The elegance of the breakfast set forced itself on Catherine’s notice when they were seated at table… He was enchanted by her approbation of his taste, confessed it to be neat and simple, thought it right to encourage the manufacture of his country; and for his part, to his uncritical palate, the tea was as well flavoured from the clay of Staffordshire, as from that of Dresden [Germany] or Save [France].
Surprisingly, many of the recognizable names in china and dinnerware were already established by Jane Austen’s Day. Sèvres (France, 1740), Villeroy & Boch (Germany, 1748), Royal Worcester (1751), Wedgwood (England, 1759), Spode (England, 1770), Minton (England, 1793) and others trace their roots back to the china making heyday of the mid seventeen hundreds (Royal Doulton was a bit late to the [tea]party, being founded in England, in 1815, the same year Emma was published)
Chinese porcelain had long been a staple import of the East India Companies and manufacturers in Europe were wild to discover just how it was made. Experiments abounded, some more successful than others, and for centuries it simply could not be replicated. Those who could not afford porcelain services imported from the East ate from silver, pewter, tin or wooden dishes.
Finally, during the 1600’s, artisans in Europe began producing passable imitations of Chinese porcelain. With an interruption in Asian exports, due to the death the Wanli Emperor in 1620, the Dutch had the opportunity they needed to take a foothold in the market, with their Chinese inspired Delftware. These earthenware pieces at first featured the blue and white patterns so popular in the Chinese imports, though later pieces incorporated other colors as well. The patterns were created by drawing sketches on the shaped pottery, and then coating it with a white enamel finish, before hand painting the final design and firing the piece to preserve the paint and give the piece it’s glassy finish.
The first earthenware (also known as Stoneware) pieces were certainly crude compared to later innovations and each successive generation refined the process. The goal was a white porcelain base on which to add colors and patterns. Earthenware tended to be darker, creamy…earthy. The Dutch fought this with a lead based white enamel coating until 1707, when a German, Johann Friedrich Böttger, discovered the secret to hard paste porcelain, like that used by the Chinese. Known as Meissen China, it was characterized by an extremely high firing temperature, something earlier innovators could not duplicate with the resources available to them. The high temperatures made the porcelain glossy and water resistant without the addition of glaze, and this process continues to be used today by companies such as Hummel and Royal Worcester.
Meissen China dominated western markets until the mid 1750’s when Josiah Wedgwood (grandfather of naturalist Charles Darwin) broke on the scene, changing the face of “China” forever. His experiments with porcelain, carried out in his factory in Staffordshire (hence General Tilney’s famous quote) led to cleaner, whiter earthenware, in particular Creamware, a line of which became known as ‘Queen’s Ware’ when Queen Charlotte ordered ‘A complete sett of tea things’ in 1765. This “sett” included a dozen cups for coffee, six fruit baskets and stands, six melon preserve pots and six hand candlesticks.
In 1766, a notice, run in the Aris Birmingham Gazette announced: “Mr Josiah Wedgwood, of Burslem, has had the honour of being appointed Potter to Her Majesty.” This notoriety brought an onslaught of orders for his creamware, and later his pearlware (earthenware whitened further by the addition of a cobalt overglaze) Empress Catherine the Great, of Russia, ordered a complete set of Queen’s Ware (the Green Frog Service, now on display at the Hermitage) and by the turn of the century, Mrs Papendiek, Assistant Keeper to the Wardrobe of Queen Charlotte, was able to write “Our tea and coffee set were of common India China (known today as Chinese Export Porcelain), our dinner service of earthenware, to which, for our rank, there is nothing superior. Chelsea porcelain and fine India China being only for the wealthy. Pewter and Delft ware could be had, but they were inferior.” In fact, creamware was so widely used that it became known as ‘Common Wedgwood’.
Wedgwood, by now the most famous name in porcelain, was not satisfied in having transformed English dining, and making prized porcelain available to the burgeoning middle class. He also developed Jasperware, the famous “Wedgwood Blue” porcelain consisting of a colored (most often blue or sage green) base with a raised, white motif, often of a scene or portrait. Later in life, Wedgwood dedicated himself to reproducing the Portland Vase (one of the earliest known examples of porcelain, dating from the first century, BC) Wedgwood labored for year, recreating the vase, finally perfecting it in 1790. This marked his last major achievement in porcelain production.
By this time, a newcomer, Josiah Spode, had improved Wedgwood’s creamware recipe, creating what is known today as Bone China (a soft paste porcelain), by literally adding bone ash to the clay mixture. In 1783, Spode perfected transferware—this method of decoration involved stamping an engraved design onto tissue paper and applying the still damp tissue to the porcelain dish, literally “transferring” the pattern from the paper to the dish. The tissue was washed off in water and the piece was then given a coating of clear glaze and fired. While allowing for “mass production” in place of previously hand painted designs, it was nonetheless a tricky business, as each piece of tissue had to be meticulously hand cut and applied to the curves and contours of each piece of porcelain. Color choices in transferware were limited to shades that could withstand the heat of the furnace, with cobalt blue being the most commonly used (you can also find red or pink, green and brown transferware from this period.)
Blue and white transferware became a hallmark of the Staffordshire potteries (Wedgwood, Spode, Minton and others all set up factories in this county) and many of the patterns they created, from Blue Willow (created by Thomas Minton in 1790) to Blue Italian (by Josiah Spode II, introduced in 1812) evoke exotic locals and hearken back to the original Chinese patterns imported centuries before. Even the Blue Onion pattern, first created by the German Meissen factory in 1740, was based on extant Chinese pieces, with the unknown Asian flowers being replaced by more recognizable European Peonies and Asters (some experts believe that the “onions” depicted were mutations of the Chinese representations of peaches and pomegranates.)
Regardless, by 1797, English pottery was so well established as superior to any other kind that a visting Frenchman remarked , “Its excellent workmanship, its solidarity, the advantage which it possesses of standing the action of the fire, its fine glaze, impervious to acid, the beauty, convenience and variety of its forms and its moderate price have created a commerce so active and so universal, that in travelling from Paris to St Petersburg, from Amsterdam to the furthest points of Sweden, from Dunkirk to the southern extremity of France, one is served at every inn from English earthenware. The same fine articles adorn the tables of Spain, Portugal, & Italy, and it provides the cargoes of ships to the East Indies, the West Indies and America.” (Voyage en Angleterre by Faujas de Saint Fond)
If one wished to purchase ‘English Earthenware’, you had only to visit the showrooms, like those set up by Josiah Spode and Josiah Wedgwood. Here you might peruse a selection of ready made articles, and see displays of porcelain artistry, such as a Portland Vase reproduction, which was on display in Wedgwood’s London showroom.
The Austens were loyal Wedgwood patrons and owned many sets of china, some ordered by Jane herself, who wrote to her sister after one visit, “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…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 Waggon tomorrow; 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 regrets.”
(Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, June 6, 1811)
On visiting one of the China show rooms, you might be greeted by a manager (in 1771, Wedgwood’s Bath shop was managed by the father of Ann Radcliffe, Austen’s contemporary in women’s literature and author of The Mysteries of Udolpho) If you could not be tempted by the wares on display, you could always search the catalog of available patterns (Spode offered close to 2000 assorted pieces and patterns at the time) and create your own special set of dinner ware, as Edward Knight, Jane Austen’s brother, did, in 1813. Jane described the purchase of this china, which was, until recently on display at the Jane Austen Chawton House Museum: “We then went to Wedgwoods 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.” (Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, September 16, 1813)
Wedgwood and Spode, and to a lesser extent, their contemporaries remain highly collectible, and easily obtainable—‘Fine China for the Masses’. Many of the patterns available to Jane Austen on her visits to the London showrooms are still manufactured today and used by households around the globe, including mine. Most of the dishes used in Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends, were from my personal collection of Spode dinnerware, added to by friends and family over the years; many are reproductions of pieces available during Austen’s lifetime. It fascinates me to think that she might have eaten off these same patterns, or have seen them on display as original works of art during her time in London. Eating foods made from their own recipes on what might have been her dishes feels about as close to dining with the Austens and their friends as you can get.
Laura Boyle runs Austentation: Regency Accessories. Her book, Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends, is available from the Jane Austen Centre Giftshop.
Visit Austentation for a large range of custom made hats, bonnets, reticules and Jane Austen related items.