Our house move to the North Wales coast has introduced us to a whole new hunting ground for weekend antiquing excursions and we braved the recent blizzards to visit a new fair at the Llandudno Junction leisure centre.
Sadly, the weather had beaten a few of the exhibitors but the blaze of colour from the stands of dealers who had made it more than made up for the gloom outside.
More colourful than most were those tables displaying groups of a unique pottery – the so-called Gaudy Welsh, a name which describes perfectly the hand-painted decoration applied primarily to tea sets, bowls and jugs,
Made in both England and Wales between 1820 and 1860, the earthenware, creamware, ironstone and bone china is decorated in charming patterns picked out in underglaze cobalt blue, often in panels, rust or burnt orange and copper lustre, while floral decoration often included pink lustre, green and yellow, all on a white background.
It appealed to people of modest incomes in both Britain and the United States, and even today connoisseur collectors are dismissive of Gaudy Welsh. It’s not as posh as the porcelain from Meissen, Chelsea or Worcester or any of the wondrous products of Japan or China, although that is undoubtedly where it has its roots.
Gaudy Welsh china is pretending to be something it is not and never will be. It was produced for working class families and a piece cost only a few pennies. It had aspirations, though, like the people who bought it.
The pots produced by factories such as those in Swansea, Llanelly and subsequently Staffordshire, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland, are thick and coarse, covered with pitting and often woefully out of shape. That aside, Gaudy Welsh is naive in a folksey way, unpretentious and delightfully cheerful.
The name for the distinctive ware appears to have been coined by American collectors. Their Welsh counterparts know it by more prosaic names such as Welsh lustre, peasant enamel, cottage Swansea or simply cottage ware.
Fact is, more Americans than Brits collect the stuff, perhaps because it was exported in huge quantities to that country, most of it through the Port of Liverpool and into Philadelphia, where it was particularly appreciated by Dutch settlers.
Interestingly, it is most commonly found in states where Welsh settlers established expatriate communities in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th centuries – notably New York, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The appearance of Gaudy Welsh coincided with a transformation of life in Britain. The Industrial Revolution was beginning to get up steam (literally), railways had replaced horse-drawn carriages and the population was on the move from the country into the towns, seeking work in the factories.
The result was a burgeoning middle class which could afford the finer things in life and a working class that couldn’t but was striving to make it so. A home decorated with cheap and cheerful china ornaments was tangible proof that a family’s move from country farmhouse to industrial slum was a wise one.
Interestingly, Welsh manufactories that produced Gaudy Welsh were responsible for less than a quarter of total production. They include the Cambrian Pottery in Swansea; the South Wales Pottery in Llanelly and the Glamorgan Pottery, also near Swansea.
The former began production in 1764 and passed into the ownership of Louis Weston Dillwyn. In 1814, he persuaded the potters from the ailing Nantgarw porcelain factory to join him and production of earthenware pots – including Gaudy Welsh – began there in 1826.
The Llanelly factory, situated a few miles west of Swansea, began production in 1840 under the ownership of William Chambers and exported Gaudy Welsh to America.
The latter firm began in 1814 on a site near the Cambrian works run by Dillwyn’s rival George Haynes. They copied Cambrian shapes and patterns and skilled workers were enticed away, but Dillwyn got his own back … he bought the pottery on Haynes’s death and closed it down.
Staffordshire potters were quick to spot the potential market of Gaudy Welsh and were soon producing versions of their own having pirated designs from their Welsh cousins.
The same happened subsequently among Newcastle potteries, notably Robert Maling at his Ford Pottery; Thomas Fell of the St Peter’s Pottery; John Dawson at North Hylton and Dixon & Co., of the Garrison Pottery, all in Sunderland and, in Gateshead, the Sheriff Hill Pottery and Richard Davies & Co., of Salt Meadows, South Shore.
Surprisingly little is known of the Staffordshire firms involved in the enterprise, although they produced by far the largest quantity of Gaudy Welsh.
One of the earliest manufacturers was William Adams of the Greengates Pottery, Tunstall, later taken over by John Meir, while the well known Enoch Wood of Burslem exported Gaudy Welsh to America until 1846.
One of the largest Potteries manufactories that may have produced Gaudy Welsh is Spode, while other possibles are Mellor, Venables & Co., of Burslem and Thomas Walker of Tunstall.
Edward Whalley of Villa Pottery, Cobridge, is known to have exported the ware to America but knowledge about others is scant. Staffordshire makers are reckoned to have produced 80 per cent of all Gaudy Welsh ever made, but the identity of other factories is pure speculation.
Whatever the source of any Gaudy Welsh you may come across, one thing is certain: sweated labour produced it, much of the work being done by children, sometimes as young as eight.
Pottery workers led lives of hardship. Wages were low, disease was rife, homes were inadequate and education unlikely.
The result was the charming, rustic naivety of Gaudy Welsh, which can be compared with the production of the thousands of flatback chimney ornaments which are also highly desirable today.
How many different Gaudy Welsh designs were created by often untrained outworkers, paid piece rates by their employees, is open to debate.
A figure of 300 is quoted by some reference works, although only half that number is likely to be found, even by the most ardent collector.
Successful patterns came and went in a matter of a few years depending on fashion, although there are similarities which reappear throughout the period of production.
Panels, cartouches, grape leaves and petal shapes are predominant, mostly representative of the Japanese Imari pottery the ware was attempting to emulate.
Considering the ware was decorated by a largely untrained workforce whose only concern was the number of pots it was possible to produce in a day, is it not surprising that pattern shapes degenerated from the recognisable to the incomprehensible.
A case in point is the so-called blue rocks pattern found on a large number of later pieces. Originally, this featured three bright blue leaves surmounted by a bud appearing at the top of the centre leaf. As time passed, the leaves became three successively smaller blobs, painted one on top of the other, looking more like rocks.
Collectors who know about Gaudy Welsh are able to date pieces accordingly, although that kind of knowledge takes a lifetime of study. I would be happy to acquire examples of Gaudy Welsh simply because it is colourful and fun. It wouldn’t matter a jot who manufactured it, but living in Wales as I do, it would be good to be supportive of my adopted homeland.
Pictures show, top: Gorgeous Gaudy: This magnificent teaset, decorated with the Lotus pattern sold last November for £330
Below, left to right: A Gaudy Welsh Drape patterned teapot, bread plate and four cups and saucers, together worth £150-200
A pair of Allerton’s Gaudy Welsh Sunflower jugs with handles modelled as serpents. They’re worth £100-120
A large Gaudy Welsh jug decorated with the Prestatyn pattern. It’s valued at £70-80