My first encounter with Scottish ceramics was during a study trip to Singapore in 2012. A group of European ceramics on display at the Malay Heritage Centre had caught my eyes.
The curator said that they were recovered from the current site, formerly a Malay royal palace, during two archaeological excavations in 2000 and 2003.
Instantly I was drawn to a Scottish plate made by J. & M.P. Bell & Co. in Glasgow around 1887. It has a transfer-printed design in brown with a fan depicting at the centre containing a port scene with pagodas and junks. The pattern is named ‘Johore’, which is a Malaysian state opposite to Singapore. I was intrigued by the story as I knew little about Scottish ceramics, let alone their export trade to Asia.
Scottish ceramics made specifically for the South-East Asian market were rarely seen in the UK before 1980. Their existence was discovered accidentally in Sumatra in 1979 by Mr. Edwin Robertson, a Scot who worked on rural water supply projects for a Dutch company in Indonesia. He then dedicated his energies to building an extensive collection of Scottish export pottery and brought back more than 700 pieces to Scotland. His collections were later dispersed to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow and the V&A. The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow also holds a significant collection of Bells pottery that was bequeathed by Mr. Henry Kelly, an expert on Scottish ceramics.
Between 1850 and 1900, Scotland became one of the major exporters of household ceramics to the British colonies in South and South-East Asia. J. & M.P. Bell & Co. and R. Cochrane & Co. were two of the biggest and best known potteries in Glasgow. They both exported a large amount of tableware with transfer-printed designs to India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Many plates and large dishes were produced to accommodate the demand for communal dining in this part of the Muslim world.
From 1880 onwards, with the growing competition from other European factories, particularly the Maastricht potteries in the Netherlands, Bells fought back by creating new patterns designed to suit local taste. Cochrane however continued producing uninspiring designs that imitate Chinese porcelain and embroideries.
Bells began to produce a series of patterns that have a clear marketing strategy in mind and shows a good knowledge of the local culture. For example this plate was marketed for the Malay speaking Muslim communities in South-East Asia.
It is decorated with pineapple, a tropical fruit that grew locally, and framed by a crescent moon, an Islamic motif. The pattern name ‘Buah Nanas’ meaning ‘Pineapple’ is printed on the back in Malay, in both Roman and Jawi scripts (the Malay form of Arabic script).
Other designs were named after local place names, such as ‘Johore’ in Malaysia and ‘Makassar’ in Indonesia.
You will be able to learn more about British transfer-printed patterns in the forthcoming display Blue and White: British Printed Ceramics scheduled in January 2015.