Review by George L. Miller
Creamware and Pearlware Re-examined

Tom Walford and Roger Massey, eds. Creamware and Pearlware Re-examined. Papers presented at an English Ceramic Circle Colloquium, Victoria and Albert Museum, June 4–5, 2005. Beckenham, Kent, Eng.: English Ceramic Circle, 2007. 296 pp.; 460 color, 23 bw illus., preface, index. £30.00 (softcover).

The title for this collection of papers from the English Ceramic Circle is a bit of a misnomer. Creamware and pearlware were not reexamined; rather, new information was added, mostly on areas outside Staffordshire that produced these wares. These papers are a meaningful contribution to a broader understanding of potteries outside Staffordshire that made creamware and pearlware. Several of the authors make good use of waster sherds from these outlying areas, as well as marked and inscribed pieces and historical documents, to make their case. The photography of the wares is excellent, and the volume will make an excellent contribution to anyone’s library on these wares.

What is missing from this collection of papers is any attempt to provide an overview of the role that creamware and pearlware played in the development of the English ceramic industry. Creamware and pearlware are very different animals. The former has an extensive lineage that is very well documented in potters’ correspondence, price lists, account books, and invoices that date from its introduction as “cream colour” on through the nineteenth century. It has gone under such names as cream colour, creamware, Queen’s ware, and CC ware. Josiah Wedgwood’s improvements of the ware, along with the brilliant marketing of it by Wedgwood and Bentley, took this earthenware to new heights in social status that placed it on the tables of the likes of Queen Charlotte and Catherine the Great. Social emulation helped create a demand for creamware, which in its undecorated state was within reach of a wide spectrum of economic classes. Numerous other potters took up the production of the perfected creamware, as can be seen from the papers in this volume. Creamware put Staffordshire on the map and greatly increased foreign trade for English ceramics. It was elevated to the point where it was able to compete with porcelain for status, and it apparently took market share from the English porcelain industry. Its development was a major event that had a significant impact on world markets and led to a major expansion of the Staffordshire pottery industry.

Pearlware, on the other hand, has become a pigment of our imagination. Contrast creamware, which is so richly recorded in contemporary documents, with what collectors, curators, and archaeologists have labeled pearlware. Pearlware as a term is close to nonexistent in contemporary documents that are rich with the mention of creamware. It does not occur in any of the many Staffordshire potters’ price-fixing lists dating from 1783 into the 1850s, it does not show up in the several hundred potters’ invoices for wares exported to the United States, nor is it used in the records of American importing merchants. The term cannot be found in Eliza Meteyard’s two-volume biography of Josiah Wedgwood based on his business papers.[1]

How have we, as students of the English ceramics industry, elevated this blue-tinted ware to such a position that it appears to be what replaced creamware? This folklore about pearlware replacing creamware has come about through the distorting mirror of connoisseurship. Pearlware did not replace creamware, decoration replaced creamware. The vast majority of creamware vessels listed in invoices and found in archaeological assemblages do not have color decoration. This is in contrast with the so-called pearlware, which is very rarely undecorated. Those who produced, sold, and used these blue-tinted wares almost always referred to them by their types of decoration—that is, edged, dipped, painted, and printed wares.[2] Collections of creamware and illustrations of it in books and articles are heavily focused on decorated wares and thus present a skewed image of what creamware was like. Because pearlware is almost never undecorated, scholars have been comparing the rare decorated creamware with common types of decorated pearlware. David Barker’s article “Creamware in Context” is the only one of these papers to recognize that collections of creamware that are skewed toward decorated vessels have obscured the movement from undecorated creamware to decorated pearlware (p. 38).

Beyond the deception created by the distortion of what has survived and is collected, there is a second major difference between the wares. When the market for creamware was moving toward saturation and demand was falling off, potters began to look for something to create a new demand. What they came up with in the last quarter of the eighteenth century was a copy of Chinese porcelain. The potters called this replacement ware “China glaze.” Creamware was a breakaway product that elevated this earthenware and made it competitive with porcelain in social status. China glaze, on the other hand, was a copy of Chinese porcelain that reduced the ware back to a lower social status. To put it another way, copies of anything are rarely regarded as being better than that which they are mimicking.

James Keeling’s 1796 patent for a new glaze that could be used on a variety of wares listed them as “all manner of cream-coloured earthenware commonly called Queen’s ware, white earthenwares, and what are commonly called china glazed wares” (emphasis added).[3] The terms pearlware and Pearl white are not listed in this patent. An unpublished history of the Staffordshire potteries written circa 1800 by John Leslie has a fairly extensive commentary on China glaze.[4] He was the tutor/companion to Thomas Wedgwood from 1790 to 1792 and received an annuity from Thomas from 1797 to 1812. He refers to Wedgwood using China glaze on his shell-edged wares and how the other potters “adopted the white glaze which acquired the name China glaze. They pursued and extended the discovery . . . to cover the whole surface of the ware with blue paintings resembling the Chinese.” The term China glaze has been lost because it was rarely undecorated, and in the potters’ price-fixing lists, invoices, and other records those wares were recorded by how they were decorated—edged, painted, dipped, or printed.

Only Terry Lockett’s essay, “Pearlware: Origins and Early Types,” has a discussion of China glaze. He acknowledges that it predates Wedgwood’s Pearl white, along with the fact that the terms China glaze and Pearl white do not occur in the records because these wares were classified by how they were decorated. Despite this, Lockett argues for sticking with the term pearlware and does not have any discussion of how the role of this porcelain knockoff differed from the important role that creamware played in the development of the Staffordshire potteries and a world market. Beyond Terry Lockett’s and David Barker’s discussion of China glaze and pearlware, there is minimal discussion of pearlware in the other articles.

Jacqueline Pearce’s article, “Creamware from Archaeologically Excavated Assemblages in London: An Overview,” also goes a long way toward illustrating that creamware, for the most part, was undecorated. Pearce’s cumulative graphs are interesting and helpful. Her figure 2 sums up all of the excavated creamware vessels from the Museum of London Archaeological Service (MoLAS) into a single assemblage. The resulting pie chart shows what percentage of the creamware collections come from five different periods. For example, it shows that 32 percent of the creamware vessels in that lumped assemblage are from the collections dated 1740–1770, and only 20 percent of the creamware vessels from the collection are from the 1770–1800 sites. The more interesting question would be what percentage of the types of vessels from those two periods were creamware, rather than what percentage of the creamware vessels from the MoLAS collections were from that period. If the question were turned around as a percentage of vessels that were creamware for the period 1770–1800, it probably would be much higher than 20 percent. Just looking at the creamware provides a blind man’s view of the elephant. Creamware and pearlware consumption patterns were very different between functional groups. For example, creamware dropped out of usage in teawares long before it stopped being produced in bowls and utilitarian wares.[5]

Miranda Goodby’s article, “Blocks and Cases: The Rise of Moulded Creamware,” provides a very useful insight into how these developed and functioned. In “Swinton Creamware and Pearlware c. 1770–1820,” Alwyn Cox and Angela Cox make good use of excavated waster sherds and documents to identify surviving Swinton wares that are rarely marked. The photos of the sherds show just how closely the Swinton potters copied the wares from Staffordshire. Diana Edwards’s article, “The Influence of Salt-Glazed Stoneware on Creamware Design,” illustrates the role played by the existing molds for salt-glazed wares in the early production of creamware. These molds represent what economists would call a “sunk cost” and clearly continued being used to make some of the early creamware vessels. Again, it is helpful to see creamware in relationship to other wares that had an influence on what was produced. Tom Walford also makes good use of waster sherds and surviving vessels in his article, “Cockpit Hill—Some Evidence from Sherds and Other Places.”

Two articles on French production of creamware are very helpful in seeing creamware in a much broader context. Helen Smith’s “French Creamware and Early English Influences” provides a rich working of French archival documents on the development of the French creamware industry and the role played by migrating English potters. Aileen Dawson’s “18th-Century French Creamware” has some good illustrations of surviving vessels from museum collections. These tend to be high-end wares rather than wares that were probably more common.

Other important articles include John D. Griffin’s “The Marking and Dating of Leeds Pottery, 1770 to 1827,” which is overshadowed by his two excellent volumes on the subject.[6] Gaye Blake Roberts’s “Early Wedgwood Creamware, 1759–1769,” is richly documented from the Wedgwood Archives. Minnie Holdaway has been collecting and studying the wares of Ralph Wedgwood for a number of years, and her article, “The Decoration of Creamware and Pearlware of Ralph Wedgwood at the End of the Eighteenth Century,” is an excellent overview using documents and surviving vessels. George R. Haggarty provides a nice summary of some Scottish wares in his article, “The Evidence for 18th-Century Creamware and Pearlware Production in the Forth Littoral.” He makes good use of excavated sherds, surviving vessels, and documents. Roger Massey’s “Isleworth Creamware” provides another good article using sherds and surviving vessels. Last but not least, Jonathan Gray’s “Welsh Creamware and Pearlware” includes some of his latest research, which is likely to become a book on the subject.

I highly recommend this volume because it has lots of new information, great photographs, excellent documentation, and expands our understanding of the widespread production of creamwares and pearlwares (a.k.a. China glaze).

George L. Miller, Independent Ceramic and Glass Researcher

Ceramics in America 2008

  • [1]

    Eliza Meteyard, The Life of Josiah Wedgwood from His Private Correspondence and Family Papers, 2 vols. (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1865–1866). 

  • [2]

    For an extended discussion, see George L. Miller and Robert Hunter, “How Creamware Got the Blues: The Origins of China Glaze and Pearlware,” in Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2001), pp. 135–61.

  • [3]

    James Keeling’s patent for a new glaze is transcribed in Patents for Inventions: Abridgments of the Specifications Related to Pottery (London: Commissioners of Patents, 1863).

  • [4]

    John Leslie, unpublished biography of Josiah Wedgwood (Mosely 66), deposited at Keele University. This information was taken from Rodney Hampson, “The China Glaze,” Northern Ceramic Society Newsletter, no. 37 (1980): 11–12.

  • [5]

    See George L. Miller and Amy C. Earls, “War and Pots: The Impact of Economics and Politics on Ceramic Consumption Patterns,” pp. 67–108 in this volume. 

  • [6]

    John D. Griffin, The Leeds Pottery, 1770–1881, 2 vols. (Leeds, Eng.: Leeds Art Collections Fund, 2005).