01 December 2010

Spode's Christmas Tree Pattern

It's December so only one pattern must be featured here - Spode's Christmas Tree! Since this blog was first published I have written a lot more about the pattern and published more images. You can find the links by going to my Spode & Christmas page - click/tap here.

Christmas Tree was one of the most important designs for the Spode company, successful from the moment of its introduction in 1938. Sales of this pattern, particularly into the US market, saved the company during lean times on more than one occasion. Sadly it could not do this 70 years on when the Spode company was in difficulties and closed in 2009.
Cup and saucer, Christmas Tree pattern, date unknown
The design has a lovely history. Sydney Thompson, sole agent for Spode in the US (Copeland & Thompson Inc, 206 Fifth Avenue, New York), spent a couple of months in Stoke-on-Trent each year at the Spode factory to develop new patterns for his market. This was during the 1930s and the Art Director of Spode was Thomas Hassall. He and Sydney Thompson would review the old Spode pattern books in their search for antique designs which could be revitalized and introduced on current shapes.

In May 1938, Mr. Thompson wanted a new design for the Christmas season and despite the many holly designs found in the pattern books none seemed appropriate. So Mr. Hassall asked Harold Holdway, one of the Spode designers (later to become Design Director) to produce a design. 

Holdway writes in his memoirs that 'I eventually settled on a Christmas tree as a central motif for my design. The tree... was profusely decorated with gifts, baubles and tinsel adorning the fronds.' The draft design was shown to Mr Thompson. Harold recalls that Thompson informed him that 'in America Christmas gifts, wrapped in gaily-coloured paper and tied with ribbon, were placed at the foot of the tree'. He continues 'I accepted this with good grace and amended my design to accommodate his suggestion. This alteration improved the balance of the design by giving a greater weight of pattern at the base of the tree.'

Spode's Christmas Tree pattern was born.

Factory legend suggests that Harold also had no idea what they put at the top of the tree which is why the Spode Christmas tree has a Santa instead of a fairy.

After the revision of the design a ten inch plate was produced with the wording 'Wishing You a Merry Christmas 1938' printed on the back of the plate. The salesmen were swamped with orders. The inscription was discontinued* after 1938 but over the following years the Christmas Tree pattern developed into whole table services and extra serving pieces. *This was found not to be true when I was told of a plate with the date of 1939 included in the inscription. Click here for the new information. 

Christmas Tree pattern with crimson band, late 1930s
Originally produced on Kailas shape the pattern was outline printed from a hand engraved copper plate and then handcoloured. Pattern number S2133 has a green band and pattern S2134 a crimson band, both decorated onglaze.

In the late 20th century/early 21st century Christmas Tree was produced by Spode on Regimental Oak shape with a narrow green band with the pattern number S3324 - the most usual version of the pattern. Pattern number S3324  had superseded the original design in 1959 for all underglaze decorated versions. The patterns changed from transfer printing and handpainting to slide-off lithography in about 1962. Slide-off lithography was known as 'water slide' at Spode. The coloured band was now applied underglaze. The version with the crimson band was not as popular and was eventually discontinued but from the late 1950s was produced in the same way as S3324 and has pattern number S3325. 

Prior to closure of the Spode factory in 2009 plates in the pattern were produced by a 'Malkin' 6 head, 6 colour pad printing, backstamping and lining machine. It could run 24 hours a day 7 days a week if required. It used 6 etched steel and hard chrome-plated printing plates. (The only hand engraved steel Christmas Tree printing plate was engraved by Jack Longmore Snr. and is in the collection of the Spode Museum Trust). The  machine was fondly known as a 'multi-bump' and was fascinating to watch in operation, revolutionising the speed of production of printed patterns and reducing the number of people required in the manufacturing process.

Multi-bump machine used to produce Christmas Tree, 2007
Many different versions of Christmas Tree were produced over the years with different colours and widths of bands. Confusingly during the 1990s the same pattern number, S3324, was used on several different versions with different borders and mottoes. Also in the 1990s annual plates began to be produced which have the Christmas Tree centre, the year and an appropriate border which was different each year. New shapes began to be introduced each year including star-shaped hors d'oeuvre dishes, star vase, candlesticks, pierced candleholders, and miniatures. There was always something new to add for a collector of the pattern. Most of this production was aimed at the US market where there is a different culture around Christmas from the UK. In the US the design is used from Thanksgiving to Twelfth Night; in the UK the use is usually limited to Christmas Day and perhaps Boxing Day.

Interestingly Plummers of New York who stocked the original Spode Christmas Tree pattern also had it reproduced very closely and applied to less expensive ware by Barker Bros. of Longton, Staffordshire. Plummers sold both versions. The success of the pattern has inspired many other companies to produce similar designs over the years. But remember the Spode Christmas Tree pattern is the original.

Here's a great statistic - in the last quarter of 1999 Spode's Christmas Tree was recorded as the largest selling casual dinnerware pattern in the USA.

Some variations of Christmas Tree pattern are detail below:

Pattern number
the original pattern printed underglaze, handpainted onglaze with green band - superseded by S3324 in 1959 for  underglaze decorated
As S2133 but with crimson band
As S2133 but on Marlborough shape
As S2134 but on Marlborough shape
As S2134 but band in 1339 red in place of crimson
12 inch round Chelsea dish, Christmas Tree centre of S2133, edge in Christmas Tree green
12 inch round Chelsea dish, Christmas Tree centre of S2134, edge in Christmas Tree crimson
Pattern all underglaze but green line in place of the green band
Zieler bowl all underglaze with green line and holly border
As original pattern but all underglaze. In 1962 the decoration changed from printed to waterslide onglaze but still banded underglaze
As S2134 but underglaze and underglaze pink band
As S3324 but omitting the band (cancelled)

Spode factory closes

Produced by the Portmeirion company

You can see details of some backstamps to help date pieces of Christmas Tree on a newer blog here.

In August 2011 I found this for more on Christmas designs and not just from Spode: http://vignettedesign.blogspot.com/2010/12/setting-table-with-christmas-dinnerware.html

With thanks to Robert Copeland, the Holdway family and Eddie Orpe