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A BLUE AND WHITE REVOLUTION

Vintage Blue and White Spode Plant Pot

Blue and white ceramics are enjoying a comeback in interior design - appreciated for their cool, classic designs that look good in practically any space. Beautiful grouped together or as stand alone pieces - they look particularly good when paired with a plant. But where did this cult classic combination come from and how did it make it into our homes?

THE BIRTH OF BLUE AND WHITE CERAMICS

It's no coincidence that we English-speakers often use 'china' to describe something made of ceramic. Many different societies throughout history worked out how to make objects out of fired clay, but it was in China that ceramic wares were first perfected and produced in vast quantities for an international market. 

By the 8th Century AD, Chinese potters were producing fine white porcelain hand-painted with cobalt blue oxide pigment. Cobalt oxide was most likely used because it was one of the only pigments that was able to withstand the high firing temperatures required for the porcelain. Cobalt oxide became so valuable that at one time it traded at twice the price of gold!

As trade routes developed, this style of pottery was copied across Asia, the Middle East and eventually also Europe.

14th Century Blue & White Ceramic Flask
Chinese mid-14th Century Flask -Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
"DELFTWARE" - BLUE & WHITE DUTCH STYLE
16th Century Delftware Blue & White Pot
16th Century Delftware Pot  Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

European elites went crazy for 'china ware' - brought over by the boatload by the 1700s. Between 1602 and 1657, the Dutch East India Company imported more than three million pieces of Chinese porcelain to Europe. It found its way into the homes of the rich and famous - replacing wood and metal tableware.

European potters began to copy the blue and white style - in places like the Dutch city of Delft, potters covered earthenware with a white tin glaze and hand painted blue scenes of the Dutch countryside over the top - creating what would become known as 'Delftware'. 

 

By the 18th Century, Europe was awash with 'china mania' and European royalty led the demand. In Vienna in the 1760s, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa decorated one room of her palace at Schonbrunn entirely in blue and white decoration - a testament to her love of blue and white ceramics. Meanwhile, in Berlin, King Frederich I of Prussia commissioned an elaborate 'porcelain cabinet' to house his collection of blue and white ware.

But blue and white porcelain was still mainly a luxury item seen only in the homes of the wealthy. In Britain, one man was about to use the might of the industrial revolution to produce blue and white porcelain for the masses...

Blue & White Porcelain Room Schonnbrun Palace
The walls of the 'Porcelain Room' at Schonnbrun Palace - Roger Wollstadt, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The walls of the 'Porcelain Room' at Schonnbrun Palace - Roger Wollstadt, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Blue and White Porcelain Cabinet Prussia
A section of the mirrored 'Porcelain Cabinet' built to house the blue and white porcelain collection of King Frederich I of Prussia - Richard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
SPODE - PRINTING ON PORCELAIN

Josiah Spode was born in 1733 and started work at the age of 7. Britain was on the eve of the industrial revolution and child labour was common in the mills, mines and potteries of the time. By the 1770s he had established his own pottery producing quality ceramics, with his eldest son, Josiah II, running the retail side at a large warehouse and showroom in London. 

Spode recognised that he could use new industrial processes to mass-produce blue & white ware on a large scale and sell it to the middle classes at an affordable price. All he needed…was a printer.

Printing on paper had existed for centuries but printing on ceramics was a new development, invented in the 1750s. Spode employed skilled engravers to create detailed copper plates, which were then used to print intricate blue patterns onto a range of ceramic items.

Josiah Spode I Portrait
Josiah Spode I by N. Freese (active 1794-1814), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Blue & White Ceramic Female Urinal 19th Century

Spode produced a vast range of ceramic items printed with blue and white patterns - everything from pots, plates, cups and saucers to more unusual items - like spitoons and this female urinal decorated with a peacock pattern from the early 1800s (for when you got caught short on a coach ride!).

Female urinal, England, 1801-1810. Science Musuem, London. CC by 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Spode’s most famous blue & white pattern called ‘Italian’ - inspired by drawings of popular Italian sites on the ‘Grand Tour’ but mixed with a Chinese style border -  first came out in 1816 and continues to be hugely popular with interior designers today.

 

Spode didn’t just pioneer new pattern printing - they also developed ‘bone china’ - mixing clay with ash from animal bones to produce a high quality, creamy-coloured, semi-translucent china that was also less brittle and breakable. Copied by other big names like Wedgwood, ‘bone china’ would become synonymous with high-end British ceramics.

Vintage ribbed Spode Blue and White Planter
Spode ribbed planter with 'Italian' pattern
THE VICTORIANS AND BLUE & WHITE
Blue & White Willow Pattern Plate
The enduringly popular 'Willow Pattern' - Conner Prairie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By the late 19th century, blue and white ceramics had become a key feature of middle class homes - reflecting the blue and white of the sky, they helped to brighten up dark Victorian interiors. Their popularity was given an extra boost by Victorian artists - like Rosetti and Whistler - who were passionate collectors of blue and white porcelain and used them in their paintings.

 

Sideboards and cabinets were built to display collections of china decorated with ever-popular patterns like the 'Willow Pattern' - a version of which was produced by nearly every British pottery in the 19th century and continues to be made today.

Monna Rosa by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
'Monna Rosa' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1867), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. 
Purple & Rose - the Lange Leizen of the Six Marks by James Abbott McNeill Whistler
'Purple & Rose - The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1864) - Philadelphia Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
MODERN BLUE & WHITE CERAMICS

Far from being outdated and unfashionable, blue and white ceramics are today seeing a huge surge in popularity. Not only are vintage pieces being bought up for use in interiors but modern artists like Livia Marin and Lei Xue are producing new works inspired by the long tradition of blue and white porcelain.

Livia Marin Broken Things
Livia Marin - 'Broken Things' (2009)
Lei Xue Smashed Can Sculpture
Lei Xue - Smashed Can Sculpture
Blue and White Vintage Chinese Vase

BLUE & WHITE STYLING TIPS

See our top tips for styling with Blue & White Ceramics.

SHOP NOW

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