When Transferware Came Into Its Own

Transferware is a type of ceramics which have been ornamented by transfer printing. That was a method for decorating ceramics which was invented in England during middle of the eighteenth century. However, the popularity of transferware began to increase significantly during the second half of the Regency. Curiously, transfer printing was first developed as a cheap method by which to imitate Chinese imports. However, in the years after Waterloo, the focus turned to indigenous British designs and those designs found great favor with a wide range of people, both across the country and abroad. Transferware pieces would have been found in many homes all over Britain during the Regency. Authors setting stories in that period may want to know the specific particulars about transferware before the Regent became king.

Transferware through the Regency . . .

Not long after Europeans made contact with China, in the sixteenth century, the Chinese developed a type of hand-painted ceramics which were intended solely for export to Europe. This export-ware had a creamy white base and was decorated with chinoiserie scenes painted in a deep blue glaze. These fanciful scenes were filled with pagodas, bamboo, bridges, trees and boats, populated by Chinese characters as well as monkeys, elephants, cranes, rabbits, and many other animals. Though this blue-and-white export-ware was considered quite cheap in comparison to the finest Chinese porcelain made and used within China, it was very expensive by the time it had been transported back to Europe. Only the most wealthy could afford these rare and exotic imported objects. One of the side effects of the Industrial Revolution in the British Isles was the steady increase of the middle class. Most members of this emerging middle class, though not wealthy, had a moderate level of discretionary income. And many of these folks were aware of the objects the upper classes had in their homes, and they wanted something similar, even if their budgets were somewhat smaller.

Though the exact dates are lost to history, most scholars of the decorative arts believe that the transfer printing process was first developed by Irish artist, John Brooks, sometime in first years of the decade of the 1750s. Brooks was an experienced and prolific mezzotint engraver who had become a partner in an enamelling manufactory in Battersea. However, Brooks did not take out a patent, nor did he commercialize his new process. But a few years later, John Sadler and Guy Green, of Liverpool, did see the commercial value of his invention. Sadler and Green were partners who perfected the method so that it could be used on a commercial scale. They realized that transfer printing on ceramic could be used to create ceramic objects similar to those which were imported from China, but at a much lower cost.

Essentially, this process is a method of printing on ceramics. The design or image to be transferred is engraved on a copper plate. The engraved plate is then inked with a special ceramic ink which is similar to a glaze. A specially sized tissue paper, probably similar to silver paper, was then pressed to the engraved plate, just as an image would be printed on regular paper. However, instead of being left to dry, the "printed"paper was then pressed against the surface of a plain piece of pottery which had been kiln dried or bisque fired. After a moment or two, the piece was dipped in water to allow the paper to float away, leaving the "printed" image behind. The piece was then given a coat of clear glaze and fired in the kiln. Many ceramic objects could be decorated very quickly using this method. Though this technique was most often used on earthenware, stoneware, ironstone, bone china and porcelain have all been decorated with transfer printing and all of them are then known collectively as transferware.

Initially, Sadler and Green used their new process to print images on ceramic tiles. Tiles were an ideal surface for this form of decoration, being smooth and flat. However, the partners gradually expanded their technique for transfer printing. In addition to tiles, they were applying it to the surface of platters, plates and shallow bowls. Within a few more years, they had found a reliable way to successfully execute transfer printing on hollow ware, such as teapots and cups, as well. Even very small ceramic objects had transfer printing ornament applied to them, including thimbles, snuff boxes, vinaigrettes and fragrance bottles. Before the eighteenth century was out, entire tea, dessert, and even dinner services, were decorated with transfer printing. By that time, since the technique had never been patented, a number of other ceramic makers across Britain had adopted the same or similar techniques and were producing their own lines of transferware ceramics. Josiah Wedgwood used transfer printing to decorate his famous "Creamware."

Because transfer printing had originally been intended to reproduce Chinese export-ware, all of the early designs used were copies or re-worked versions of the chinoiserie patterns seen on those expensive imported ceramics. And, because most of the designs on Chinese export-ware were blue-on-white, all English-made transferware was also blue-on-white, right through the Regency. Various shades and hues of blue, derived from cobalt, were used for transfer printing, as each pottery had its own glaze formulas. Though more indigenous British designs had been introduced by the turn of the nineteenth century, additional colors were not introduced into the transfer printing process until the 1830s. It was not until then that glazes in other colors, which could survive the high firing temperatures, were developed. By the middle of the nineteenth century, red, brown, green, purple, black and even multi-colored transferware was available. But that all those new transferware colors were introduced long after the end of the Regency.

By 1800, though chinoiserie designs were still being applied to transferware, the range of available patterns had broadened significantly. Most of those new designs were created to appeal to the local markets in the British Isles and abroad. Fanciful landscapes, scenes from popular novels or classical mythology and portraits of important people could all be found on transferware in the decade before the Regency. It was not long before many locales saw the value of commissioning transferware printed with one or more of their local points of interest. These objects made desirable souvenirs for the tourists who visited those places. In 1814, after the end of the War of 1812, British potteries found a new market for their transferware in America. Designs depicting important places and people in the United States were in increasingly high demand. And within two years, after the final victory over the French at Waterloo, many thousands of transferware pieces were available which depicted the victorious generals and heads of state, scenes of soldiers in uniform, the area of the battlefield near Waterloo and anything else which might appeal to a buying public eager for mementos of the great victory.

The second half of the Regency period saw a significant increase in both the demand for and the production of transferware in Britain. Because there was no effective copyright protection for images in England until the early 1840s, transferware potters used any image they pleased to produce their wares. They copied illustrations from books of topographical prints of Britain and the Continent, art and botanical prints, illustrations from popular novels and even political prints. Despite the fact that there was a certain amount of copying in the creation of transfer printing designs, between 1815 and 1835, the creativity and quality of transfer printed ceramics rose to their greatest heights. Many potteries in Britain, particularly in Staffordshire, were able to keep many people employed as they steadily and significantly increased their production of transferware.

Another result of the Industrial Revolution was the rapid expansion of the already large canal/waterway system which ran through Britain. The primary area of production for transferware was in the region of Staffordshire, in the English Midlands. From this area, it was cheap, easy and reliable to ship transferware all over Britain, via the extensive canal system. Water transport was also much faster than any other method available at that time. Lower shipping costs also helped to keep transferware prices well within the budgets of most people in Britain. Transferware could also be quickly and cheaply transported to British ports, from where it was shipped to North America, and in the second half of the Regency, with Napoleon’s blockade power broken, also to several ports in Europe.

Dear Regency Authors, might transferware have a place setting in one of your upcoming stories? Could it be that the hero, a veteran of Waterloo, is a dinner guest at a home where the table is set with a transferware service depicting the battle? How will he react when the insensitive hostess goes on and on about the glory of the victory when he remembers the reality of it so very differently? Or, perhaps the heroine is supporting her family by engraving copper transfer printing plates for one of the potteries in Staffordshire on the sly because her father’s arthritis and/or failing eyesight makes it impossible for him to do so? What will happen if the pottery’s owner discovers her activities? Then again, might the hero make some points with the heroine by giving her little brother a cup, or maybe a shaving mug, with the portrait of General Wellington, the boy’s special hero, on it? Are there other ways that transferware can embellish a story set during the Regency?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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