English Green-Glaze Ware

This unique form of ceramic ware was developed in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century. However, even after the first phase of its popularity, it continued to be made and used well into the Victorian period. Its introduction may very well have prevented illness to some people and may even have saved at least a few lives, since this particular type of ceramic ware provided a convenient and attractive substitute for a more dangerous method of decorating the plates of the dessert course in many homes.

Green-glazed ware in England through the Regency . . .

Though the potters who developed green-glaze ware in England in the eighteenth century probably did not know it, they were following a tradition of ceramic decoration which dated back to ancient times. In fact, there is evidence that the Romans were making tiles with a green glaze once they had set up shop after their invasion of Britain, but that glaze formula was lost after the Roman retreat. Ceramic glazes which produced the color green were among the most difficult to achieve after the fall of the Roman empire. Various dull green glazes were developed across Europe in the Middle Ages. But once those glazes were fired, they usually resulted in colors which tended to be a bluish green or a muddy brown-green. None could be considered a true green. Nor could any of these early glazes be applied and fired without leaving blotches and streaks on the surface of the pottery to which they were applied.

In the 1750s, a few potters in the English center of pottery making, in Staffordshire, were seeking a new formula for a true rich green color. One of those potters was Josiah Wedgwood, a young man just embarking on what would be a remarkable career. In 1752, Wedgwood entered in to a partnership with a more experienced potter, John Harrison. However, that partnership was dissolved after only two years because Harrison was an indifferent potter and a poor businessman who had hoped to trade on the younger man’s more obvious skill. In 1754, Wedgwood again entered into a partnership, this time with Thomas Whieldon, of Fenton Vivian. Whieldon was an experienced and talented potter, a successful businessman and a man of excellent character. They would remain in partnership together until Whieldon retired, five years later.

Thomas Whieldon saw the promise in the young Josiah Wedgwood and encouraged him to continue to experiment with the development of new glazes, something he had begun while working with John Harrison. Wedgwood kept careful notes of his experiments and, on 23 March 1759, he recorded that he had completed a successful formula for a "green glaze." When fired, this glaze resulted in a smooth, brilliant, glossy, true green color which had never been seen before in any of the Staffordshire potteries. In fact, this new green glaze perfected by Josiah Wedgwood marked a tremendous advance in ceramic glaze formulas in Britain. Soon after its discovery, Whieldon and Wedgwood were ready to capitalize on this beautiful new glaze which had the smoothness and brilliancy of glass.

Another potter who was had trained with Thomas Whieldon, and still worked with him, even after he had gone out on his own, was William Greatbatch. But rather than glazes, Greatbatch specialized in cutting the block molds which were used to make molded rather than thrown ceramic ware. In fact, he was considered to be one of the most skilled and creative block-cutters working in Staffordshire at the time. The mid-eighteenth century saw the flourishing of the Rococo style, which was heavily influenced by the shapes in the natural world, including plant life. On the Continent, at the great porcelain manufactory at Meissen, some of the modellers there were making porcelain objects in the shapes of various fruits and vegetables. Whieldon, Wedgwood and Greatbatch felt they could make similar wares which would be popular with their customers, particularly since Wedgwood’s new glaze enabled them to closely emulate some of the greens found in nature.

Greatbatch cut a wide array of fine mold blocks which were used to make molded earthenware vessels in the shape of cauliflowers, cabbages, cucumbers, quinces, pineapples, pears, melons, apples, lemons and bunches of grapes, among others. These realistic novelty shapes were made even more realistic with the application of Wedgwood’s rich green glaze. Within a year, Wedgwood had also perfected a clear, lustrous, true yellow glaze which gave an even more realistic appearance to the productions of their pottery. The vessels made in the shapes of fruits and vegetables included tea and chocolate pots, sauce boats, soup tureens, and fruit stands. Because their wares were molded in earthenware and not porcelain, Whieldon and Wedgwood were able to sell these new, naturalistic pieces at reasonable prices and they quickly become very popular across Britain.

In 1760, after Thomas Whieldon retired, Josiah Wedgwood returned to his home town of Burslem, in Staffordshire, where he opened his own pottery. Thus was founded the famous Wedgwood ceramics company. Wedgwood continued to produce a wide range of earthenware vessels in the shapes of fruits and vegetables. He contracted with William Greatbatch to produce the block molds he needed to make these realistic vessels. They continued in popularity through the end of the decade, but such perfectly realistic vessels fell out of fashion by the early 1770s. However, Wedgwood had already begun to produce a new line of vessels using his brilliant green glaze which would remain popular through the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth. These elegant but affordable vessels helped him to maintain the profits at his company though his lifetime and for more than a half century after his passing.

By the eighteenth century, many chefs and cooks, even hostesses and housewives, had broadened their horizons beyond simply serving well-cooked meals. They also wished to present them in an attractive manner, which was believed to contribute to good health by stimulating proper digestion for their diners. This was considered particularly important during the dessert course, which was believed to be crucial for the complete enjoyment of the meal. Early in the eighteenth century, during the summer months, many cooks used freshly gathered green leaves to line the plates and bowls in which they served the fruits and cheeses which made up the dessert course of many meals. By the mid-century, some of these cooks and housewives wanted to extend the amount of time during the year in which they could serve their desserts on a base of green leaves. Cookbook authors, like Elizabeth Raffald and Hannah Glasse, provided instructions on how to "green" leaves and/or vines artificially. However, these instructions included steeping leaves in hot water in copper or brass pots, typically with the addition of verdigris or other copper compounds. These copper-based additives would turn the steeped leaves and vines green, but, though it was not understood at the time, they were also highly toxic.

As early as the 1760s, Wedgwood had the idea to produce dessert services which looked like they were covered with green leaves and vines, coating them with his brilliant green glaze. William Greatbatch created molds for him which could be used to make plates, bowls, platters and footed fruit stands. Most of these vessels were decorated with a surface relief of naturalistic leaves and vines, finely molded. The vessels were then coated with Wedgwood’s green glaze, which gave them a color approximating real leaves as they flourished in the spring and summer. The glaze tended to run into the lines of the relief patterns when it was applied, thus appearing darker in those lines, giving greater definition to the surface patterns. Some of the dessert plates included in these services were actually made in the shape of large leaves, with their surfaces decorated accordingly.

Wedgwood produced these new green-glazed dessert services because he thought his customers would find them more convenient and efficient. With one of his dessert services, a housewife could server her desserts on fresh green leaves year round, rather than having to "green" her own real leaves in the fall or winter. It is unlikely he had any idea that he was also providing all of them with a much more sanitary and safer way of serving their desserts. Again, because they were made of earthenware rather than porcelain, he could sell them at quite reasonable prices. Despite their affordability, these dessert services were intrinsically beautiful and they became popular across Britain very quickly, with both the upper and middle classes. Over time, Wedgwood also added candlesticks, vases, even wall pockets. Next came tea and chocolate services in the same style. All of these green-glaze wares sold very well.

Other Staffordshire potters became aware of Wedgwood’s success with his green-glaze wares and by the last decades of the eighteenth century, they were producing their own green leaf dessert services. However, most of their green glazes were made more cheaply and did not have that same brilliant, deep, glossy green of Wedgwood’s original green glaze. Their modelling was often coarser than that which had been produced by William Greatbatch. Nevertheless, green-glaze dessert, and even tea and chocolate services, had become so popular that even less affluent households wanted them and were willing to settle for lower quality but less expensive versions. In 1771, Wedgwood had further refined his green glaze, so his wares continued to be recognized as of the highest quality right though the century. By the turn of the nineteenth century, green-glaze wares from several Staffordshire potters, including Wedgwood, could be found on display in the shops of many china and glassware dealers across the country. By the end of the century, these distinctive services were also being exported to Canada, America and the British West Indies.

A few of these green-glaze ware pieces are still extant today. Photos of a nineteenth century Wedgwood set of green-glaze plates, in one of the company’s most popular patterns, probably from a dessert service, can be seen at this RubyLane page. Photos of a green-glazed plate from 1815, made by the Brameld pottery in Swinton, another Staffordshire potter, can be viewed on this RubyLane page. Other ceramic pieces with Wedgwood’s green glaze can be seen on this results page for a Google image search on the phrase "wedgwood green-glaze ware."

By the Regency, many upper- and middle-class households already owned a green-glaze dessert service, and maybe even a tea or chocolate service in that style as well. Though they were no longer considered the height of fashion, such leafy green ceramic services were still being made, sold and used throughout Britain, and would continue to be, right into the 1870s. Therefore, anyone living in the Regency who wanted a new service, or replacement pieces for an existing service, would have been able to acquire them, from most china or glassware shops, in London or in the provinces. Or they could have ordered them directly from the pottery which had made the original set. Since these pieces were molded rather than thrown, it would be possible to make new pieces which were identical to the originals, unless the mold had been lost or broken. However, replacement pieces for services made before the early 1770s might not match the originals, since Wedgwood had introduced his more refined green glaze in 1771.

Dear Regency Authors, might green-glazed ware, perhaps a lovely, leafy green dessert service, serve a purpose in an upcoming romance? The use of real leaves for garnishing dessert plates and bowls would still have been remembered by the older members of a Regency family, though the younger ones may not have been aware of the origins of these green-glazed dessert services. Perhaps an older character explains the history of such green dessert services, and, like parents who told us how they walked uphill to school in the snow, both ways, goes on and on about how much work it was to "green" natural leaves in her day. The heroine of a story might use her mother’s or grandmother’s green-glazed dessert service during an important dinner, to which some very influential guests have been invited by her husband. Will they find her use of a lovely and traditional dessert service charming, or will they find it unfashionable, and what will the ramifications of either of those opinions be? Are there other ways in which some type of green-glaze ware might feature in a Regency romance?

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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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10 Responses to English Green-Glaze Ware

  1. Joy Hanes says:

    Thank you for this most interesting and well researched piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  2. gordon759 says:

    There is a lovely account in one of Jane Austen’s letters of a visit she made with her brother to Wedgewood’s showroom in London to order a new dinner service. Wedgewood was innovative in selling pottery as well as making it. His showroom, as seen in contemporary prints, has dinner services laid out on tables, so customers could see what the service would look like when they got it home.

    • Joy Hanes says:

      Where might I find this letter? I would love to read it!

      • gordon759 says:

        I have just done a quick check, apart from one brief aside there are two mentions of Wedgwood in her letters.

        On June 6, 1813 she described receiving a dinner service at Chawton, it sounds as if it was in the green leaf design mentioned in this post.

        On Monday I had the pleasure of receiving, unpacking, and approving our Wedgwood ware. It all came very safely, and upon the whole is a good match, though I think they might have allowed us rather larger leaves, especially in such a year of fine foliage as this. One is apt to suppose that the woods about Birmingham must be blighted. There was no bill with the goods, but that shall not screen them from being paid. I mean to ask Martha to settle the account. It will be quite in her way, for she is just now sending my mother a breakfast-set from the same place.

        I hope it will come by the wagon to-morrow; it is certainly what we want, and I long to know what it is like, and as I am sure Martha has great pleasure in making the present, I will not have any regret.

        I lover the typical Jane Austen comment about the small leaves ‘One is apt to suppose that the woods about Birmingham must be blighted.’

        A later letter describes a visit to the Wedgwood showroom, the ladies delighting in shopping her brother bearing it politely.

        Letter undated but autumn 1813
        We then went to Wedgwood’s, where my brother and Fanny chose a dinner-set. I believe the pattern is a small lozenge in purple, between lines of narrow gold, and it is to have the crest. We must have been three-quarters of an hour at Grafton House, Edward sitting by all the time with wonderful patience.

        Her letters are, happily readily available, they are as delightful to read as her novels.

  3. Fascinatling! I tend to think of Tudor green-ware which was usually rather more blue than green, tending to associate Wedgewood with Jasperware. I wonder if the gift of some leafy dishes might foil a murder if the murderer understood more about the way copper reacts and planned on adding more poison to simulate an accident …

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Why did I know that if anyone could serve up murder and mayhem on a lovely green dessert service it would be you? ;-D

      Actually, your plot bunny might be plausible. I could find no definitive information that anyone knew how poisonous certain copper compounds were at that time. But such things are hard to document absolutely. Someone who was very observant might have figured it out. I understand that there were a few people who thought mercury was also poisonous, even though many men were willing to dose themselves with it, in the hope of curing VD. Go figure!

      Regards,

      Kat

      PS I think Wedgwood may have based his experiments for green glaze on those early blue-greens. But he was determined to find a true green glaze, which he did, after much trial and error.

      • I guess with mercury the gamble was to clear the VD without killing yourself for those men who wanted to get rid of it without using the other common ‘cure’ of deflowering a virgin, one of the most common reasons given for raping prepubescent little girls

      • gordon759 says:

        Copper was certainly known to be poisonous during the Regency, details can be found in the wonderfully named; A Treatise on the Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons exhibiting fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spirituous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and other articles employed in Domestic Economy. By Fredrick Accum published in 1820. (available on Project Gutenberg)
        Generally it was known that copper could taint food, which was why copper vessels used in the kitchen were lined with tin, and why letters and diaries of the period often contain complaints about the cost of re-tinning pans. It was also why wooden spoons became such a standard part of kitchen equipment, they were less likely to scratch the tin lining.
        However it would be an excellent way of killing someone in a Regency murder mystery, as there were so many ways of accidentally poisoning food and drink with copper that, even if copper was identified as the cause of death, the killer could certainly get away with it.

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