Pots of Gold; antiques CHRISTOPHER PROUDLOVE ON WHY IRISH EYES REALLY DO SMILE ON THOSE LUCKY ENOUGH TO STUMBLE ACROSS A MASTERPIECE BY BELLEEK.
According to the story, John Caldwell Bloomfield and Robert Williams Armstrong met quite by chance in a Dublin antique shop.
The former, a keen collector of ceramics, was related to Baron Caldwell and, in 1849, had inherited the baron's County Fermanagh estate, which included the village of Belleek. The latter worked for the Royal Worcester porcelain factory.
The story may all be Irish, but while browsing among the antiques Bloomfield struck up a conversation.
An amateur geologist, Bloomfield explained that 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 Dublin merchant David McBirney to finance it.
And so, in 1857, the Belleek pottery manufactory was born, with Armstrong as the driving force.
He was its first art director and manager and the man responsible for attracting the talent 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. 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.
But 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.
Spot the earliest of examples by their base plaited with three strands of "spaghetti" and the word BELLEEK impressed onto a tiny porcelain pad fixed to the underside.
Later on, CO FERMANAGH was added, and after 1890 the word IRELAND. Four-strand bases appeared after 1921 and if two pads are stuck to the item's base, one with a letter "R" on it, the piece is modern.
However, finding an undamaged one 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 mind-boggling.
So delicate and time-consuming is the process 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 always destroyed.
Ironically, these masterpieces start life as so much waste from the production of other Belleek ware. The scraps of clay are collected and ground to a powder to which gumarabic is added to give strength and elasticity.
This mixture, with the consistency of chewy toffee, is then kneaded and cudgelled into a malleable lump.
The strands of spaghetti are 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 the individual strands by hand, to formthe base. The lattice work sides of the basket are then built around an inverted plaster mould.
Finally, handles and handmade decoration such as flowers, stems, buds, twigs and, of course, the inevitable shamrock Belleek hallmark is applied, before the piece is placed with the utmost care into the kiln for the first, or biscuit, firing.
The basket is then 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.
These baskets are just one example of Belleek ware. A myriad of other products ranging in price from a few pounds to a few thousand all vie for the collectors' hard-earned cash.
A Belleek tea set (left) of shamrock shape with harp handles worth pounds 100-pounds 250; shell moulding (top) was a popular Belleek motif - this group is worth pounds 100-pounds 150; one of a pair of Belleek jugs (above) with scroll moulded handles encrusted with flowers, worth pounds 200-pounds 300