The Origin of Ironstone

Lars Tharp

 

The term 'ironstone' was coined by the Mason family partnership when Charles James Mason registered their 'Patent Ironstone China' in July 1813. 

While the 'Patent' was real enough, 'Ironstone China' was a misnomer: it isn't from the East, it's not made of porcelain and the iron content is questionable, chemical analysis revealing an iron oxide content of only half of one per cent, although Mason's published recipe expounds at length on the preparation of the ironstone and iron slag components.


The explanation? It seems likely that, in the cut-throat business of the Staffordshire ceramics industry, Charles Mason took care to provide his competitors with industrial disinformation - a bogus recipe. That his precautions were well-founded is testified by the subsequent roll-call of no less than 172 ironstone manufacturing firms established or merged in Staffordshire since the early 1800s, many using a style of mark intended to suggest a Mason's origin.

Whatever the true nature of Mason's ceramic process, the name itself - taking strength from the paradox of strong iron blended with fine china - proved to be a marketing triumph: not only was the new 'ironstone' seemingly as hard and durable as iron, but it took advantage, by exploiting designs largely inspired by the Chinese export porcelain trade, of the demand for Oriental china patterns, a taste which had been frustrated by the curtailment of bulk imports of Chinese wares in the 1790s and by the imposition of taxes on residual porcelain imports.

Actual Origins

But Mason's material was in fact not new. The Turner family of Lane End, Staffordshire, had, thirteen years previously, taken out a patent for 'a new method, or methods of manufacturing porcelain and earthenware' (1800). Dubbed 'Turner's Patent', the name appears inscribed in full on Turner's new Stone China. However, with the bankruptcy and termination of the Turner partnership in 1806, it is believed that the patent may have passed to Josiah Spode. Certainly Spode was soon to produce some of the technically finest specimens of stone china of the 19th century - and indeed he may already have been doing so by 1813, the year in which Charles James Mason registered the patent cementing the name 'ironstone' for the next two centuries. In short, though he did not invent the material, Charles Mason invented a name which perfectly described the product. How had this newly initiated potting family come to the forefront of ceramic innovation?

The Mason Family

Before venturing into the making of ceramics, Miles Mason (1752-1822) had entered the trade of 'Chinaman' with Richard Farrar & Co in London. In common with others in the business Farrar & Co dealt mainly in porcelain from China, porcelain bought wholesale from the East India Company at twice yearly auctions in London. Miles' prudent marriage in 1782 to the late proprietor's daughter brought him to the forefront of the Farrar business. Then, as since, it was common for the ceramics auction room to be dominated by 'rings', consortia if dealers clubbing together to inhibit and suppress auction prices. By arranging not to bid against one another, lots were purchased at low prices and re-auctioneed at a private 'knock-out' or 'settlement' exclusive to members of the ring, the difference between the public and the 'private' hammer prices being shared out among members of the group. To such a conspiracy Miles Mason was a party, indeed, a leading member. When, in 1791, officers of the Honourable East India Company decided to dispense with this irksome part of their trade and the price rigging which ensued, bulk imports of china from China were suddenly stopped.

Confronted with a demand which could no longer be supplied, Miles Mason turned his entrepreneurial hand to ceramic manufacture: thus he entered into partnerships both in Staffordshire and in Liverpool (1796), the former producing earthenware, the latter a fine white porcelain, moving on to Lane Delph in Staffordshire in 1800, the year of the Turners' patent.

That the Turners had been the first makers of stone china is clear: but just who was next - whether Spode or Mason - and by what means they had come by the recipe, is still unclear. Whatever the sequence, by 1813 'ironstone' had arrived.

The Ware Compared to Chinese Porcelain

Technically the clay body of ironstone is a very dense earthenware containing china stone. In colour and hardness it resembles Chinese porcelain, being of a bluish colour, though the body is generally opaque, not translucent. The glaze, however, is not so flinty hard and has a soft 'orange-peel' texture. It lends itself to decoration in underglaze blue as well as over-glaze enamels. These features explain the instant success of the ware: while closely resembling Chinese porcelain, the product is stronger, less fritty, less likely to splinter or crack at the edges, and for the same reason it is an improvement on the blue-printed pearlwares alongside which the production now runs. Ironstone/stone china potters also ensured that the edges of flatwares were robust contrasting with the knife-pared brittle rims of Chinese porcelain.

Mason's patent expired in 1827, by which time competitors with similar products were already under way. Though ironstone manufacturers continued into our own century, many of the later wares simply repeat the ironstone style of the first half of the 19th century, echoing the works of makers such as Spode/Copeland, Hicks & Meigh, Folch, Ridgway, but above all, Mason's.

With their bank foreclosing on the concern, the Mason's factory was closed in 1851 (some production continued for a few years). In 1861 the name was acquired by Ashworth's, continuing as the largest manufacturer of ironstone to the present day under the Wedgwood Group umbrella.

The Ironstone Style

While a few tea services as well as ornamental vases followed closely the European porcelain style of Germany, France and England, stone/ironstone china modelling and decoration drew its primary lead from the wares of China and Japan. Early 'Turner's Patent' pieces may sometimes seem indistinguishable from Chinese famille-rose designs such as the famous Tobacco Leaf pattern while the forms of plates and tureens, complete with hare's head handles, replicate exactly what the wealthy classes had been buying throughout the 18th century. (Furnishing replacements to the owners of battered 18th century services was undoubtedly a useful introduction to a client). Having begun his ceramic career as a London retailer, it is not surprising that Miles Mason simply moved his production along lines familiar to his clients and himself as 'Chinaman'.

In addition to outright copies of Chinese wares - and probably under the artistic influence of George, Charles' brother - the Masons excelled in chinoiserie. Many of the eccentric forms conflate the familiar shapes of 'rose medallion' wares with the curls, bulges and frills of the rococo revival, combining to form an altogether unique Ironstone Style, a sort of Canton-Rockingham. Large hall vases with dragon finials and cornucopia handles; chimney pieces moulded with birds in branches; sets of graduated jugs with human-headed green dragons forming handles; such pieces, arresting, monumental and robust, may be covered in a Chinese landscape design containing full-blown peonies or a mandarin family out of doors, the underglaze-blue outlines and washes at first usually hand painted and later printed, the enamel colours, often more brilliant than the Chinese, added by hand and enriched with gilding. Or the vase may be entirely dipped in a rich cobalt blue, glazed, fired and then enamelled with delicate flowers or boldly gilt with foliate designs. Such ornamental wares - made between 1815 and the 1840s and among the most original ceramic designs of the century - might wholly feel at home in the Prince Regent's chinoiserie palace, the Marine Pavilion in Brighton.

Marks, Attribution and Dating

Predictably, many factories adopted Mason's 'ironstone' term as part of their mark; while others used such names as 'Imperial Ironstone', 'Real Ironstone', 'Granite', 'Opaque' and 'Stone China'. A large number of these marks incorporate a crown or a royal coat of arms. While many pieces of a complete service might well be marked, some were not, therefore once the older services were divided within families or on the open market, it may be difficult to establish the maker of an unmarked piece separated from its service. Furthermore, owing to the awkward shape and curvature of some pieces such as tureens and tazze, the marks - whether impressed or printed - may be unclear or incomplete, in some cases there will be a deliberate intention to pass things off as the work of more illustrious factories, sometimes even incorporating a version of their name in the mark.

As with all works of art it is simply a matter of developing your 'eye': getting a feel for the clay body and glazes of the major factories. This will happen automatically with regular handling at auctions or study in the museums. You will soon be able to gauge at a distance whether the piece is from one of the major or minor makers. The pattern may be recognisable, though some (such as Asiatic Pheasants) will still allow for several factories. The shape, especially of vases and ornamental wares, will certainly be helpful. And finally, when you do look at the mark watch out for discreet initials often tucked away in the cartouche of a pattern name, these may be your best guide to the maker.

Finally, quite apart from 'genuine' plagiarists there are, needless to say, outright forgers. First, the blue-printed jugs, basins, jelly moulds and similar collectable shapes: if it's covered in a rather smoky yellowy-grey glaze hold it up to the light. If it's translucent, i.e. made of porcelain, it's very probably a brand new fake from the Far East. They abound, are legitimately advertised wholesale to the trade and are offered for the unwary at car boot sales. More recently, I've been shown the photograph of what appeared to be a straightforward Mason's 'hydra' jug, complete with the crown and banner mark. On looking very closely not only was the underglaze blue part of the design printed, but so too was the overglaze orange shading. I am told that the suspected source may be Portugal. Once your eye is attuned, being aware of the possibility of fakes is usually enough.

Prices

With the above in mind, the basic rule is: if you like it buy it. But it is wise to be aware of market forces, so keep in touch with what is happening at auction. Depending on factory, rarity, mark, date and of course condition, an ironstone plate may cost you between 20 and 300. An impressive ornamental ewer painted by Samuel Bourne (watch out for over-enthusiastic attributions to any one particular painter) will set you back several thousand pounds. Likewise, for a complete ironstone service 10,000 to 20,000 is not unreasonable (compare with the price of modern services!). But don't stick it in the dishwasher.

For Collectors

Not surprisingly, very many Mason's ironstone collectors live in the United States, traditionally a strong market for makers of ironstone since it began to be made. For enthusiasts of ironstone in general and of Masons in particular, 1996 marks the official 200 year anniversary of Miles Mason as china manufacturer. Look out for the celebrations planned by the Wedgwood Group of which Ashworth's incorporating Masons is a member. And for Gaye Blake Roberts' forthcoming book (see bibliography). For real devotees and enthusiasts there is an English Mason's Collectors' Club (The Secretary, Mason's Collectors' Club, c/o City Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, ST1 3DW). A Mason's Ironstone China Society of North America is being formed 

Bibliography

Ashworths, A Catalogue of Ironstone China, 1901.

Gaye Blake Roberts, Mason's: The First Two Hundred Years, Merrell Holberton (June 1996).

Geoffrey Godden, Mason's China and the Ironstone Wares (revised, 1993) Antique Collectors' Club.

Geoffrey Godden, Ironstone (monograph in preparation).

R. G. Haggar, Mason's Porcelain

 

 

 

questions / comments? email: Steve Birks