularly in iron and pottery. The beginning of the 19th century had seen great innovations in matters of techniques and material, as potters were competing to produce the best and most cost-effective wares while constantly seeking the interest of upper and growing middle class consumers. In the case of our pattern book, its patterns are recognised as “Mason” patterns, and were printed on “Ironstone” ware. These terms are linked to the pottery of the Mason family, which established itself in 1907, but gained wide popularity after 1813, when they patented a formula for a hybrid stoneware, which emulates the much demanded Chinese porcelain but is very sturdy and hardly breaks. This “Ironstone China” was hugely popular, and is a good example for the contemporary strive for innovation and technological progress, paired with a sense of fascination for the unknown, strange and exotic worlds of the East. Mason’s Ironstone ware was characteristically covered in dense, Japan style patterns, which were popular at the time, and which Miles Mason, the founder of the pottery had an interest in since his previous career as a ‘Chinaman’, a porcelain dealer, in London. When the Mason pottery went bankrupt in 1838, his son, Charles James Mason, sold the entire pottery, including the original transfer printing machine and its engraved plates, which is how it eventually came into the possession of the Ashworth pottery. Mason-style pottery was still very popular and Ashworth continued to produce their wares, using the same patterns and the Ironstone body, until late into the 20th century. The popularity and reputation of the Mason pottery was such that as late as the 1960s, Ashworth renamed their factory ‘Mason’s Ironstone Ltd’. This explains the constant use and reuse of the same Mason patterns in my book.
This specific style of porcelain decoration comes from Japan, and is called ‘Imari’, after the port-town of Imari where it was produced. It is recognisable by its very densely decorated patterns of blue or black underglaze which are generously coloured with red and green enamels and often gilded. The style became quickly popular with Western collectors and traders, and was soon emulated by the potteries of Delft and Meissen, as well as Chelsea and Bow in England. The copies were or very fine quality, so that if you are to compare wares of these places, it is difficult to tell which is the original Japanese and which the European copy. First only available to wealthy porcelain lovers, the style became fashionable and desirable, and with potteries like Mason’s, soon were accessible to the growing middle classes, and a common sight in English houses.
I argue that after a time of innovation and technological experimentation, the pottery industry (but perhaps industry at large) reaches a point of stagnation, where novelty becomes scarce. In this pattern book, patterns of an earlier generation of potters are being used and re-used, declined in various ways, like letters of an alphabet. To me, it feels like a desperate attempt to recall the earlier excitement and freshness of novelty in a world now saturated with similar-looking objects. Technological perfection and division of labour have achieved a perfected production process to which there is not much left to add. As a result Ashworth produces the same Mason-style wares for almost a century, with relative success, but little recognition in the contemporary collector’s mind. There is barely anything written about Ashworth in pottery writing, possibly due to the assumption that there is not much to be said.This article was part of the Reimagining Objects exhibition project in February 2016