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APPLIED ARTS: English Porcelain

The English started making porcelain rather late compared with the rest of Europe, and several of the English factories used the glassy type of soft paste. In trying to improve the recipes two other basic types of soft paste porcelain were made in England. One type used soapstone (soapy) in the mix and the other used bone ash (bony). The three basic English porcelains can loosely be called glassy, soapy or bony.

The early factories at Chelsea, Bow, Derby, Worcester and Longton Hall all started work between 1745 and 1752. There were many porcelain based factories in England and some of them like the factories operating during the XVIII century at Chelsea and Worcester were the most consistent in their use of marks. This helped the collectors to identify the original from the fake ones.

Early Chelsea Porcelain plate Of the factories operating before 1785, Chelsea and Worcester were the most consistent in their use of marks but quite a large proportion of their output, like that of the other makers, is unmarked. Some of the factories copied the crossed swords of Dresden, and some copied each other. After 1785, the position grew better, but there were still more unmarked pieces than marked.

A few cream jugs with the word “Chelsea”, a triangle and the date 1745 incised in the clay under the base before it was fired have been preserved. They prove that the works was in being by that year, and it has been argued that because the jugs are so well finished whoever made them had practiced his skill for some time prior.

A number of other pieces also marked with a scratched triangle are known, and to about the same early date belongs a mark in under glaze blue in the form of a trident intersecting a crown. Most of these wares were unpainted but glazed, and some show that French porcelain of the period was probably their inspiration as regards both the modeling and the glassy body.

English porcelain figures often imitated those of Meissen, and the influence of Sevres appears in the more extravagant pieces made at Chelsea. Suggestions were also taken from Chinese and Japanese porcelain and the shapes of English silverwork. But each factory developed its own interpretation of the rich and fanciful rococo style, which after 1770 changed into the slight but graceful neoclassical style practised at the combined Chelsea-Derby factory and at Worcester. Realistic landscape and figure-painting, with more stiffly disciplined shapes and ornament, appeared after 1800. Besides decorative wares, Bow and Worcester produced quantities of cheap “useful” porcelain; this was painted in blue-and-white, or printed by, paper transfers from copperplate engravings (a process invented in England).

The English factories, lacking such influential support, faced financial problems which had proved fatal to some of them by 1770, when cheaper cream-coloured earthenware of Wedgwood type came into fashion. Derby and Worcester, however, managed to survive into the XIX century.

English porcelain is, with the exception of Plymouth, all of soft-paste, and it is important for the collector to learn to recognize this feature. Like so many difficult things, it cannot be done at once; some are able to recognize it quickly and almost by intuition, but for most it is a matter of patience and experience.

One feature of decorating should be mentioned: the practice of factories selling their ware, white and glazed, to men with decorating establishments of their own. This was not at all uncommon in the early days of porcelain making, and the name of James Giles is among the best known of those doing this type of work. William Duesbury, later owner of the Derby factory and purchaser of both Chelsea and Bow, began his career similarly. There was a further outburst of activity of this nature early in the XIX century, when Randall and Robins painted Nantgarw porcelain in London. Men who worked in this way are known as “outside decorators”, because their workshops were unconnected with a particular factory.




Joseph Wright, styled Wright of Derby, was an English painter with a remarkable range of interests. He was conventionally London-trained in portraiture, and made the, by then, conventionally necessary trip to Italy but it is to his native Midlands that he returned in the end. In his work there comes through something of the hard-headed, practical yet romantic excitement of the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. He saw the world in a forced and sharpening light – sometimes artificial, the mill-windows brilliant in the night, faces caught in the circle of the lamp, or the red glow of an iron forge, casting monstrous shadows. With it Wright brought out a sense of exploration and exploitation – scientific, intellectual and commercial, the spirit of the Midlands of his time. He has been acclaimed as “the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution”.

Wright is notable for his use of Chiaroscuro effect, which emphasises the contrast of light and dark, and for his paintings of candle-lit subjects. His paintings of the birth of science out of alchemy, often based on the meetings of the Lunar Society, a group of very influential scientists and industrialists living in the English Midlands, are a significant record of the struggle of science against religious values in the period known as the Age of Enlightenment.

The “Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump”, painted in 1768, is perhaps his masterpiece. Air-pumps were in considerable production in the Midlands at the time, but this is not merely an excellently painted and composed study of scientific experiment. It is raised to the pitch of a true and moving drama of life by the tender yet unsentimental exploration of a human situation. The bird in the globe will die, as the vacuum is created in it; the elder girl on the right cannot bear the idea and hides her face in her hands, while the younger one, though half-turned away also, looks up still to the bird with a marvellous and marvelling expression in which curiosity is just overcoming fear and pity. The moon, on the edge of cloud, seen through the window on the right, adds another dimension of weird-ness and mystery.

This is a picture that exists on many levels but, as it was not expressed in terms of the classical culture of the age, Wright’s subject pictures were for long not given their due. He himself stood apart from that (classical) culture; although he early became an associate of the Royal Academy, he soon quarrelled with it.


items of self-study work.


1. English kings and queens as the subject of British painting.

2. The Royal Academy of Art and its masters.

3. Newlyn School of painting.

4. Miniature as a genre of painting.

5. The Grand Style and its characteristic features.

6. Prints and Watercolours.

7. Arts and Crafts movement.

8. English porcelain.

9. Galleries of London.

10. The Nation’s Mantelpiece: a history of the National Gallery.

11. The Pre-Raphaelites.

12. The XX century: modernization versus restoration.

13. Art exhibitions in the UK.

14. Modern school of English painting.


UNIT 3. theatre



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