Beautiful Flow Blue

By Terry Quillen


The crisp combination of blue and white appeals to our design senses, whatever our preferred style or period may be. Consider the nautical stripes of a contemporary beach umbrella. Or the comfort of a folkloric Scandinavian cottage interior. Or the approachable elegance of navy-and-white toile upholstery.


But you cannot ponder blue-and-white design for very long without old flow blue tableware coming to mind. It is coveted by collectors and was once a status symbol on any American table. During America's Victorian era a table set with flow blue transferware, though not terribly expensive, gave the appearance of wealth. That, after all, was the point. (Photo, right: Details of plate and gravy boat marked “Constance” by William Adderley. From the author’s collection.)


Originally produced in Staffordshire, England in the 1820s, flow blue was not very popular in the U.K., but it became highly sought after in the United States. Being neither porcelain nor bone china, it was more affordable for the middle class hostess. (Photo, left: Luncheon plates, soup and berry bowls, along with serving pieces, all from Showcase T-293J at GasLamp Too. Close-up shows extensive flowing in the paint on crescent-shaped “bone dishes,” which traditionally sit beside the dinner plate for disposal of bones.)


Flow blue falls into the category of transferware, a process created by John Brooks, a prolific Irish mezzotint engraver, in 1751. The design on flow blue ware was applied as a transfer, not painted on, before the piece was fired. “Flow” refers to the blurry effect that shadows some of the design. It is not a flaw in the glaze or firing process.


What makes the blue flow? This is where art and science collaborate: It occurs when the potter puts a form of lime or ammonia in the kiln during firing.


American potters picked up the technique in the early 1900s, and because so much was produced, collectors today can find the occasional deal. Certain factors can push up the price. Known as "armorial pieces," any dinner ware – including flow blue – that bears a family coat of arms commands a higher price.  (Photo, right: Collection of 1800s armorial flow blue china, in Showcase T-707, GasLamp Too. The coat of arms (inset) shows the words “Mon seul désir” or “My sole desire.”)


Like a wide array of transferware, flow blue was initially inspired by Asian imagery, so many of the patterns reflect that inspiration. The English manufacturers included Wedgwood, Johnson Brothers, Royal Daulton, Swansea and Minton. (Photo, below left: Three diverse flow blue styles, at GasLamp Too. Plate at lower left is Meakin (T101); Fenton covered bowl or small tureen at top left (T715); at right, luncheon plate with gold luster detailing (T271).)






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