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The Porcelain

This is a brief outline only: those who are interested in the subject should read the books mentioned in red at the bottom of the page.

We start with Bow porcelain, where Robert Browne learnt the formula for soft paste porcelain using bone ash. The early Lowestoft vessels are of the same composition, and it may be assumed that Robert simply copied the formula. Although the amounts of the various components were known at Lowestoft, the production of early porcelain was clearly a difficult process, and for the first few years the glaze tended to be bubbly and less clear than later, the translucency was poor and it was painted in underglaze blue. Before 1760 the blue painting tends to be a blackish blue, as if applied to a very porous surface, unlike the vivid blues found on later vessels, and it often appears to have been oulined with a pen and the finish applied with a brush.

Dating the porcelain is not easy. Few pieces are dated, and some of these (like birth tablets) may well give dates some time before manufacture. Equally few pieces are inscribed with an identifiable mark and tying them to a particular decorator is often unreliable, the mark usually being on the inside of the footrim. Nevertheless, the general trend of product over time can be identified.

Perhaps not surprisingly the earliest production seems on the archaeological evidence from excavations to have been the time when most wasters were occurring. The colour of the glaze varied for some years as experimental compositions were tried. The standard of finish supports the theory that experienced workers had been imported - Bow is thought to be the source, but this is conjecture.

The vessels and other items were either thrown on a wheel or made in moulds, and were fired at a temperature of about 1050C which produced a soft paste porcelain in coal-fired kilns operating for 28 hours for each batch. Cooling took a further three days, whereupon the items were taken out and painted with cobalt oxide, which produces the typical underglaze blue for which Lowestoft porcelain is so well known. A second firing followed a dip in glaze, this time at about 800C, and again a lengthy period of cooling followed before the finished items were extracted from the kiln.

How these temperatures, which are so critical for the production standards, were maintained for the time in question is a mystery. The kilns were probably coal fired, but the risk of unwanted draughts, leaks in the structure and an adequate supply of oxygen required substantial skills in kiln work: perhaps Philip and Obed supplied these as tile and brick makers respectively.

The early porcelain took the form of domestic ware, such as tableware, and surviving examples are very rare. After 1760 the underglaze blue became darker and seems to have been brush-applied - condiment containers, eye baths, spoon trays now complemented the cups, saucers, jugs etc, as well as personalised items for individuals.

1764 saw a change in production. From now on, the porcelain was lighter and the glaze was more like glass, clear and hard, without the bubbling of early wares. Not only did the quality of percelain improve, but many items were decorated with coloured enamels, such as the plate at the bottom of this page.

One of the characteristic features of Lowestoft Porcelain was the productions of "Trifles" - mostly small vessels thought to have been painted by Robert Allen - marked "A Trifle from Lowestoft" (or Beccles, Bungay, Lynn or other nearby places). Another (particularly post 1770) is the stilt marks on the rims of bowls, resulting from the firing method which supported the bowls in an upside down position. Three of these , set at about 120 degrees are common, but rarely used by other makers.

From the early 1770s the decoration included the use of prints; some are clearly copies of Worcester porcelain designs and others are uniquely Lowestoft, but most of the hand-painted and enamelled decoration was carried out by the Redgrave family, whose vivid reds and blues lend a new quality to the art.

One painter is unknown; the "Tulip painter". He or she produced a large quantity of vessels decorated with flowers, but particularly with a large tulip (hence the name) which is found nowhere else.

Model animals were also produced, particularly cats and swans, which tended to be solid and heavy, though with a vent hole. Figurines too were manufactured, as was proved by the discovery of moulds in the archaeological digs on the site, and which confirmed Lowestoft production where such figures had previously been attributed to Bow etc.

Today the items are highly collectable and command a high price in the antique shops and auction rooms. Prices of over 1000 an item are not uncommon, although it is still possible to pick up fair examples for a few hundred pounds. A Birth tablet shown below recently sold for 14000 When you remember that the original price of most vessels was pence rather than shillings, both inflation and collectors' attitudes come sharply into focus.

Advertisement in a London newspaper of March 17th, 1770

Clark Durnford, Lowestoft China Warehouse, No 4 Great St. St Thomas the Apostle, Queen St, Cheapside, London, where merchants and shopkeepers may be supplied with any quantity of the said ware at the usual prices. NB - Allowance of Twenty per cent for Ready Money.

Robert Browne & Co, China Manufactory, Lowestoft, Suffolk

Note the change of name from Walker & Co

There were four periods of production which may be fairly readily identified, summarised by Christopher Spencer in his book "Early Lowestoft". These were

Early Period - 1756 to 1760

A large part of this time was spent in setting up the firm and experimenting: many of the wasters discovered in archaeological digs were from this time. Control of firing temperature and glaze composition appear to have been the major difficulties. Decoration was of a limited range of designs, outlined and infilled and which although in less quantities continued into the 2nd period. The paste was of a pink or pinky-brown tinge, and had an open grained body. Flecks of greater translucence are seen.
Early wares tend to be thicker with flared lips and spreading bases, and handles on small objects tend to be plain loops. Moulded items are crisp, well detailed and sharply defined. Underglaze blue is not standard at this time but a pale slaty grey blue is often encountered. Greening of this only occurs after 1760. Whilst no one type of glazing is found most prior to 1760 are dull and clouded by tin oxide or myriads of tiny bubbles which helped the underglaze blue to display a dry look.

Second period - 1761 to 1765

The pinkish tinge found in earlier ware is no longer apparent: the paste is also more compact. When vessels are thinly potted, they are very translucent in white.Two kinds of glaze were being used: a thick and often shiny one showing a green/blue hue in gathers and prone to bubbling, and a pleasing "wet" glaze which reached perfection by 1762. Chinese scenes in decoration became increasingly used, replacing the earlier flowers, plants and birds. The blue of decoration became a darker, inky tone although powder blue was introduced about 1762, after which wares were often in a bright blue or green-blue.

Third period 1765 - 1770

The paste became less compact - described as "floury" by Godden - and translucency became yellow or brownish yellow. The glaze tends to show a greenish hue in gathers and the major change was in the use of transfer printing and polychrome decoration as in the example at the bottom of this page. There is some dissension as to the exact date of the polychrome pieces ranging from 1768 to 1773. Some attractive Chinese landscapes with figures were produced and more inscribed and dated vessels than hitherto.

Fourth Period

Paste and glaze remained much the same, although a creamy clear glaze was developed about 1775. The major difference was a deterioration in the quality of decoration. A brighter blue was used and floral designs became very stylised. For a short time there was a return to individually painted designs, but this was short lived. The china was generally utilitarian in concept and less aesthetically pleasing than early wares

Those who wish to know more about this porcelain are directed to the following publications:

"Catalogue of Lowestoft China" by F A Crisp (pub 1907)
"The Illustrated Guide to Lowestoft Porcelain" by Geoffrey Godden
"Lowestoft Porcelain in Norwich Castle Museum" Vol 1 by Sheena Smith
"Lowestoft China" by A E Murton (pub 193BR
"Lowestoft China" by W W R Spelman (pub 1905)
"Early Lowestoft" by Christopher Spencer
"Lowestoft Porcelain in Norwich Castle Museum" Vol 2 by Sheena Smith (obtainable from Norwich Castle Museum)

All but the last item are out of print in 2007, but may be found through second hand booksellers and in the local public records offices and reference libraries.

In 1863 a Llewellyn Jewitt, writing in the Art Journal of 1863 stated that the best Lowestoft items were painted on oriental bodies, and this was repeated in an early work of Chaffers, but the owner of the maltings, occupying the site of the porcelain factory, a Mr Edgar Morse, noticed in a trench being dug for an air shaft for the maltings some of the moulds which had been used. Following this in 1902 excavations revealed masses of wasters and moulds from the original factory. Crisp writing in 1907 included a number of photographs which may be seen here, and the oriental theory was disproved. The porcelain had been made on site.

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Tea bowl and saucer in posession of author

Richard Green 2007

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