Scottish Ceramics in Singapore

Asian Department
November 3, 2014

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.

European ceramics on display at the Malay Heritage Centre
European ceramics on display at the Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore. © Sau Fong Chan

The curator said that they were recovered from the current site, formerly a Malay royal palace, during two archaeological excavations in 2000 and 2003.

Front view of the Malay Heritage Centre
Front view of the Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore. © Sau Fong Chan

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.

Plate with Johore pattern,
Plate, ‘Johore’ pattern, J. & M.P. Bell & Co. Ltd, ca. 1887. © Sau Fong Chan

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.

Plate with China pattern
Plate, ‘China’ pattern, R. Cochrane & Co., Glasgow, ca.1880-90, Museum no. C.91-2007. © V&A, London

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.

Plate with pineapple pattern
Plate, ‘Buah Nanas’ pattern, J. & M.P. Bell & Co. Ltd., Glasgow, ca.1888, Museum no. C.87-2007. © V&A, London

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).

Back of the plate with 'Buah Nanas' mark
Back of the plate with ‘Buah Nanas’ mark

Other designs were named after local place names, such as ‘Johore’ in Malaysia and ‘Makassar’ in Indonesia.

Plate with Makassar pattern
Plate, ‘Makassar’ pattern, J. & M.P. Bell & Co. Ltd., ca.1890, Museum no. C.90-2007. © V&A, London

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.


About the author

Asian Department
November 3, 2014

Sau Fong Chan is a curator in the V&A's Asian department, and looks after the textiles and dress collections from China and South-East Asia.

More from Sau Fong Chan
12 comments so far, view or add yours


What a wonderful blog entry. I will probably never get to Singapore so would never know about this aspect of Britain’s pottery trade without you sharing this with us all. Thanks, looking forward to the exhibition next t year.

Ihave a collection of this china which I collected in indonesia. I understood that there is a collection and research being carried out at Glasgow Museum.

It is very exciting to learn that more research on this subject is being carried out by other institutions!

Ihave a small collection about 30 plates made inIndonesia in the late 1990s. Ilove them. whom wshould Ishow them to iat the V&A OR THE GLASGOW MUSEUM??

There are still a few of these Bells and Cochrane’s wares to be found in Sumatra and Java. Henry Kelly published a comprehensive book on Scottish Ceramics some years ago. A colleague in Edinburgh, Graeme Cruikshank, has made a study of these wares. There is a Scottish Ceramic Society in Edinburgh who have also publications relating to export wares. They may now have a website.

Hello Sau Fong Chan,
I am the person referred to above by Edwards MacKinnon! I gave up my job as a museum curator in 1987 in order to research this topic. I have been many times to South-East Asia, travelling throughout the region for up to seven months at a time. I have also lectured on the subject many times, some in Scotland and Holland, but mostly in South-East Asia ~ in Singapore (thrice), Jakarta (thrice), Kuala Lumpur (twice), and Bangkok, Rangoon, and Hong Kong. Did you meet the Curator of the Museum of Asian Civilisations in Singapore, Kenson Kwok? He has knowledge of this subject too. The Malay Heritage Centre is new since my last visit there ~ I must try to get back sometime.

Is Makassar pattern considered Flow Blue type pattern ?

Graeme – you were the person introduced me to these Scottish ceramics. I went searching for them in Jakarta – and found some. the shop had more – but I knew I was outgrowing my home!!!! I brought them back with me on my return to Bristol UK. Would love to show them to you if you ever get down to the South-West

Hello Graeme,
I’ve learnt a great deal from your articles on Scottish ceramics for the export market. No, I haven’t met Kenson Kwok in my last visit, such a shame.
In case of interest, there is an exhibition scheduled in Centre Céramique at the end of 2016 to showcase ceramics manufactured by the Maastricht potteries for the export market. It will be bilingual: Dutch and English. More information is to be found on our website:

Thanks a lot for the information. Yes, I did visit the Scottish Ceramics Society website a lot, also their newsletters.

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