Monday, February 11, 2013

Drinking With Both Hands

QUESTION: I recently purchased a lovely handleless cup and saucer at an antique show. The dealer couldn’t tell me much about it except that it’s called a tea bowl. It has a beautiful landscape scene on it in a sort of lavender color. What can you tell me about this piece?

ANSWER: What you have is indeed a transferware tea bowl, made in the Staffordshire area of England in the early to mid-19th century.

Before the development of the handled teacup, the British upper classes drank their tea from expensive imported Chinese porcelain tea bowls and saucers. Owning a porcelain cup became a mark of high social status. In fact, many members of British nobility posed for portraits holding their favorite cup and saucer. The teacup or bowl was so important that most people usually carried their own to parties in special leather and satin carrying cases.

The cup, as it's known today, with a handle on the side, wasn't introduced until the 18th century.
Prior to that, hostesses and servants poured tea into a cup with no handles. The person drinking the hot tea then poured it, in small amounts, into a deep saucer and sipped from the saucer. Pouring a small amount into the saucer allowed it to cool just the bit. Also, on cold winter days, the handless tea bowl acted as a hand warmer.

It wasn’t until Josiah Wedgwood and Josiah Spode perfected the mass production of earthenware and porcelain did handled teacups become popular.

At about the same time, English pottery makers in the Staffordshire region introduced a new decorative method, known as  "decalcomania," in which workers applied printed decals or transfers onto  pottery and porcelain wares. This enabled potteries to produce cups and saucers carrying social, political,  and advertising slogans.

The process starts with an engraved copper plate similar to those used for making paper engravings.  The engraver traced the outline onto thin tissue paper and then reproduced it on a sheet of copper using homemade carbon paper. He engraved over this outline with a V-shaped groove and added the details and areas of shading using lines or dots. The idea of using dots, or stipple punching, rather than lines came later in the 18th century. The engraver found the right depth by trial and error, so he took a first print or proof before he reworked the lines and dots to deepen them if necessary. The deeper the engraving, the deeper the deposits of color, thus the darker the result. Engravers created early designs with lines and in uniform dark blue, but as the technique of engraving improved so engravers achieved different tonal qualities and printed in pink, green, lavender, brown, and black inks.

Workers, using inked copper plates would print the pattern onto tissue paper, which then transferred the wet ink to the white ceramic surface. They then fired the ceramic piece in a low temperature kiln to fix the pattern. This could be done over or under the glaze, but the underprinting method was more durable. The process produced fine lines similar to the engraved prints in old books. Before transfer printing, pottery workers handpainted the ceramics, a laborious and costly process.

During the printing process, the printer kept the plate warm by placing it on a circular iron plate or backstone. He then applied the ink to the copper plate, making sure to rub the ink into every dot and line. After scraping off the surplus color, he removed any film of color by rubbing the surface with a corduroy-faced pad. When the  copper plate was clean, he laid the tissue paper coated with a mixture of soft soap and water and passed it through the press's rollers. He then passed the printed image, now in reverse—unlike regular engravings that begin in reverse and appear correct on printing—on to the transfer team, consisting of the transferrer, apprentice, and cutter.

The cutter removed the excess paper leaving only the design pieces. The transferrer laid these pieces, colored by cobalt oxide, on to the ware after its first or biscuit firing, then dipped it in glaze and refired it. A design with an overall pattern would have the center applied first and the border around the rim afterwards. The tackiness of the oily print held it in place while the apprentice rubbed it down vigorously with a stiff-bristled brush using a little soft soap as lubricant.

The apprentice then soaked the earthenware in a tub of water to soften the paper, which he removed by sponging, the oil-based color being unaffected by the water. After drying, an assistant placed the ware into the hardening kiln to fire at 1,250-1,290 F. to remove the oils and secure the color. Afterwards, another worker glazed the piece and placed it into the kiln to be   refired at 1,940-2,010° F.

Engraving for transfer printing reached its peak by 1816. And by 1805, lighter shades of royal blue as well as ultramarine came into use. Though each factory developed its own potting and decorative techniques, considerable copying took place between factories. In addition, each factory experimented with different styles and products changed dramatically over a short time.
Not only did the paste and tone of the underglaze blue vary from factory to factory, but they also varied according to the stage of each factory's development.

To complicate matters, makers constantly introduced new patterns, while shapes of plates, dishes, tureens varied from time to time according to the prevailing trends. When the Chinese-inspired designs lost favor, manufacturers replaced them with European scenes, which they copied from engravings in books. Floral borders resembled each other in general appearance, although most differed in detail.

Today, transfer tea bowls are going for astronomical prices. One is excellent condition, with a perfectly matched design, can fetch upwards of $150-200 in an antique show or shop.

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