About thirty years ago it was the fashion to collect china potlids. They were the covers of ointment or salve boxes, beautifully decorated with color prints which were not only attractive but important, for they were examples of the first color printing on ceramics. The technique followed closely on the heels of the color work of George Baxter and his associates, who had developed the process of printing with oil colors on paper. We now know that this color process on pottery was not confined to the pictures on potlids but appeared as well on tea and dessert services.
The greater part of color-printed Staffordshire was made in the works of Felix and Richard Pratt of Fenton. They were descendants of the earlier Pratt who is familiar in English potting history for his earthenware decorated with modeling in low relief, produced in the late 1700's and early 1800's. They had established their manufacture early in the 1800's on the site of the old Thomas Heath Pottery, and the two sons of Felix were associated with them. It was the son Felix Edwards Pratt who secured, on December 31, 1847, a patent for an improvement in the manufacture of potlids. The patent may have been the result of discoveries made by Jesse Austin, a skilled engraver, who was responsible for most of the designs produced by the Pratts, as well as for a number put out in other factories. Jesse Austin was born in Staffordshire, February 5, 1806, the youngest of twelve children. His father, William, was a tailor, a native of Devonshire. Jesse was given an education in the Longton grammar school, and also studied drawing in the evenings. He learned copper-plate engraving while employed as an apprentice in the Davenport pottery at Burslem.
Between 1835 and 1840, he was engaged in engraving borders for printing on earthenware. This style of decoration was abandoned soon after 1840, when white ware became fashionable, and Austin suffered a setback. He was also handicapped by a chronic lameness and by asthma. The year 1843 he spent at a pottery in Leicestershire. In the mid-forties he went to the Pratts at Fenton. There he remained until his death in 1879, except for a year spent working for the firm of Brown-Westhead, Moore & Company, of Cauldon Place, Stoke-on-Trent, where he went after a quarrel with Thomas Pratt, second son of Felix, and where he produced some of his best plates.
At Fenton, Jesse Austin was in charge of all the engravers employed by Pratt. These artisans, among them Charles Scrivener, Thomas Goodwin, and one Stevenson, worked in a shop apart from the pottery itself. In this engraving room Austin originated the multitude of designs, some of his own creation and some copied from paintings, which embellished the potlids and the dessert services made in the pottery. Many of his original watercolor drawings have been preserved in a scrapbook, and many of his copper plates still exist. Some potlids and perhaps also dishes were signed by Jesse Austin, but, even when unsigned, a number of his designs have been identified by means of these surviving copper plates.
To produce one of these charming pictures, four or more separate printings in different colors were necessary. In order to obtain exact registration, tiny dots were placed at opposite sides of the plate to serve as guides. The first impression was in buff, the second in blue, the third in pink or red. The fourth, in brown, was the complete engraving in stipple or line. This method of color printing was the reverse of that employed by Baxter, who printed his line engraving first and the colors afterwards. The pictures on the Pratt china are so neatly registered and so delicately tinted that they look almost like real water colors. The body of Pratt color-printed ware does not seem to be porcelain, though it is said that the Pratts bought a prepared "china" body for their dessert ware, which they printed and fired at their own works. It is actually a refined sort of earthenware, such as we might call a "semi-porcelain." The tea and dessert services were exhibited at the Crystal Palace exposition in 1851, when they were mentioned as being "earthenware, printed in a peculiar style." It was indeed a peculiar style, for it was the first of its kind. All previous color work on ceramics had been either freehand decoration or printed copper-plate engraving colored by hand. The Pratts were awarded a medal for "underglaze color-printing." This dessert ware was sold principally in the United States, and can still be found here, even though rarely. The potlids are less common in America, but had a tremendous sale in England.
Harold C. Clarke and Frank Wrench composed their book ‘Colour Printed Pictures on Staffordshire Pottery’ (1924) with an extensive catalogue of the views on potlids and with detailed descriptions of the engravings and their sources. Most of the pictures were the work of Jesse Austin and, wherever this fact is known, the authors have noted it. Many, perhaps most, of the potlid views appear on tableware. These are occasionally noted by GIarke and Wrench, but a number described by them as potlid subjects can also be found on dishes. The color-printed tableware of the Pratts may often be recognized by certain small printed borders of conventional design that occur over and over. The plain grounds of blue, red, magenta, green, lilac, or other color surrounding the picture are also distinctive.
The Pratt color-printed ware exhibited at the Crystal Palace included a series of large flat dishes or plaques embellished with reproductions of paintings by well-known artists of the Royal Academy. They are listed as follows: ‘The Last In’, W. Mulready; ‘Highland Music’, Sir Edwin Landseer; ‘The Blind Fiddler’, Sir David Wilkie; ‘The Truant’, T. Webster; ‘The Hops Garden’, W. T. Witherington; ‘Cottage Children’, Thomas Gainsborough. Other forms displayed were a bread platter, a cheese dish, a variety of box covers, and a pair of ornamental vases. A color print from a Scriptural subject by H. Warren was shown in a frame, while two others were set off with frames of earthenware.
Of special interest to American collectors are the views with American subjects. Scenes showing exhibition buildings seem to have been popular, for the Pratts made prints of the New York Exhibition in 1853, of the Centennial, and of the Columbian Exhibition in 1893. The earliest of these, entitled ‘Exhibition Buildings, New York, 1853’, shows the main entrance with all flags flying, and people of various nationalities walking in the grounds. The potlid has an oakleaf border.
Austin's view of the Centennial building put out by the Pratts is the largest of three versions, which vary considerably in detail. The title, ‘Philadelphia Exhibition, 1876’, which appears below the picture on potlids, is printed in maroon on the back of the plate, under an oval containing the words: KERR'S CHINA HALL /
1218 CHESTNUT ST. / PHILADELPHIA. The ‘Philadelphia Public Buildings’ is a view of the City Hall with the statue of William Penn on the tower. This bears a brown-printed mark: PRATT & co / FENTON / STAFFORDSHIRE, with an oval giving the address of another china dealer: R. J. ALLEN, SON & co / 309 / 3n MARKET str / PHILADELPHIA. ‘The State House in Philadelphia, 1776’ was also brought out for the Centennial. It is an exterior view of Independence Hall, enlivened with figures of passers-by. The title is at the bottom, with the date underneath. The plate showing ‘Interior View of Independence Hall, Philadelphia’ appears here with a simple border of color and gold lines. Both potlid and plate are marked below the title: KERR'S CHINA HALL IS OPPOSITE THE ABOVE.
The 1893 exhibition view carries at the top the title ‘The Administration Building, World's Fair, Ctiicago, 1893’. It appears on potlids and presumably also on plates. Other American subjects are ‘H.R.H., the Prince of Wales’, ‘Visiting the Tomb of Washington’, brought out in connection with the prince's tour of the United States in 1860; ‘Uncle Tom and Eva’ and a companion piece, ‘Uncle Tom and Legree’, both large ovals; a full-length portrait of the philanthropist George Peabody, titled with a facsimile of his signature; and a three-quarter-length portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe holding a copy of ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’. Nearly all potlid engravings were applied also to tableware.
Some of the most charming English views are of well-known castles or estates, such as the Queen's residence - Osborne House, Isle of Wight; Sandown Castle; Walmer Castle; Strathneldsay - home of the Duke of Wellington; and Warwick, Windsor, and Ludlow. In this category, there are dessert plates showing Austin's design, ‘Sandringham, the Seat of H.R.H., the Prince of Wales’. Sandringham was purchased by the prince, later Edward VII, in 1862 and ten years later he replaced the original mansion with the brick and stone building seen in the print. This plate, identified by the mark PRATT / 123 / FENTON, has a typical Pratt border and a wide band of color between the print and the rim design. With the same edge are the subjects ‘Sebastopol’ and ‘Shakespeare's House, Henley St., Stratford on Avon’. The exotic representation of Sebastopol is signed J. AUSTIN INV. on the potlids, though not on the plate. The copper plates for this and the Sandringham view are preserved. The Stratford-on-Avon view exists in an original Austin drawing, which shows that it was first issued with an elaborate leaf and scroll border having a bust of Shakespeare at the top.
Castle views appear on two plates with highly decorative borders that are possibly the work of Jesse Austin for Brown-Westhead, Moore & Company. One of these has a general tone of olive-green and is entitled ‘Haddon Hall’. The other, of brownish-olive, bears an unidentified view in South Wales. The harmony of coloring in these two prints marks the epitome of accomplishment in this imitation of hand painting.
Aside from views of actual places, there are a great many fanciful and romantic subjects in the taste of the period. These are often untitled. The engraving on a cake-plate form by Pratt may be the ‘Ruined Temple’ listed by Clarke and Wrench. This also exists on a dessert plate.
Collectors of potlids sometimes find covers of irregular shape, such as oval box tops with trefoil ends and oblong box tops with square ends. These odd-shaped prints were also applied to cups, spill cups, vases, pitchers, and plates. The oblong country scene on a certain pitcher has been given the name ‘The Torrent’ because it appears in Austin's scrapbook with the written title ‘Le Torrent’ and the signature BERGHEM,PX. The design on the reverse, also by Austin, is called ‘The Stone Jetty’.