08 November 2011

Spode and Printing...and Hogarth

Hogarth's House 2011
On the day that Hogarth House reopened after refurbishment and redisplay it seemed appropriate to mention Spode and printing. William Hogarth (1697-1764) rose from humble beginnings to become a great British painter and engraver and Sergeant Painter to the King. November 8th 2011 saw the culmination of a restoration project with his house reopening to the public. Hogarth produced prints from his paintings using engraved copper plates - Hogarth himself was a master engraver. 
Copper plate and tools, Hogarth House
Paul Holdway engraving Italian pattern, 2006
Engraving to produce prints is similar to that for producing pottery. For prints the engraving is engraved the wrong way round as can be seen in the illustration showing a Hogarth engraving (Hogarth House, Chiswick). You can see an excellent set of images showing a shortened sequence of transfer printing a large kettle in Italian pattern from the magazine Country Living New York with whom I worked on a project in 2006/2007. This fabulous set of photos helps to explain the transfer printing process.
Backstamp, Spode soup plate, 1816
In about 1784 Josiah Spode is thought to have perfected the technique of underglaze blue printing on earthenware in Stoke, Staffordshire - a technique which eventually brought blue printed pottery, with which we are so familiar, to the masses. Spode's copper plates are engraved the 'right way round' as the engraving is transferred from the copper plate to the pot via a piece of thin paper, hence the term transfer printed or, particularly in the USA, transferware. A name which seems to have been used in the early 1800s is 'blue ware' as can be seen in the image of a backstamp from 1816. 

I am always amazed at the skill of the engraver engraving on a flat two-dimensional copper the design for a three-dimensional coffee pot.
Spode Leg Bath, Long Eliza pattern c1820
Initially Spode's blue printed wares were for the well-to-do and this is shown in the type of wares produced such as a leg bath or rouge pot. However by the mid-1800s blue printed ware was everywhere and made by many manufacturers. Spode's however remained supreme with high quality pottery bodies, glazes, printers and transferrers and, of course, skilled engravers, many of whom had served long apprenticeships. Spode continued to use copper plate engraving until about 2008, long after most manufacturers had abandoned the technique.  In 2006 I took a series of photos of Paul Holdway, Head Engraver at Spode, working on an engraving for Italian pattern.

As well as a master engraver Holdway is co-author with the late David Drakard of the indispensable book Spode Transfer Printed Ware 1784-1833 pubd. Antique Collectors' Club, 2002, ISBN 1 85149 394 8. In this book you will find much you need to know about Spode's printed wares including history and technique. For further information visit the web pages from the Transferware Collectors Club.
Spode apprentice copper plate
When I was Curator at the SpodeMuseum, the copper plates in the museum collection used to number about 25,000 items dating back to the late 1700s. Sadly, although some have now been 'lost', the remainder are under the care of the Spode museum and I hope will be preserved. Although Robert Copeland listed them (way before computers so all recorded by hand) and researched them, their study is incomplete and it is still not sure what fascinating new information may be found and what may be of interest in the future. Researching in them in about 2002 I found new information to tell us more of the history of Spode and I am convinced there is more yet to be revealed.


  1. Hi Pam, and thanks for a terrific blog. In the early 2000s I went on several factory tours and observed the transfer printing process. A couple of questions: how many engravers did Spode employ at any one time, and how long would it take to produce a copper plate ready for use? Also, given the variety of shapes (teapots, plates, vases etc) did a copper plate have to be produced for each individual item? Thanks.

  2. Hello Simon,
    Thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the blog. This is a big but interesting question!
    The number of engravers employed depended on the period in time and the state of the industry at that time. In 2008 it was down to one engraver. In the early 1800s probably a dozen or more. In the Drakard & Holdway (DH) book detailed above there is a photo from 1931 with some interesting detail in the caption. There are also 1950s/1960s images in the Spode archive of the engravers in the 'Engraving Shop' and in group photos
    The time taken to engrave a copper depended on the intricacy of the design and the type of service. In the DH book it states that a dinner plate in a pattern like Spode's Italian would take about 2 months' work so a whole service with a team of engravers could take about 6 months.
    For a pattern with a border and centre then yes generally a copper plate for each item although sometime you could use one copper for items of similar shape or part of a print say for an eggcup. This detail is recorded in the mostly 20th century Printers Books in the Spode archive. The beauty of transfer printing is that the print is applied from thin tissue paper. This can be cut to suit after printing using only the required part of a print. For a 'sheet' pattern ie an all-over design then perhaps only 3 or 4 different coppers would be needed for each shape but the print skilfully cut and applied to fit all sorts of shapes.
    The DH book gives a huge amount of detailed and technical detail, very readable and fully illustrated. Well worth a look for further study.