Hunting the Bear

Hunting the Bear

By Margaret White, Overseas SEACS Member

My story concerns the purchase of a blue and white plate in an Australian auction a few years ago. Having had an interest in the Western decorative style known as chinoiserie for many years, I was intrigued because the centre of the plate portrayed a somewhat bemused -looking, caparisoned elephant carrying a mahout and riders, horsemen with spears and baying dogs surrounding a bear in an Oriental landscape. The plate’s border is encircled by ships, tigers, bears, birds and floral motifs. What an unusual subject to depict on dinnerware! It led me on my own hunt of discovery.

The 19th century was characterized by great exploration, discovery and trade with what was referred to as the Far East which included China, Japan and India. The British Empire in India had spread its influence across many parts of the world especially via its East India Trading Company. However, this was also at a time when most people could not afford to travel but fascination grew about such exotic places.

Pottery manufacturers such as Spode, Copeland, Worcester, Coalport and Chelsea sought inspiration from such sources hoping to satisfy this new interest by the public. Frequently, prints provided information for their engravers. The source of this multi-scene service originated from the publication of monthly issues by Edward Orme of Bond St, London, entitled: Oriental Field Sports, Wild Sports of the East written by Captain Thomas Williamson and illustrated by Samuel Howitt in 1807-1809. My plate’s inspiration is taken from an aquatint in the Elephant Folio, Plate 29 which was introduced c. 1815. The plate, titled, The Death of the Bear, was made by Spode in c.1820 as part of a dinner set called: Indian Sporting Series. The subject of dead and dying animals on one’s dinner ware may seem somewhat gruesome to us in the 21st century but was seen as quite acceptable, not only in in 1815, but throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century.

In 2019, my visit to Stoke-on-Trent in the UK had me heading straight for the Spode Museum. There, I was able to see first-hand the actual process, still in use, of creating blue and white, underglazed, transfer patterns, which was invented in England to speed up production and lower costs. Transfer ware was mainly applied to blue and white wares. The 19th century’s Industrial Revolution was the start of mass production here and was aimed at the middle-class market. My plate’s image was created by first making a copper engraving. Mastering the art of etching took about five years and an apprentice had to demonstrate his capability in shading, groove depth and scoring.

Transfer ware required many different hand-engraved copper plates to produce a wide set of tableware. Spode used 17 of the original prints from Oriental Field Sports plus sections from other designs to create wonderful border patterns. Several other designs in the series were Shooting a Leopard in a Tree, Common Wolf Trap and Dooreahs Leading Out The Dogs.

Once the engraved plate was complete, it was inked with a mixture of cobalt and vegetable oil emulsion, then rolled through a press. The resultant paper print was pressed over the biscuit-fired ceramic, leaving an imprint of the design. The process of transfer printing is a very skilled process and it can sometimes be difficult to detect where the design has been repeated. It is clear from looking at the larger elephant on my plate that the engraver had probably never seen such exotic animals in the flesh. Thus, we observe a somewhat quirky impression of the elephant’s eyes. I was even told the engravers sometimes used the eyes of their own children and pets in the engravings. Certainly, a large part of the charm for me lies in the unassuming character of such pieces.

White clay brought by barge from Devon was used to fashion the plate which once decorated, was fired with coal in bottle kiln—a filthy and dangerous process. One can note the different hues of cobalt blue which were used over time. The earlier wares employed hues which were more midnight blue, later becoming a royal blue and even lighter again in subsequent pieces in an effort to respond to customers’ preferences.

My greatest thrill was a fortuitous meeting with a trustee of the Spode Museum who generously offered to take me on a personal tour of The Blue Room—a locked space. This room holds a roughly chronological collection of Spode’s blue and white patterns and many of the 30,000 copper engravings used by Spode. The trustee located the engraving of my plate and guided me through the magnificent display of most of their patterns on a huge variety of ceramics laid out on tables and open dressers which were contemporaneous with the ceramics. I again noted the influence of China, the Middle East and India where designs were sometimes juxtaposed with one another on one piece.

Interestingly, the popularity of the Indian Sporting Series has been enduring and is still much sought after by collectors with the pattern being reintroduced in the late 1990s.