Transferware’s History

Karen Parr-Moody


The name says it all. Transferware is the transference of a print onto a ceramic vessel. This simple technique revolutionized tableware and put the region of Staffordshire, England, where production flourished, on the decorative arts map. In fact, transferware is considered one of history’s most successful forms of mass production.


The exact dates of transferware’s origins are hazy because history tells us that, like many inventions, the process was developed independently in different camps during a relatively short time period. It is generally accepted that John Brooks, a prolific Irish mezzotint engraver, invented the process in 1751. However, partners John Sadler and Guy Green of Liverpool, England, are credited with perfecting the method.


Sadler and Green first used the process to print on ceramic tile, the perfect medium for experimentation, being smooth and flat. Transfer printing begins with a copper plate that has been etched with the design. The plate is then inked, and the wet ink design is transferred onto paper, which is pressed onto a ceramic object. While primarily produced on earthenware, transfer prints are also found on porcelain, ironstone, and bone china (photo, upper right: An ironstone transferware plate by Sydenham J. Clementson of England; $69 at Booth B-113).


Blue Willow – said to be the most collected china pattern ever produced – was an early pattern of transferware that dated to the late 1780s attributed to Thomas Turner and Thomas Minton. In fact, some collectors call all transferware “blue willow” or “blue and white.”


Royal Worcester, Adams, Wedgwood, Davenport, Clews, Leeds and Swansea all went on to design their own versions of Blue Willow, which depicts the romantic story of two star-crossed lovers whom fate ultimately turns into mystical birds to enjoy what eluded them on earth as humans. The story, while quaint, was actually not an authentic Chinese tale, but rather a clever merchandising ploy.


The first transferware patterns were copied from Chinese export porcelain, which was a type of hand-painted ware first developed in the 16th century for expert to Europe and America. Patterns emerged in the early 1800s and continued for decades, distinguished by pagodas, bridges and boats. (Photo, upper left: a three-piece relish set; $59 at Booth B-200.)


Blue is the most common color of transferware. For the first 50 years it was the only color produced, due to its inexpensiveness and its ability to survive the high temperatures of the firing process. Another transferware process was that of Flow Blue, which originated in 1825 through a chemical reaction that caused the ink to spread and blur, thus “flow.” Flow Blue was also initially inspired by Asian imagery (photo, right: two Flow Blue plates; $40 and $45 at Booth B-200).


By 1820, transferware was no longer limited to the color blue, but was produced in shades of red, pink, cranberry, black, gray, green, brown, purple, and yellow.


During the 1820s and 1830s, the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 were over and British trade with North America, Europe, India and the east was growing. This became the golden age of transferware. Not only did the color palette explode, the patterns did as well, growing to the thousands. Designs included sailing ships, floral patterns, hunting scenes, pastoral scenes and mountain views. Exoticism continued as designs depicted locales such as Turkey, India, and Greece (photo, left: Davenport English Staffordshire plate featuring a Mediterranean scene, circa 1870; $59 at Booth B-200). 


The United States market niche was targeted with patriotic American images, such as Niagara Falls and Mount Vernon, and with scenes from history, such as the Lewis and Clark expedition. Souvenir plates, which might feature anything from geographic regions to celebrations, also became popular in the U.S. and in England. For example, the photo at right is of an Old English Staffordshire plate, made in England, that is imprinted on the back with the Adams and Jonroth logo ($59 at Booth B-200). It depicts Plymouth Rock.


In present times, valuable English pieces from the earliest days of transferware are extremely rare. Serious collectors should look for transferware from the early 1800s, which was produced in smaller quantities that that of later times, and has fallen prey to wear and loss. It is worth more than pieces from the 20th century, which are more common.


Rarity of pattern, print quality, and unusual colors increase worth, as well. Prices in brown transferware have increased in recent years. A large pot that is relatively undamaged may fetch as much as $300 to $400.


While inauthentic replication of transferware does exist, it is readily distinguished from the other because on close examination of real transferware, one can distinguish the fine lines produced by the transfer paper through the engraving process. These lines are extremely faint, like microscopic ripples, but they are marks of authenticity.


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