A Multi-Disciplinary Investigation into the Creation of 18th-Century London Porcelain
It is now over 250 years since the earliest dated pieces of porcelain were produced successfully in London. Today, together with the Ashmolean Museum and Newham Borough of London, V&A scientists and curators are investigating London’s first manufacturers, Bow Porcelain Factory and Chelsea Porcelain Factory. The remarkable decorative, utilitarian and sculptural wares produced by both factories remind us that London was a global centre for experimentation and creativity during the mid-eighteenth century.
Making London Porcelain has been supported generously through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Capability for Collections Fund, and combines art, science, history and public engagement practices to inform practice-led research. This project has two key aims. Firstly, to use scientific analysis to increase our understanding of materials used in early London porcelain recipes, and secondly, to engage local communities and school groups with heritage science and provide inspiration for the next generation of makers, historians and scientists.
‘Without science, art cannot be successful’
Such wise words from an A-Level student at Chobham Harris Academy in Stratford remind us how much science can inform and promote heritage research. Since April 2022, twenty art and science 6th formers from Chobham Harris Academy in Newham and Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park have visited the V&A to learn about scientific analysis, handle eighteenth-century London porcelain and experiment by re-making Bow and Chelsea porcelain recipes. This culminated in a co-curated exhibition at Stratford Library as part of Newham Heritage Month.
Here are some of our key findings from Making London Porcelain.
Bow Porcelain from Newham Borough of London
Bow, in East London by the River Lee, was also known as the ‘New Canton’ factory. It was founded by the artist Thomas Frye and merchant Edward Helyln who submitted their first patent in 1744, followed by a second one in 1749/50. The V&A Science Lab has used XRF, which is a non-destructive, non-invasive X-ray analytical technique, to characterise the ingredients in the glaze and the body of 15 porcelain objects from an important collection of Bow porcelain owned by Newham Borough of London. The scientific analysis carried out by Dr Kelly Domoney (Ashmolean) and Dr Lucia Burgio (V&A, with the help of Dr Valentina Risdonne, Dr Lucia Noor Melita and Chris Foster) concluded that all the objects are products of the second Bow patent, filed in 1749/50. This includes the use of ‘virgin earth’, otherwise known as calcined bone ash or calcium phosphate, which most likely came from a local piggery.
The XRF analysis also revealed for the first time that an additional ingredient of about 2% cobalt had been added into the porcelain body. Such ingredients emphasise the experimental phase of London porcelain factories. However, this didn’t help achieve a brilliant, white porcelain, instead, the presence of cobalt created a rare ‘mushroom’ colour. This bluish-grey can be seen especially in a leaf-shaped pickle dish from about 1749. Inspired by these findings we encouraged the students to experiment with adding cobalt to their porcelain mixtures as they created their own test tiles of bone ash Bow porcelain.
The Chelsea porcelain factory, located in the Southwest of London on Lawrence Street from the early 1740s was managed by the designer Nicholas Sprimont, his wife Ann and sister-in-law Susannah Protin. As part of our Making London Porcelain project two incredibly rare sculptural busts of early Chelsea porcelain underwent scientific analysis. Known as the Head of a Laughing Child, only two of these porcelain models exist, one at the V&A and the other surviving version, painted in polychrome enamels, is now in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. From March-July 2022 they have sat side-by-side in the Ceramics Galleries at the V&A, probably the most time they have spent together since they were first created!
From an aesthetic perspective these busts must have been cast from the same mould. The firing of the one in the white was more successful than that of the polychromed version, perhaps suggesting that enamels were added to compensate for this and cover up any blemishes on the skin. Excitingly, scientific analysis reveals that the porcelain bodies have a very consistent composition with minor variations in the levels of calcium and potassium, suggesting that they are possibly even from the same batch of clay. These results also completely disprove notorious art forger Shaun Greenhalgh’s claim that this object was made by him in the 1980s, now these rumours can firmly be put to rest!
The subject of these busts is elusively enigmatic: does it represent a boy or a girl, or possibly an angel? Is it a portrait or an ideal head? Would it have been part of a pair or have a counterpart? Who designed it and modelled it? How was such an impressive form made in porcelain when it was such a new material, and the Chelsea factory was still in its infancy? And can we ever actually assign an author to this piece? There is still lots to uncover.
Collaborative projects such as Making London Porcelain show us that through art history, heritage science and public engagement practices we can continue to expand our knowledge of eighteenth-century London, where artistic innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and scientific experimentation came together to create such innovative porcelain pieces.
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.