Here are three jugs. They were in a single lot at a recent Edinburgh auction. I liked the look of one of them, so I bid £30 and won them. Of course all three came home with me.
More jugs. Just what I need. They didn’t all have to come home. I could have just collected the one I liked, and junked the other two. I could have left them at the auction house either to be entered into next week’s sale or thrown out. Or I could have stopped off at a charity shop and donated them. There’s a handy Sue Ryder shop with good parking on the route home. Or I could have stopped at the municipal rubbish tip (also en route) and thrown them in a landfill skip.
I’m glad I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I did some research. This wasn’t entirely straightforward because all three jugs are unmarked, and it was necessary to rely for identification on a search of online images, followed by posting pictures on Facebook interest groups to seek expert advice.
The exercise turned up some real surprises. One of the two that I didn’t care for at the auction viewing (the pretty one) actually looks very good on display in the house. The one I liked (the brown one) has a complicated back-story and is very popular with specialist collectors. The third, which I scarcely noticed at the viewing (the black one), seems in fact to be more of a museum piece than a collector’s piece.
I don’t know if there’s a moral to this story. Perhaps there’s a wise proverb which goes something like “Never discard an unconsidered jug” or “A jug is for life, not just for Christmas”. You know the sort of thing. However, I’m not interested in drawing aphorisms from my three jugs. I’m interested in them as objects. I’ll try to describe them to you.
Jug #1. The pretty one.
This jug is the least interesting of the group but also the one which is easiest to have on display because it is merely decorative and makes no demands on the observer. It’s in white earthenware, moulded in a fairly ornate Victorian shape with a narrow waist, a wide faceted belly, an undulating upper rim, a handle with curlicues and a prominent spout. The rim and sides of the handle are painted in blue, and there are simple, stylised flowers painted on the sides. It’s cheap, cheerful Staffordshire ware of the sort churned out by dozens of unidentified small factories in and around Stoke-on-Trent. And it’s charming.
There’s nothing much more to say about it except, in passing, to compare it with another larger jug which I have owned for a while, and to which a very similar description would apply. Similar shape, similar earthenware, similar quality of making, similar date, similar Staffordshire origins, also painted with flowers. But wait a moment! Look at this photo of the two together. Compare the quality of flower painting between the two otherwise very similar jugs. See what I’m getting at? The quality of painting on the larger jug is better by several orders of magnitude, so much so that it makes the smaller jug look crude. Still charming, but crude.
I don’t have an explanation for this difference in quality of painting. It’s probably simply a matter of different factories employing different painters. I’m not sure even if the quality differential would have been reflected in the original retail prices of the two items.
As a Victorian buyer looking for a cheap-and-cheerful jug, you probably wouldn’t even notice the stark distinction unless the two jugs happened to be displayed side-by-side in your local china shop.
Jug #2. The brown one.
This is the one that caught my eye at the auction viewing because it has such an unusual appearance. It’s very brown and very shiny and has yellow/orange transfer decoration in a sort of Chinoiserie willow-pattern kind of style which you’d normally expect to see printed in blue on white, but which you just don’t expect to see in yellow on brown. If you look inside the jug, you’ll see that the clay is white and covered with a slightly bluish tinted transparent glaze, so if it wasn’t for the rich brown glaze on the outside, you’d be calling it Pearlware. It’s a crisply made jug of lovely quality which looks as if it might have come out of an upmarket china shop yesterday.
A touch of googling before the sale suggested that this type of pottery is sometimes known as Portobello Ware, which got me quite excited because the auction was actually taking place at a saleroom in Portobello, just down the road from me in East Edinburgh.
When I got the jug home I did some more online searching and also posted pictures on the British Pottery and Porcelain Facebook discussion group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/northernceramicsociety/, where the experts are breathtakingly expert.
My findings from this exercise (entirely dependent upon the knowledge of others) are that the cognoscenti call this type of pottery Yellow Transfer Printed Brown Ware (or YPB for short), and the term Portobello Ware is a misnomer. There’s no evidence that this type of pottery was made in East Scotland, but attributions have been made to Liverpool, Swansea and Staffordshire factories. There’s a tentative explanation of the origin of the Portobello name which you can read here.
The article referred to in the last paragraph was written by Connie Rogers of Cincinnati Ohio, who is the General Editor of the database of the Transferware Collectors’ Club, and a world authority on this type of pottery. Connie is also a member of the Facebook group and when she saw my posting she kindly provided me with the following very specific information about my jug:
“The original expert on this ware is C. Williams-Wood who wrote an article, Yellow Transfer Printed Brown-Ware published in Antique Collecting Magazine, August, 1985. Roger Stewart’s jug is illustrated and described by C. Williams-Wood as ‘Small jug of tobacco-brown colour, with yellowish slip lining and loop handle with thumb rest, by Thomas Harley. 123mm high. Variation of Boy in Doorway pattern in chrome yellow’. The scene of the boy of the pattern name is found under the spout.”
I can’t add anything to that, except say that Thomas Harley’s factory was in Lane End, Staffordshire, which is a very long way away from Portobello. And here is a close-up of the area under the spout of the jug, where you can see the boy in the doorway after whom the pattern was named.
Jug #3. The black one.
This is a simple, stark, minimalist jug made in dark red clay and covered with a very dark and shiny black “mirror glaze”. At the auction viewing I scarcely noticed it, thinking it was from the late 20th century, and could have been bought from any cheap factory or any cheap shop just about anywhere in the world. It clearly wasn’t nearly as interesting as the brown jug or as pretty as the pretty one. No, not interesting or pretty at all.
However, for the sake of completeness I looked up some images online. Somehow the name Jackfield came into my mind associated with shiny black ware, so I looked that up too, and confirmed, much to my surprise and delight, that that’s what it is: Jackfield ware. A very similar jug in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge is described as follows:
“The lustrous black lead glaze identifies this as Jackfield ware. Named for Richard Thursfield and his son Maurice who produced such wares at their pottery in Jackfield, Shropshire … Jackfield was also produced by other potters in Shropshire and Staffordshire. Thomas Whieldon, of Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent is credited producing an exceptionally shiny black glaze. Jackfield is also sometimes also known as jet ware, blackware or japanned ware (after Japanese black lacquer ware). It was generally made for everyday use – such as tea-pots, kitchen ware, pitchers or drinking mugs – and is often decorated with enamels or gilt.”
It’s quite fitting to have a museum description of this jug because it is indeed something of a museum piece. It’s a rare survival, but perhaps because undecorated examples like mine are so black and forbidding, collectors don’t seem to be quite as interested in them as in pieces which are easier on the eye.
But the more I look at it, the more I like it. It is dark and stern, but the baluster shape, the sturdy base, the mirror shine and the prominent “sparrow-beak” spout (which in this case is more like a crow’s beak than a sparrow’s) all combine to give this small milk jug just 16 cms tall a very eye-catching presence. In certain strong lights the upper part of the jug takes on a very dark brown-and-black mottled appearance, and I wonder if this might be indicative of manufacture by the great Thomas Whieldon, whose tortoise-shell glazed plates are very highly prized by collectors. But this is idle speculation and is never likely to be confirmed.
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Readers might have noticed, perhaps to their frustration, that amongst the descriptions above, there are no dates of manufacture given for my three jugs. This isn’t due to the blogger’s perversity, but because I’ve decided to present this piece to you as a QUIZ!
Question 1: Which is the oldest of the three jugs and which is the newest?
Question 2: Around what date was each jug made?
If you know about English pottery you won’t have any difficulty in answering these two questions. But if you’re not an expert, you might be quite surprised. I was.
Quiz answers HERE