Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Most of the old English enamels popularly known as Battersea were in fact made in the Midlands of England between about 1750 and 1775. As a rule, the omnibus term "South Staffordshire" is used to describe these enamels, although they were made not only in the towns of Bilston and Wednesday in South Staffordshire but also in Birmingham. The reason for this general term is the close family likeness that exists among all the enamels made in Staffordshire. Even though a number of different painters or schools of painters can be recognized, displaying varying degrees of technical and artistic competence, the subjects chosen, the ground colors, the copper shapes, and the mounts were extremely standardized. While there is rarely much difficulty in identifying the productions of the Battersea factory, with their warm milky-white ground and soft translucent colors, recognizing distinctive features which can be connected with one or other of the South Staffordshire enameling shops is a much less certain process.

The term "South Staffordshire," or at any rate "Bilston," has in the past been used almost with contempt, but there is no justification for this attitude. Indeed, many of those qualities which have most contributed to the fame of English enamels - such as the wide range of strong and lustrous ground colors, the fantastic rococo cartouches composed of flowers and scrollwork, and the fine gilding - are not found on Battersea enamels at all. They were first introduced by the Staffordshire enamelers, who, moreover, maintained a busy and successful output from about the middle of the eighteenth century until the early nineteenth. To see the South Staffordshire enamels in their true light, we should therefore look on them as improvements on the Battersea productions rather than as inferior substitutes. In comparison with contemporary Parisian enamels on gold, they were indeed a cheaper substitute, but so were the Battersea pieces.

We do not know exactly when enameling commenced in the Midlands, but once established, it must have continued on a large scale, mostly in a small number of workshops, each efficiently organized with a high degree of division of labor. Only a production system of this sort could account for the huge numbers of certain special lines which must have been turned out, to judge from surviving quantities. Most of the fine-quality Staffordshire enamels can be dated after the Battersea period on account of their flamboyantly asymmetrical ornament, or their varied ground colors, many of which first reached England from France during the 1760's. On the other hand, there is no reason to assume that Staffordshire followed Battersea's lead in enameling.

There are a number of documentary references to enameling at Bilston during the first half of the century. What has happened to these early Bilston products is a mystery; possibly they were confined to enameled watch and clock dials. Probably among the earliest surviving Staffordshire enamels are the baluster-shaped candlesticks, tea caddies, mustard pots, knife handles, and the like, decorated only with flower sprays on a white ground. Even these can hardly be earlier than 1750, as they are derived from a Meissen style -which itself did not become popular until about 1745-1750.

The 1770 Birmingham Directory lists eight enamel box makers in Bilston, and a recent writer has pointed out that at least eighteen enamelers worked there about the 1770's. This small town was the center of production in the Midlands. The largest manufacturer was Benjamin Bickley, whose workshop comprised "shop room for twenty pair of hands ... a pair of mill stones, two mills for grinding enamel and several implements of the like kind." The Bickley undertaking was producing from about 1748 until 1776, when the works were sold, though the business seems to have been carried on for some years by the "widow Bickley."

Of comparable importance to the Bickley shop was that of Isaac Beckett, the first of a family of enamelers which was active in Bilston until about 1830. While the Bickley enamels can be recognized with a fair degree of certainty, Beckett's works are not identifiable. The copper shapes and the mounts used were manufactured elsewhere and purchased wholesale by the enamelers. There are records of many mount makers in Bilston and the surrounding towns, and they probably furnished copper boxes and other shapes already covered with a white enamel ground.

The productions of the Bickley workshop can be identified as a result of a bequest made to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1871 by a descendant of the family. It consisted of a number of enamels made in their Bilston workshop toward the end of the eighteenth century, but displaying the thick enamel colors and the characteristic flower painting familiar on the earlier Staffordshire enamels. The quality of the Bickley enamels depended very much on the size of the object to be decorated. On smaller boxes, or on the sides of the larger ones, the scenes were often very summarily treated. The subjects were drawn mostly from the ‘Ladies Amusement’, a book of designs for use on porcelain or enamel, the first edition of which appeared about 1760. The Bickley shop used thick opaque colors which stand out in relief against the surface of the ground, and thus differ fundamentally from the Battersea enamels, whose soft colors lie on the ground like a transparent wash. The Bickleys made not only boxes but a wide range of useful objects, including candlesticks, tea urns, sets of tea caddies complete in case, thimble cases, milk jugs, mustard pots, salt cellars, and the inevitable etuis. So very consistent was the style of the Bickley painters that it is difficult to distinguish between their hands and to determine how many decorators were actually employed.

The master hand of the Bickley factory was particularly fond of subjects after Watteau and Lancret, which he executed on plaques as well as box tops. In common with the other painters of the Bickley shop, he used thick, bright enamels, rendering the highlights on foliage with touches of light yellow. A second artist used much the same palette and mannerisms; he produced a number of conversation pieces, chinoiseries, and Watteau subjects, mostly on a smaller scale than the master hand. In association with scenes by this painter are very often found portraits copied from engravings of contemporary beauties, presumably the work of a third artist. This last painter's stock of ideas was limited and the same portrait appears repeatedly on the inside of boxes, on etuis, and elsewhere. Similar portraits, but painted in softer and more transparent colors, are known on boxes which appear to be of Battersea origin. With the work of these three Staffordshire hands goes a rather standardized series of smaller scenes on the sides of boxes and etuis, usually within white or gilt raised scrollwork. Most of these are derived from the ‘Ladies Amusement’ and can be dated after 1760. A fourth painter reduced forms to conventional symbols so that trees appear as scrolls, sheep as three dots and a white blob, and shepherds rather like matchsticks. This summary treatment is not necessarily a defect. The smaller pieces were intended for the dressing or dining table, and their ornament had to be effective when seen from a distance, though it seems crude at close range. If all the pieces painted by these artists belong to the Bickley shop, we have accounted for a large proportion of the Staffordshire enamels, yet we know there were numerous other enamelers. Most of these were probably Hausinaler, men working on their own with only one or two assistants.

Another shop’s workmaster with a large production had worked at Battersea. His colors are transparent and quite unlike those on the Bickley enamels. His mannerisms include the use of heavy clouds laid on in opaque masses of lilac and dove gray, a dense horizontal shadow cast by figures in the foreground, and bright red and blue draperies with white highlights. His hand is found in association with most of the ground colors developed in the Midlands. His favorite subjects include small mythological figures, and groups of lovers in aristocratic dress exchanging vows before a classical obelisk, watched by a mournful group of rather emaciated cattle. His work is only rarely accompanied by flower painting, and that when present is rather insignificant.

In addition to the enamels painted over a transfer print, a large number of the Staffordshire enamels were decorated with transfer designs only. Some of the Battersea prints were copied, but it does not appear that the original Battersea plates were used. Apart from achieving blacker impressions, Bilston added little in this field to the achievement of Battersea.

When the rococo ornament which had provided decorative motifs for the Bilston enamelers became old-fashioned, efforts were made to adapt the new Greek classical designs to enamel. The attempt was not particularly successful, and only a small number of pieces, mostly decorated with all-over patterns, bear witness to this phase. What happened was that the enamelers, unable to continue to compete at the better end of the market, turned their attention to the demand for little patch and commemorative boxes which could be sold to quite a different class of person from the superbly painted snuffboxes of earlier decades. There is something very bourgeois about both the form and the sentiment of these little boxes, which reproduce roughly figures from contemporary fashion plates or record the martial or political victories of popular heroes.