Review by Janine E. Skerry
The Liverpool Porcelain of William Reid: A Catalogue of Porcelain and Excavated Shards

Maurice Hillis and Roderick Jellicoe. The Liverpool Porcelain of William Reid: A Catalogue of Porcelain and Excavated Shards. London: Roderick Jellicoe, 2000. 48 pp.; 64 color illus., bibliography. £35 (hardcover); £15 (softcover). 

Curators and collectors of American furniture have an axiom: “If it’s odd and it’s made of cherry, then it’s from Connecticut.” The corollary for devotees of ceramics might well be, “If it’s odd and it’s English porcelain, it must be from Liverpool.” Such a sentiment hints at the confusion surrounding the study of Liverpool porcelain but does a disservice to the rich complexity of items hailing from this important center of ceramics production. The March 15 to April 1, 2000, exhibition on the porcelain of William Reid, and accompanying brief catalog by Maurice Hillis and Roderick Jellicoe, are among the most recent efforts to sort out the attribution and chronology of these wares. The catalog has a modest cost and, although text is minimal, it contains numerous color photographs of good quality. The publication is a useful reference in the rapidly evolving study of William Reid and Liverpool porcelain. 

This latest exploration focuses on archaeological sherds recovered from a site located on the south side of Brownlow Hill Road. The factory was purpose-built by William Reid for the production of soft-paste porcelain and was offering wares for sale by November 12, 1756. Reid occupied the site for only five years, for in 1761 he and his three business partners were bankrupt. According to Hillis and Jellicoe, “the factory was kept in operation under the temporary control of the mysterious Wm. Ball before passing, in 1763, into the control of the potter James Pennington who manufactured porcelain there until about 1767.” Thus, in the short span of eleven years, three different proprietors operated from this one location.

In 1997 and again in 1998 the site was excavated under the direction of the Field Archaeology Unit of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (NMGM). These explorations were undertaken prior to redevelopment of the property and were, by necessity, brief. A synopsis of the 1997 excavation was published by Myra Brown, Curator of Ceramics at NMGM, and Rob Philpot, Curator of Roman and Later Archaeology at NMGM.[1] Recognizing that the site could yield more archaeological information than the construction timetable would permit, a Liverpool porcelain enthusiast persuaded the contractor to allow five individuals (including Hillis and Jellicoe) to act as a “rescue group,” observing the 1999 construction and recovering a considerable number of sherds as they were exposed. By Hillis and Jellicoe’s own assertion, their catalog is not meant to be the definitive publication on the excavations and rescue actions; more is forthcoming, although it is not clear to this reviewer if further publications will be produced by the NMGM Field Archaeology Unit, the rescue group, or both.

After providing a short overview of the factory’s site and history and the excavations of the late 1990s, Hillis and Jellicoe summarize the salient features of the porcelain of William Reid & Co. This is followed by a fully illustrated survey of the accompanying exhibition in which fifty-six objects from both public and private collections are presented and compared to pictured sherds recovered principally through the rescue group’s activities. Hillis and Jellicoe’s characterization of William Reid’s production is daunting, although for students of Liverpool porcelain it is not without precedent. They explain, for instance:

that the colour of the porcelain varies widely. The glazed body can appear pure white, grey, blue or green. . . . The translucency of the porcelain shards also varies. It can be clear [presumably this means white], yellow, buff or occasionally green. Equally, the potting features displayed by the shards are diverse. For example, many wares such as mugs, sauceboats and coffee cans feature footrims, the profiles of which can vary considerably. Other such wares have flat bases. Bases can be unglazed, glazed or partially glazed. A wide variety of moulded wares was produced, often in a surprising number of variations within an overall design.

Given such diverse features, how does one recognize the porcelain of William Reid? For Hillis and Jellicoe, the answer seems to lie entirely in the sherds from the site. This is troubling for several reasons. First, the authors state that they have focused on the wares of Reid with only minor attributions to James Pennington, the last porcelain producer on the site. The “mysterious Wm. Ball” is only fleetingly mentioned in connection with one of the extant objects, and an explanation of how the sherds can be related specifically to either Reid or Pennington is never offered. The site was continuously used as a porcelain manufactory for eleven years; given such a narrow time frame, how were the deposits stratified to distinguish the production of one maker from another? Indeed, given the narrow time span under consideration, was this possible? This topic is not addressed, and so the reader is left to wonder—or simply to accept that Hillis and Jellicoe had some means of distinguishing one manufacturer from another.

Of second and greater concern is the seeming total reliance on archaeology as the definitive means of attributing extant wares to William Reid exclusively. The individual object entries compare the form and/or decoration of each piece to sherds illustrated at the end of the catalog. A careful reading of the object entries reveals that the majority of objects presented have been reattributed (often several times during the 1990s alone) to various potteries, most especially to those of Samuel Gilbody the younger and Richard Chaffers. These two potters were producing soft-paste porcelain in Liverpool at adjacent sites at approximately the same time as William Reid; their factories were located less than one-half mile away from the Brownlow Hill site.

Research on the manufacturers of English salt-glazed stoneware and creamware indicates that specialist modelers may have sold molds to many different potteries. Ceramic molds also sometimes changed hands as partial payments of debts.[2] In light of such practices, isn’t it safe to assume that the presence of a given molded form or attribute at an archaeological site confirms that such wares were made at that location without necessarily conferring exclusivity to that manufacturer in the absence of additional compelling information?

Analysis and attribution of the sherds recovered from the Brownlow Hill site are further complicated by the presence of a large number of fragments with overglaze decoration, including polychrome enameling, gilding, and on-glaze transfer printing. Hillis and Jellicoe note that this is a very unusual feature since, typically, few technical problems arise during the final stages of overglaze decoration that would result in pieces being discarded as wasters unfit for sale. They relate that the “hundreds” of porcelain sherds with this embellishment constitute “a unique ceramic survival.” And such fragments “are not wasters but are closely related to the wasted material and the circumstances that lead to their being dumped are at present obscure.” 

The difficulties caused by these non-waster porcelain sherds on the site are especially evident in the entry for catalog item number 31, a milk jug attributed by Hillis and Jellicoe to William Reid. They state:

It is just conceivable that this piece is Vauxhall. A jug, apparently of this type, has been illustrated and described as being decorated with polychrome prints. . . . At the time, that jug was attributed to a supposed Liverpool factory in Ranelagh St., believed to have been operated by Wm. Ball. It is now known that there was no such factory and polychrome printing is currently considered to be characteristic of the London porcelain factory at Vauxhall and, indeed, exclusive to it. Only one shard with the criss-cross type of moulding [seen on the jug in the catalog] has as yet been identified at Brownlow Hill and is not definitely a waster. Nevertheless, this jug seems so closely related to other pieces of Wm. Reid’s porcelain that we feel justified in our attribution.

Despite these concerns, this catalog can be of real value to scholars of Liverpool porcelain if used with due care. Few sites in Liverpool have had the benefit of formal archaeological excavation. The authenticity of sherds recovered through such endeavors is undeniable; they hold the potential to reveal what was on a given site at a given point in time. Great care must be taken in interpreting such materials, and the need for caution is significantly enhanced when sherds are recovered in rescue operations. But the reality of modern redevelopment often begs that rescue actions be taken, especially when construction will compromise the integrity of a site. The current academic standards for the cataloging and analysis of formally recovered archaeological materials impose demands that, coupled with economic considerations, frequently slow the process of publication to a decade or more. Hillis and Jellicoe’s endeavors have the real value of providing a glimpse at the evidence in a timelier manner. No doubt there will be more information forthcoming, and some of the authors’ conclusions will be revised in the years to come, perhaps by the authors themselves. Meanwhile, they have spread more pieces of the puzzle before us as we endeavor to understand the “odd English porcelain that must be from Liverpool.” 

Janine E. Skerry
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Ceramics in America 2001

  • [1]

    E. M. Brown and R. A. Philpott, “An Archaeological Trial Excavation on the Site of William Reid’s China Manufactory on Brownlow Hill, Liverpool, 1997,” Northern Ceramic Society Newsletter, no. 111 (1998): 48–52.

  • [2]

    David Barker and Pat Halfpenny, Unearthing Staffordshire: Towards a New Understanding of 18th Century Ceramics (Stoke-on-Trent, Eng.: City of Stoke-on-Trent Museum & Art Gallery, 1990), pp. 7–11.