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Ceramics facing Belleek outlook; CHRISTOPHER PROUDLOVE.

IS the fate of English ceramics following that of its so-called "brown furniture"? I watched a sale the other day in which late Victorian and Edwardian sets of chairs, dining tables, bookcases and chests of drawers barely got away. Despite being handsome pieces in solid wood and well-made by craftsmen, no one seemed to want them and few buyers were prepared to bid beyond their bottom estimates.

This week it was a sale of Belleek porcelain (yes, I know, it's Irish, not English, but you get my drift). The lack of bidding was palpable and the poor auctioneer passed virtually every lot. There were echoes of conversations we'd had with dealers exhibiting at antique and collectors' fairs: they were growing weary of unpacking rows of pots, only to repack them unsold at the end of the fair.

Time was when such exquisite porcelain flew out the door. But then look what happened to Royal Doulton and Beswick pottery: demand fell away for all but the rarest and best. Sadly, the rarest and best Belleek in this dispersal of a single-owner collection bombed with the rest. Will the market return? Undoubtedly, but clearly now is the time to form a collection.

Belleek was founded by John Caldwell Bloomfield and Robert Williams Armstrong who, according to the story, met by chance in a Dublin antique shop. The former, a keen collector of ceramics, was related to Baron Caldwell and, in 1849, he had inherited the baron's County Fermanagh estate, which included the village of Belleek. The latter, a London architect born in Ireland, had worked on plans for the improvement of the Royal Porcelain Works at Worcester.

Apparently, while browsing among the antiques, Bloomfield struck up a conversation. An amateur geologist, Bloomfield explained how he had discovered reserves of top quality clay on his land and wanted to build a pottery there. Armstrong was enthusiastic, to the extent that he and Bloomfield were able to persuade David McBirney, a Dublin merchant, to finance the venture.

And so in 1857, the Belleek pottery manufactory was born, with Armstrong as the driving force. He was its first art director and managing partner and the man responsible for attracting the workforce necessary for it to survive right up to the present day.

Armstrong looked to existing pottery firms for that talent, with, naturally enough, the Worcester factory high on his hit list, while others were coaxed away from the Staffordshire pot banks. The bait was simple: higher wages.

You'd have thought it was more pleasant, indeed healthy, to have worked in Ireland rather than in the industrial armpit of the Potteries, but few remained longer than was necessary to pass on their skills to the locals.

There was one notable exception: the man who is said to have introduced to Belleek the distinctive designs and manufacturing processes that made the firm famous around the world.

William Henshall emigrated to Ireland from Staffordshire in 1865 and never returned. A gifted potter, he taught the Belleek workforce the expertise required to produce the celebrated flower-encrusted basketware, exquisite creations that almost defy the imagination. They're still in production today, but it's the antique ones, now at a premium, that we're interested in.

Early production had concentrated on utilitarian and domestic earthenware products such as pestles, mortars, washstands, bedpans, floor tiles, telegraph insulators and tableware, but post Henshall, the company soon established a market for its fine porcelain in both Ireland and England, boosted by orders from Queen Victoria. Soon exports were reaching America (naturally), Canada and Australia. The award of a Gold Medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 helped the firm conquer Europe too.

Spot the earliest of examples by their base plaited with three strands of spaghetti-like porcelain and the word BELLEEK impressed onto a tiny porcelain pad fixed to the underside. Later on, "CO FERMANAGH" was added to the impression and after 1890, the word "IRELAND". Four-strand bases appeared after 1921. Two pads stuck to the base, one with a letter "R" on it, means the piece is modern.

However, finding an undamaged example of these delicate delights dating from Mr Henshall's day is a very special discovery. Learn more of the skill and artistry involved in the manufacture of such a basket, and you realise just how special.

Persuading the whole thing to remain in one piece through decoration and, usually, three lots of firing is a mind-boggling process. So delicate and time-consuming is it that Belleek was always expensive. Imagine how many pieces came out of the kilns having failed in some way. With the kind of quality control that would embarrass today's manufacturers, imperfect pieces were destroyed without exception.

Ironically, these masterpieces started life as so much waste from the production of other Belleek ware. The scraps of clay were collected and ground to a powder to which gum arabic was added to give strength and elasticity. This mixture, with the consistency of chewy toffee, was then kneaded and cudgelled into a malleable lump.

The strands of "spaghetti" were produced in a hand-operated press which forces the clay through a mould not unlike that for producing mashed potato. It is at this point the modeller starts to plait and weave the individual strands by hand, to form the base. The lattice work sides of the basket are then built around an inverted plaster of Paris mould.

Finally, handles and handmade decoration such as flowers, stems, buds, twigs and, of course, the inevitable Belleek hallmark - the shamrock - is applied, before the piece is placed with the utmost care into the kiln for the first, or biscuit, firing.

Following this, the basket is dipped in a glaze that gives the object an iridescent, pearl-like lustre, synonymous with Belleek. This is hardened with a second firing, after which the piece is painted where necessary and given a third and final firing.

Mr Henshall's baskets are just one example of Belleek ware. A myriad other products ranging in price from a few pounds to a few thousand pounds all vie for the collectors' hard-earned cash. But watch for damage and treat it with the utmost care.

CAPTION(S):

From top: Belleek clover-shaped four-strand basket worth PS100-PS150. It is applied with flowers, the centre with four strand weaving. A four-strand basket with Staffordshire knot handles (PS70-PS100). Basket with two-strand weaving, branch handles and polychrome decorated flowers (PS70-100). A basket with twin handles applied with flowers, the centre with two strand weaving (PS70-PS100).

A Belleek tea set of shamrock shape with harp handles worth PS100-PS250

A fine four-strand Belleek basket smothered in floral decoration and a tour de force of ceramic art. Sadly unsold at PS2,000-PS3,000
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:May 10, 2014
Words:1110
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