Looking at early English porcelain

Conservation Science
April 26, 2022

Scientific analysis of a Bow porcelain object from the Newham Archives. Photography by Valentina Risdonne

A coveted luxury product

In Europe, the procedure to make white body porcelain – a much-desired import from China and Japan in the early modern period – remained a mystery for a long time. Factories in many countries attempted to replicate the process, and through trial and error many of them eventually succeeded. In England the first two manufacturers to do so were the Chelsea and Bow factories, established in London in the mid-18th century.

Examples of Chelsea (left, C.221&A-1940) and Bow (right, C.200&A-1922) porcelain © Victoria and Albert Museum

But did these porcelain pioneers get it right straight away, or did they have to go through various steps of experimentation, before they could produce good quality white body porcelain? We are trying to find out by looking at existing pieces of early English porcelain.

During the ‘Making London Porcelain’ project, the V&A has teamed up with the Ashmolean Museum and the Newham Archives, and together we are investigating the composition of dated porcelain objects from our three collections. We are using primarily three scientific analysis techniques, X-ray fluorescence, Raman microscopy and digital microscopy.

XRF analysis of a Bow porcelain object from the Newham Archives. Photography by Valentina Risdonne

Promoting public engagement

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is supporting our efforts: after helping with the refurbishment of the V&A Science Lab, the AHRC has provided us with an additional grant, which we are using primarily to involve the public in our activities. For example, we are holding workshops for young people, providing them with the opportunity to be involved in the scientific analysis of the objects, and to be able to recreate porcelain objects using the information gathered during the analysis.

A display is also being organised at Stratford Library in the heart of the London Borough of Newham, during Newham Heritage Month (June 2022). This display will showcase little known Bow porcelain from the Newham Archives, and will also include the new porcelain pieces created by the students during our workshops.

The porcelain twins

In the meantime two virtually identical Chelsea pieces (both portraying the head of a laughing child), one from the V&A and one from the Ashmolean, have been reunited so that the composition of their body and that of their glaze can be investigated and compared.

The two Heads, side by side at the V&A (with thanks to the Ashmolean Museum for the loan and permission to photograph their object). Photography by Caroline McCaffrey-Howarth

Preparing the Ashmolean Museum’s Head of Laughing Child for XRF analysis (left) and analysing the composition of the glaze of its V&A twin (right). Photography by Lucia Burgio

More details about this project coming soon.

The project entitled ‘Experimentation and Placemaking: connecting communities with the technological and innovation histories of London’s early porcelain Manufacturers’ has been made possible by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Capability for Collections Fund and Newham Heritage Month.  This project is led by Dr Lucia Burgio, Dr Caroline McCaffrey-Howarth, Dr Georgia Haseldine and Dr Kelly Domoney.

About the author

Conservation Science
April 26, 2022

Dr Lucia Burgio is Lead Scientist at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She has been at the V&A since 2000 and now manages the Science laboratory, guiding the scientific...

More from Lucia Burgio
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