The Ball collection of Staffordshire Pot Lids and Prattware

Andrew Hilton

It can be thought that to collect seriously is an expensive pastime, but this need not be the case. For as little as £40 to £50 it is possible to acquire a good, undamaged example of a Staffordshire pot lid thereby starting a fascinating pictorial study of Victorian social history and understanding the forerunner of a manufacturing process that is taken for granted today. So how and where did it all begin?


The origins of multicoloured underglazed printed pottery go back to 1756 when John Sadler and Guy Green invented the process of transfer-printed decoration on pottery. This involved the engraving of a copper plate which was warmed and applied with an oil based ink, any surplus being removed. A print was taken on a strong tissue type paper which had previously been soaked in a solution of soap. The printed paper was applied to the pot which was then fired in a kiln. The result was a pot with single colour decoration. 

At the time it was said that two men could then produce decorated wares which had previously taken no less than 100 decorators the same time. Not only did this revolutionise the pottery industry it also made decorated pottery available to a mass market at affordable prices.

George Baxter patented his oil colour process in 1835 which led to the production of a wide variety of colour printed pictures on paper which were made up of a black outline or key plate with the addition of up to twenty different colour plates. Such was the success of his invention he went on to produce many colour pictures and sell licenses to others enabling them to emulate his process (see the article in the March issue of Antique Collecting). 

In his employ was A. Reynolds who subsequently left Baxter and in 1848 with F.W. Collins patented a process of colour printing on pottery. This involved three different plates, one for each of the colours, blue, red and yellow, with the subsequent addition of a black outline or key plate. This order of preparation overcame the restriction of Baxter's patent. Such a process lent itself to mass-produced wares and, typically, pot lids which had already been produced in monochrome black were most suitable. Indeed, two years earlier there is a record of a two-colour production bear's grease pot lid being supplied to a London chemist.

The firm of F. & R. Pratt of Fenton was run by Felix Edward Pratt (1813-1894) who saw the commercial possibilities of producing multicoloured pot lids and bases as containers for products such as bear's grease, gentleman's relish, food-stuffs and cosmetics including rouge. Jesse Austin (1806-1879), who had been an apprentice at Davenport before becoming a self-employed artist and engraver, joined Pratt in about 1843. 

He subsequently left Pratt to go to Bates, Brown, Westhead and Moore for a period of about a year only to return to Pratt's. Of the two, Austin was the artistic influence and Pratt the commercial brain. Between them they produced a substantial and widely varying selection of what we know today as Staffordshire pot lids and, with the success they enjoyed, they went on to produce Prattware, pottery decorated with the same colour pictures, for a period of some 40 odd years. Austin was a gifted artist and engraver but he had limited imagination and drew inspiration from celebrated paintings, events and other aspects of Victorian life. He painted the designs in watercolour and then etched the copper plates in order to produce the three colour plates and the fourth black key plate.

The other principal manufacturer of pot lids and ware was the firm of T.J. & J. Mayer who, whilst not as prolific as Pratt, produced items of an equally high standard. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was to be an early high point for the products of F. & R. Pratt. The firm produced a series of what are known to collectors as 'Exhibition Pieces'. These were the best examples of each variety of picture additionally embellished with wide gold bands. Such items today are the most highly prized by collectors.

Abe Ball wrote The Price Guide to Pot Lids and Other Underglaze Multicolour Prints on Ware published by the Antique Collectors' Club, so his collection is well documented. It includes examples of Jesse Austin's watercolours; their execution is superb and comparison to the end product pot lid demonstrates his accuracy and engraving ability. Also in the collection are a number of the engraved printing plates. With very few exceptions each of the 550 or so recorded pot lid and Prattware subjects are represented. 

There are a small number of the exhibition pot lids and it is these that demonstrate above all else the excellent quality that could be achieved by this method of production. Additionally, there are many examples of the different kinds of ware that were produced from ornate services to decorative vases, tobacco jars, mugs, loving cups, teacups and saucers, plates, advertising plaques and all sorts of other pottery pieces.

In 1897, three years after Felix Edward Pratt died, there was an exhibition of Prattware in Blackpool. In the same year it is recorded that people started collecting and in 1924 the first public auction was held. In the early days many of the collectors were na¥ve, tending to amass collections on the basis of obtaining an example of as many different subjects as possible. Little attention was given to the condition or quality of pieces. 

In the late 1920s and early 1930s collecting Baxter prints and Staffordshire pot lids and Prattware reached fever pitch with a number of wealthy industrialists from the Midlands trying to secure the best and rarest. It was at this time that collectors began to appreciate the importance of finding examples which were well printed, potted and undamaged.

In the main, three sizes of lids were produced (approx. 3in., 4in. and 5in. diameter) with the moulded shape varying only slightly. Reproductions were made in the 1920s by the firm of Kirkhams, who had acquired T.J. & J. Mayer and more recently by Coalport who owned F. & R. Pratt. In the last twenty years a series of very dubious lids has been produced by sticking a picture printed on ordinary paper to the surface of an old blank lid and covering the whole with a polyurethane-type glaze. All of these productions may be easily distinguished from the original. 

As to the Prattware, whilst the scope of production is vast, an elementary study of the subject will enable the collector easily to differentiate between early pieces (1850-1890), later pieces (1890-1930) and reproductions from the 1960s and 1970s. Not unlike a well-tuned colour television set, a good pot lid should show colours which are well registered, each exactly on top of the other, and the colours should be strong and even with no ghosting or fading. A good example should be bright, colourful and sharp. Latterly, restorers have been at work on defective pieces and this too detracts from originality. Many books have been written on the subject and the upshot is that today there are many enthusiastic collectors of Staffordshire pot lids and Prattware many of whom are members of the Pot Lid Circle, the collectors' club started in the mid 1960s.

The items themselves do not now appear in general auctions that often, there are few specialised auctions other than those regularly held by Historical & Collectable. A number of dealers hold a stock of pot lids and Prattware. With something in the region of 550 different picture subjects and a wide variety of Prattware the collector is provided with much quarry. 

The pieces themselves are attractive and each tells its own story being a visual social historical record of the Victorian era. The collector today will have to pay £30 for an indifferent example of a common lid rising to £100 for a superb example of the same lid. The rarest lids and exhibition pieces will fetch up to £3,000. A record price of £3,600 was paid at auction a number of years ago for a pot lid showing an Eastern lady with attendant. Prattware will vary in price from £30 for one of the more common pieces to over £2,000 for one of the very rare and highly decorative advertising plaques, a number of which are included in the Ball Collection.

Prices reflect the date that the articel was written: 2002

The Pot Lid Circle may be conatacted at:  

Historical &     



questions / comments? email: Steve Birks