The ageless charm of Lowestoft Porcelain

This bell-shaped mug from around 1771 is part of a collection of Lowestoft Porcelain made by Derek M

This bell-shaped mug from around 1771 is part of a collection of Lowestoft Porcelain made by Derek Melville. - Credit: Nick Butcher

Ian Collins considers the delights of Lowestoft Porcelain

From the 16th century Europe was mad for exotic eastern imports: silk, tea, tulips, china. By 1650 continental potters vied to crack porcelain's secret code and copy the rich translucence of Chinese wares at a bargain price.

In England William Cookworthy discovered the recipe as late as the 1740s, and his Bristol factory opened only in 1765. By then Chelsea, Worcester and Bow were in full swing – with a Lowestoft plant also in its stride, if not quite in on the secret.

In 1756 Hewling Luson found 'fine clay' on his Gunton Estate, north of Lowestoft, and sent samples for tests to the Bow factory east of London. According to local chronicler Edmund Gillingwater a positive report led to a kiln and furnace fired by Bow workers who turned out to be saboteurs paid by their old employer to thwart a potential rival.

A consortium continued trials in a Lowestoft Porcelain Manufactory in Bell Lane (now Crown Street). Gillingwater claims they, too, were almost wrecked by cheats from Bow.

Then again, founding partner Robert Browne is said to have infiltrated the Bow works and, hiding in a room, and possibly in a barrel, saw how the ingredients were mixed.

Whatever the truth, the raw materials were successfully combined, experiments in paste, painting and glaze were completed. Stock was built up and the Bell Lane site expanded. Then the following advert ran in the Norwich Mercury and Ipswich Journal:

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LOWESTOFT in Suffolk, Jan 23, 1760. Notice is hereby given to all Dealers in PORCELAIN or CHINA WARE. That by or before Lady next will be offered to Sale, a great Variety of neat Blue and

White CHINA, or PORCELAIN, at the Manufactery in this Town. 'Tis humbly hoped that most of the

Shopkeepers in this County, and the County of Norfolk, will give Encouragement to this laudable

Undertaking, by reserving their Spring Orders for their humble Servants, WALKER & Co.

At first decoration consisted of Oriental designs, European rococo motifs or stylised flowers, birds and insects. Cheaper, quicker transfer printing, and costly painting in enamel colours over the glaze followed from the late 1760s.

Over time certain attractive shapes became archetypal Lowestoft – particularly a 'sparrowbeak' creamjug, with a beak-like pourer and curling tail to the handle.

However dogged the enterprise in a four-decade existence, and however serious its achievement in outlasting all its larger rivals bar Derby and Worcester, its wares remained endearingly naïve – bridging folk and fine art.

Artefacts were embellished with local scenes, names, family or professional emblems. Birth tablets, pierced to hang as toys in the cots of the babies of factory workers and fisherfolk, joined inscribed pieces for vicars, millers, publicans, grocers, butchers, carpenters, carriers, ships' captains, herring curers and lugger owners. There were messages for sweethearts, plus slogans such as A Trifle From Lowestoft which caught the first wave of seaside tourism.

While most production consisted of tableware, there were also ornamental objects. Figures of putti, musicians, swan, cygnet, cat, sheep, pug dogs and cream-jug cow could be unintentionally comic. Suffolk potters also plotted to deceive, mimicking Chinese decoration and faking the crescent mark of Worcester or Meissen's crossed swords. Certain families (Bly, Redgrave, Stevenson) dominate the known list of employees – women and children being especially cost-effective. Casual staff also aided the staple Lowestoft industries of fishing and rope making, or laboured in the fields.

Authorship of most of these pictures on porcelain is now poignantly anonymous. From the 1770s an unknown painter, or painters, specialised in floral designs – chiefly of tulips.

This prized bulb, once causing financial frenzy in Amsterdam, was brought to East Anglia by Flemish refugees. It was cultivated in the Fens after drainage by Dutch engineers and celebrated at florists' feasts in Norwich from 1631.

Richard Powles (1763-1807), hired at the age of eight, proved a talented landscape artist and some of his pen and wash drawings of the surrounding area have been linked to specific scenes on porcelain. A marvellous polychrome mug in Norwich Castle Museum, with a sea view including Lowestoft High Lighthouse and the arms and motto of Trinity House, resembles a Powles sketch.

All production ceased by 1800.

Enemy firings – less from Napoleon's forces than Staffordshire potteries with unlimited local clay and coal reserves – finally sank the Suffolk craft.

Major collections of Lowestoft porcelain can be seen in the Norwich Castle, Ipswich Christchurch Mansion, Lowestoft and Victoria & Albert museums.

A Porcelain Trail has been plotted by the Jack Rose Old Lowestoft Society.

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