Michelle Erickson and Robert Hunter
Swirls and Whirls: English Agateware Technology

Ceramics in America 2003

Full Article
  • Figure 1
    Figure 1

    Factory of John Dwight, England (Fulham), 1670-1859. Covered Tankard, ca. 1685-1690. Stoneware with salt glaze, height: 10 1/2 inches (26.7 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Gift of Frank P. Burnap, 55-77 A, B. Photograph by Jamison Miller.

  • Figure 2
    Figure 2

    Mug, Francis Place, Yorkshire, ca. 1680. Salt-glazed stoneware. H. 3 1/2". (Courtesy, Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina. Gift of the Delhom Service League; photo, David Ramsey.)

  • Figure 3
    Figure 3

    Mug, attributed to Samuel Bell, Staffordshire (Newcastle-under-Lyme), ca. 1740. Lead-glazed agateware. H. 4 1/2". (Courtesy, Troy D. Chappell Collection; photos by Gavin Ashworth unless otherwise noted.)

  • Figure 4
    Figure 4

    Dish, Staffordshire, ca. 1780. Lead-glazed agateware. D. 6 1/2". (Photo, Robert Hunter.) Dishes of this type appear to have been imported into America in large quantities as they are commonly found in archaeological excavations of the last quarter of the eighteenth century. It is uncertain if the agate effect was intentional or the result of using a mixture of different clays intended to create a better body. Precedent for the latter is found in the so-called Buckley wares made in North Wales from ca. 1720 to 1780, although this ware was covered in a thick black glaze and the agate body is generally not visible.

  • Figure 5
    Figure 5

    Bird, Staffordshire, ca. 1755. Salt-glazed agateware. H. 5 1/4". (Chipstone Foundation.) Only two colors of clay were used for this laid agate body. On other figures, particularly a group of press-molded cats, cobalt is often added.

  • Figure 6
    Figure 6

    Teapot, Staffordshire, ca. 1755. Salt-glazed agateware. H. 5 5/8". (Chipstone Foundation.) Most of the salt-glazed laid agateware consisted of two colors although three-color examples exist. The orientation of this relatively simple agate pattern, sometimes called “elephant’s tooth” by collectors, is arranged in vertical strips.

  • Figure 7
    Figure 7

    Teapot, Staffordshire, England, ca. 1755. Lead-glazed agateware. H. 5 3/4". (Chipstone Foundation.) Two colors of earthenware clay were used for this shell shaped teapot. This is similar to the pattern illustrated in fig. 6, but with a horizontal orientation.

  • Figure 8
    Figure 8

    Footed censers, China, T’ang Dynasty. Agateware. H. 3" and 2 7/8". (Courtesy, Bonhams & Butterfields Auctioneers.)

  • Figure 9
    Figure 9

    Teapot, Staffordshire, ca. 1750. Lead-glazed agateware. H. 5". (Courtesy, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.) Note the identical shape to the Chinese censers illustrated in fig. 8.

  • Figure 10
    Figure 10

    Porringer, Apt, France, ca. 1770. Lead-glazed agateware. L. 9 1/2". (Chipstone Foundation.)

  • Figure 11
    Figure 11

    Mug and jug fragments, Staffordshire, ca. 1785. Pearlware. (Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology.) Fragments from these similarly slip-decorated vessels are highlighted with a sheet of agate inlaid in the bodies.

  • Figure 12
    Figure 12

    Detail of the agate inlay in the fragments illustrated in fig. 11. This pattern is created with alternating black-and-white and red-and-white squares of agate clay.

  • Figure 13
    Figure 13

    Detail of the fragment section illustrated in fig. 12 showing the thin solid sheet of agate veneered to the surface of the pearlware body. After the agate sheet was inlaid, the vessel was trimmed on a lathe to reveal this distinct pattern.

  • Figure 14
    Figure 14

    Tobacco pipes, Emanuel Drue, Maryland, 1650–1669. Earthenware. (Courtesy, Al Luckenbach.) These pipe fragments probably represent the earliest use of the agate technique in colonial America. The agate pattern was created using naturally occurring colored clays. Similar examples of Dutch tobacco pipes have been found in a circa 1620 context at Martin’s Hundred in Virginia.

  • Figure 15
    Figure 15

    Pitcher, U.S. Pottery Company, Bennington, Vermont, ca. 1853. Lead-glazed agateware. H. 11 3/8". (Courtesy, The Bennington Museum.) This pitcher was designed by Daniel Greatbach. Ceramics historian John Spargo writes that scroddled ware was manufactured in the nineteenth century exactly as it was in eighteenth-century Staffordshire.

  • Figure 16
    Figure 16

    Vase, Evans Pottery, ca. 1950. H. 10 1/2". (Private collection.)

  • Figure 17
    Figure 17

    Vase, North State Pottery, North Carolina, ca. 1930. H. 9 1/2". (Private collection.) This thrown agate vase demonstrates extremely vigorous striations of clays. The interior is lead glazed.

  • Figure 18
    Figure 18

    In preparing the clay for throwing an agateware mug, slabs of varied colored earthenware clays are cut and stacked. At this stage the proportion of the colored clays determine the intensity of the agate patterning. Three colored clays are selected for making a mug: a white clay, a red iron clay, and an iron manganese body.

  • Figure 19
    Figure 19

    The slabs are then stacked in alternating colors. After the initial stacking, the clay is sliced in half and restacked to start with an even distribution of layers.

  • Figure 20
    Figure 20

    The clay is carefully wedged or kneaded to prepare it for throwing. Care has to be taken at this stage to expel air from the clay without overworking the clays. The more the clays are wedged the less distinct the resulting agate pattern.

  • Figure 21
    Figure 21

    For demonstration purposes, the wedged ball is cut to show the pattern prior to throwing. Restacking these halves can improve the quality of the agate patterning in the finished product.

  • Figure 22
    Figure 22

    The prepared agate clay ball is centered on the wheel.

  • Figure 23
    Figure 23

    Once centered, the clay ball is opened and pulled quickly into a cylinder. During the throwing process it is important not to overwork the clay as this will lessen the distinctions between the colors.

  • Figure 24
    Figure 24

    The cylinder is shaped into the final mug form. Note how the muddy surface has concealed the agate patterning.

  • Figure 25
    Figure 25

    The final contours are shaped using a metal rib, and the muddy exterior of the thrown mug is scraped away, revealing the agate pattern.

  • Figure 26
    Figure 26

    Final finishing of the thrown mug.

  • Figure 27
    Figure 27

    Interior of the mug being scraped to reveal the agate pattern.

  • Figure 28
    Figure 28

    The thrown mug is sliced to reveal a cross-section of the body that shows the solid agate pattern and uniform thickness of the wall. Even wall thickness is important to the success of the next step.

  • Figure 29
    Figure 29

    In the production of eighteenth-century Staffordshire hollow wares, the forms are affixed to a lathe for final trimming. After this stage, a handle is pulled or extruded from an agate clay ball and attached to the mug. Subsequently, the mug is dried, fired to biscuit, glazed, and refired.

  • Figure 30
    Figure 30

    Teapot, Staffordshire, 1745–1755. Lead-glazed agateware. H. 5 1/8". (Chipstone Foundation.) An example of a press-molded pecten shaped teapot. Note the seemingly naturalistic patterning of the laid agate which exhibits alternate squares of cobalt colored clay. This antique specimen serves as the prototype for the demonstration of the laid agate techniques.

  • Figure 31
    Figure 31

    Four colors of clay slabs. A base white earthenware is in the foreground. The other slabs have been colored with (left to right): iron oxide, manganese oxide, and cobalt carbonate.

  • Figure 32
    Figure 32

    A slab of iron enriched red clay is laid onto a base white clay of the same length and width. The slab of white clay is approximately three times as thick.

  • Figure 33
    Figure 33

    The combined slabs are repeatedly slammed on the table to stretch and thin the layers. This process of using the clay’s natural properties to achieve the thinning is a simple but elegant solution.

  • Figure 34
    Figure 34

    The combined clay slab is cut in half and the two pieces restacked. This process is repeated, continuously adding and thinning the layers.

  • Figure 35
    Figure 35

    The slab after cutting the second time showing two layers.

  • Figure 36
    Figure 36

    Cutting the slab in half after several repeated steps of stacking and thinning.

  • Figure 37
    Figure 37

    Cross-sections of the stacking and thinning process.

  • Figure 38
    Figure 38

    The three color clay slabs are prepared in the same way. The layered slabs are then trimmed to equal rectangular sizes.

  • Figure 39
    Figure 39

    A coil is formed with each slab and cut from the slab. Several coils can be made from each slab.

  • Figure 40
    Figure 40

    The coils are further rolled into cylindrical shapes.

  • Figure 41
    Figure 41

    The rolled coils are arranged in alternating colors. At this stage, particular attention is paid to the arrangement of the individual colors. Note the similarities to the laid agate pattern illustrated in fig. 11.

  • Figure 42
    Figure 42

    The coils are pressed into a solid cylindrical mass.

  • Figure 43
    Figure 43

    The mass is squared off and thin sections are cut from the stack revealing the beginnings of the agate pattern.

  • Figure 44
    Figure 44

    The sections are arranged and carefully pushed together on a flat surface alternating the patterns.

  • Figure 45
    Figure 45

    The sections are joined and flattened using a rolling pin. The paper provides a barrier to keep the pattern crisp and the clay from sticking to the rolling pin. The paper will be changed frequently during the next several steps to prevent smudging the surface.

  • Figure 46
    Figure 46

    After a flat slab is prepared, regular strips of clay are cut in a horizontal plane.

  • Figure 47
    Figure 47

    The cut strips are rearranged to accentuate the agate pattern and joined again by rolling to a uniform flat slab.

  • Figure 48
    Figure 48

    Strips of clay are once again cut from the newly made slab, this time in a vertical plane.

  • Figure 49
    Figure 49

    The strips are rearranged to intensify the agate pattern and rolled again.

  • Figure 50
    Figure 50

    Cream jug, Staffordshire, ca. 1750. Lead-glazed agateware. H. 10". (Chipstone Foundation.) The body of this jug was formed in a two piece press mold. The cabriole feet were molded separately and applied, as was the handle.

  • Figure 51
    Figure 51

    Bottom view of the cream jug illustrated in fig. 50. Note the checkerboard patterning of the agate strips which have been arranged in an alternate pattern. This view also shows the smeary patterning of the molded cabriole feet.

  • Figure 52
    Figure 52

    The final agate slab. At this stage, the checkerboard pattern created by both horizontal and vertical cutting is readily observed. For the demonstration, the patterning of the agate has been left moderately coarse so that is it easily observable in the photographs. The slab is now usable.

  • Figure 53
    Figure 53

    The thin agate slab being laid into the plaster press mold.

  • Figure 54
    Figure 54

    The slab is then pressed firmly into the concavities of the mold. Great care is taken to work the clay gradually into the recesses of the mold without tearing along the many seams in the agate sheet. Pressure from the fingers muddies the interior of the agate surface.

  • Figure 55
    Figure 55

    The slab is allowed time to firm up within the mold so the completed teapot half being removed is without distortion.

  • Figure 56
    Figure 56

    The two piece molds necessary for producing a pecten shell teapot including the body, spout, handle, and Fo Lion finial. These molds were taken from original master models sculpted by Michelle Erickson.

  • Figure 57
    Figure 57

    Once two halves are pressed in separate molds, they are ready to be joined. The edges are lightly scored and moistened. The two molds are aligned, and the seam is closed by working from the inside through the opening in the neck. After being joined, the teapot body is removed from the molds and the exterior seam is carefully smoothed and finished before attaching the spout and handle.

  • Figure 58
    Figure 58

    The assembled pecten shell teapot. The pot is now slowly air dried. Once dried, it is possible to enhance the agate surface with a light scrubbing using the equivalent of a fine steel wool. Any heavy smudging or distortion cannot be altered. The pot is fired to biscuit, glazed, and fired again.

  • Figure 59
    Figure 59

    Coffee pot and lid, Staffordshire, ca. 1750. Lead-glazed agateware. H. 7 5/8". (Chipstone Foundation.) The body of this eight paneled coffee pot was made in a press mold. The handle, spout, and foot were molded separately and applied. The matching lid and the Fo Lion finial were molded separately as well. Note that this agate pattern was created using a variation on the technique.

  • Figure 60
    Figure 60

    Detail of the applied foot on the coffee pot illustrated in fig. 59. The foot was separately molded and applied. The point of attachment can be distinguished by the discontinuities in the agate patterning and the slight separation crack that opened during later drying or firing.

  • Figure 61
    Figure 61

    Waste bowl, Staffordshire, ca. 1750. Lead-glazed agateware. D. 5". (Chipstone Foundation.) A form that is typically thrown, this bowl had to be press molded using laid agate clays. Examination of antique agateware bowls and sauce boats indicate that two thin sheets of agateware clay were laminated during the molding process to create the interior and exterior patterns.

  • Figure 62
    Figure 62

    Detail of the foot attachment to the bowl illustrated in fig. 61. Note the distinct separation where the foot pulled away from bowl during the finishing process. Also note the distortion of the agate pattern on the interior of the foot.

  • Figure 63
    Figure 63

    Teapot, Staffordshire, 1745– 1750. Lead-glazed agateware. H. 5 3/4". (Courtesy, Troy D. Chappell Collection.) The two-colored agate pattern used for this diamond shaped teapot has been commonly called “elephant’s tooth” by collectors.

  • Figure 64
    Figure 64

    Detail of the agate pattern on the teapot illustrated in fig. 63. Note the purposeful placement of both vertical and horizontal strips. Compare this relatively simple agate pattern with the stage of preparation illustrated in fig. 41.

  • Figure 65
    Figure 65

    Teapot, Staffordshire, 1745– 1755. Lead-glazed agateware. H. 5 1/8". (Chipstone Foundation.) Although the form of this teapot is similar to that illustrated in fig. 63, an unusual three colored agate pattern is used. The effect is that of matched veneers similar to what one may see on furniture construction. The actual technique used to create this pattern needs further exploration.

  • Figure 66
    Figure 66

    Detail of the agate pattern from the teapot illustrated in fig. 65.