Review by George L. Miller
Manufacturing Processes of Tableware during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Robert Copeland. Manufacturing Processes of Tableware during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Cumbria, U.K.: Northern Ceramic Society, 2009. 186 pp.; 185 color, 69 b/w illus., appendixes, index. £25 (softcover).

After listing several books written for potters that describe production technology, author Robert Copeland states, “My own contribution is aimed especially at museum curators, dealers, collectors and all those who are intrigued to know how pots were made” (p. 7). He has done a superb job of describing and illustrating ceramic production processes for nonpotters in a work that clearly will stand the test of time.

Robert was uniquely qualified for this task. His connection to the Spode company began when his great-grandfather William Copeland, father of William Taylor Copeland, entered into a partnership with Josiah Spode II in 1805 and then went on to become owner of the company in 1833. When Robert joined the family business in 1947, he spent three years “at the bench,” learning the craft of being a presser. He also worked at various other production processes, including the firing of a bottle kiln, and thereby gained hands-on knowledge of production before advancing into management and sales. This, in addition to his long-held interest in the history of the Staffordshire potteries, made him the ideal person to provide collectors, curators, and archaeologists with detailed descriptions of the many processes involved in the production of pottery and porcelain, from preparing the clay to firing the wares.

When I had the privilege of walking through part of the Spode works with Robert in 1986, I was amazed that he addressed almost all of the working potters by name; clearly he knew them very well. Their response to his “Hello, John,” “Hello, Bill” was “Hello, Mr. Robert.” In his acknowledgments Robert thanks no fewer than forty-five of his fellow workers for helping him to understand the production processes. Many of the workers are identified in the photographs of the various stages of pottery production, providing insights into Robert’s intimate knowledge of his subject. The excellent section on pressing, for example, features pictures of Tom McCue making meat dishes and applying footrings. This is the man who taught Robert how to be a presser.

Most of the numerous color photographs appear to date to the late 1950s, just prior to the last coal firing of a bottle kiln at the Spode factory in 1960. We are fortunate to have these color reproductions, for had these photos been published at that time they no doubt would have been printed in black and white. The images enhance Robert’s excellent description of the stages of production, including the preparation of clay, slip, flint, and burnt bones for making the clay bodies. He goes on to describe pugging clay, making molds, and throwing, pressing, casting, and turning wares.

The section on the placement of green ware in saggers and the various types of kiln hardware along with the loading and firing of the glost kiln is very detailed and helpful in identifying marks left by kiln hardware. Of particular interest are descriptions of all the steps necessary to keep bone china from warping or sagging in the firing process. Robert’s text and the photographs reveal in detail the complex process of engraving copperplates and printing under the glaze. In an illuminating series of color photographs, engraver Paul Holdway demonstrates bat printing over the glaze using hand-held glue bat and copperplate.

There is very little to quibble about in this masterful work. An exception involves problematic information on the “Potter’s Dozen” in Appendix I (“Potter Trade Sizes,” pp. 179–81). Robert states that “The ‘count to the dozen’ was determined by the number of a given size that would fit on a standard size of work-board. . . . It was the number and not the capacity that decided the count” (emphasis added). While in the twentieth century the count related to the number of pieces on a standard work board, others have documented that the potter’s dozen for hollow wares historically was based on vessel capacity. Leonard Whiter’s book on Spode gives Dr. Plot’s 1686 description of the potter’s dozen (in which vessels holding a pint were counted twelve to the dozen, those holding a half pint were counted twenty-four to the dozen, and those holding two pints were counted six to the dozen) and also references an 1804 publication that describes the same system.[1] This form of the potter’s dozen has been described as well by David Drakard and Paul Holdway.[2] The evolution of a capacity-based count of one dozen vessels to one based on the number that would fit on a work board apparently has erased the memory of the origins of the system. This minor error does not detract from the significant contribution that Robert Copeland’s book makes to our understanding of pottery production.

Robert’s documentation of these processes and his insights into them at the Spode factory appear at a sorrowful time for the pottery industry, since the Spode company has gone out of business, and the works, which had been in the same location in Stoke-on-Trent for more than two centuries, have been torn down. Manufacturing Processes of Tableware during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries joins some of his other major contributions to the ceramic literature, including Spode’s Willow Pattern and Other Designs after the Chinese and Spode and Copeland Marks and Other Relevant Intelligence.[3] Robert, who was very generous in sharing information with other researchers or those just wanting to know about a piece of Spode, passed away in September 2010 and will be greatly missed by those of us who had the good fortune to have known him.

George L. Miller, Retired historical archaeologist

Ceramics in America 2011

  • [1]

    Leonard Whiter, Spode: A History of the Family, Factory and Wares from 1733–1833 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), p. 63.

  • [2]

    David Drakard and Paul Holdway, Spode Transfer Printed Ware, 1784–1833 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, Eng.: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2002), p. 70.

  • [3]

    Robert Copeland, Spode’s Willow Pattern and Other Designs after the Chinese (New York: Rizzoli/Christie’s, 1980); Robert Copeland, Spode and Copeland Marks and Other Relevant Intelligence (London: Studio Vista, 1993).