Thursday, 18 May 2006

Royal Charter shipwreck - great art born out of a maritime tragedy

walker royal charterentwistle royal charter
by Christopher Proudlove©
Inspiration for these weekly missives, as I've said before, comes in many mysterious ways. This week's is as bizarre as any. Knowing that I write it, a long-standing contact in the antiques business - he frames and sells fine art prints for a living - presented me with a cassette tape he had recorded for me and implored me to listen to one song in particular. It was by Tom Russell, a musician I'd never heard of and it was about someone called Isaac Lewis about whom I knew even less. And so I listened to it. Gosh it's good.

So I started to do some research, the results of which have served to remind me why I enjoy my hobby of antiques and collecting so much. Turns out that Isaac Lewis was returning from Australia aboard the Royal Charter, a steam clipper bringing gold miners home from Australia to Liverpool. In one of the worst storms ever recorded, the ship sank off Moelfre on the Anglesey coast on October 26 1859 with the loss of more than 450 lives. Lewis was one of just 39 survivors, while others less fortunate are said to have tried to swim ashore with their pockets stuffed with gold nuggets, hence the incident was named "The Golden Wreck".

It also turns out that the Royal Charter, a sailing clipper with an auxiliary steam engine and an iron hull, was built at the Sandycroft works on the River Dee in Flintshire. Apparently the remains of the slipway are still visible with some of the lignum vitae fittings still intact. Visit the Seawatch Centre at Moelfre, on Anglesey, and you can see an exhibition of artefacts salvaged from the wreckage including a large section of her hull, which sits in the car park. An obelisk in St Gallgo churchyard in Llanalgo, where some of the victims are buried, commemorates the sad event.

So then I wondered what excuse I could find to write about it. Fate and a little perseverance found two local artists who have each recorded the event and their work is illustrated here.

One is by Edward 'Ted' Walker, who was born in Kingston-upon-Hull in 1937 but moved to Merseyside during the Second World War. His family include captains and shipowners going back to 1617 and were based mainly in the north east of England with a branch coming from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides.

From the age of 10 Ted was always interested in drawing and he could often be found in a quiet corner busily sketching vessels of all types. After leaving Liverpool College of Art of prematurely due to family commitments he took up several occupations to subsidise his career as a marine artist. Today works hang in public and private collections worldwide including British and European royal circles.

He has had several successful one-man exhibitions and his work has been exhibited throughout the USA and Europe, notably at the Paris Salon at the invitation of the Society of French Artists. He was the official artist for the Titanic artefacts exhibitions and he has illustrated some the many books on the Titanic, notably those by the prestigious American historians John P Eaton and Charles Haas, both of whom have been close friends of hisfor the past 25 years. Earlier this month he was one of the guest speakers at Belfast City Council's Titanic Festival.

Among Ted's prestigious clients is the Cunard Line and several of his paintings hang in Cunard's Southampton and Miami offices, while in 2003, he was commissioned by the Post Office to paint a postage stamp to mark the launch of the new Cunard liner, Queen Mary 2.

royal charter shard

Ted is also noted for his pictures of the naval conflict between the opposing sides in the American Civil War. They include "The CSS Alabama leaving the Mersey", the "Duel between Alabama and Kearsage" and "The Shenandoah surrendering in the River Mersey" six months after the Civil War ended. This occasion witnessed the firing of the last shot of the American Civil War.

Ted's work can be seen on his website at, while enquiries about purchasing his prints including that of the Royal Charter can be made by email at ed-walker "at"

By sheer coincidence, the other local professional artist, Brian Entwistle, who was born in Liverpool but has lived in Rhosneigr, Anglesey for the last 30 years, told me had just taken delivery of the first batch of his prints of the Royal Charter. Strictly limited to an edition of just 150, signed and numbered and of the highest quality. They are now on sale in local galleries priced at £80.

Brian, a former trainee journalist, trained at the Liverpool College of Art and worked for 20 years in advertising as an illustrator and copywriter. These days he describes himself a marine artist whose subject matter is based on historical reconstructions of sail and steam vessels, although he also leans towards coastal landscapes and indeed some landscape in general. He works in oil, watercolour, ink, and some pastel and he has exhibited at the Royal Society of Marine Artists, in London, and in Liverpool and Anglesey. Like Ted Walker, Brian has worked on private commissions and from many of Liverpool’s shipping companies including the Blue Funnel and Elder Dempsey lines and his work is in collections both public and private around the world.

His print shows the scene off Meolfre about eight hours before disaster struck. It shows the vessel under reduced sail having just passed the Skerries as she makes her way slowly up the coast of Anglesey. Lights in the side of the vessel indicate that passengers were settling down for their evening meal, confident that they would arrive in Liverpool safely the next day. In the background and to the left of the print is Point Lynas light, while to the right of the vessel is Carmel Head with Holyhead Mountain in the far distance.

Brian’s inspiration for the picture came from The Golden Wreck, a book by Alexander McKee which tells the story of the Royal Charter in all its stark detail. Brian’s monumental oil painting from which the print was taken took him two months to complete and was snapped up by one of the first people to see it.

Pictures show, top, left: Ted Walker’s print of the Royal Charter, the clipper dwarfed by mountainous seas off Moelfre

Right: Brian Entwistle’s rendition of the Royal Charter. Set some eight hours before the tragedy, the view shows the clipper under reduced sail off Anglesey. In the background and to the left of the print is Point Lynas light, while to the right of the vessel is Carmel Head with Holyhead Mountain in the far distance.

The wreck of the Royal Charter has been combed for salvage of the years. This shard of pottery bearing the ship’s registered mark was given to Ted Walker many years ago by a diver who found it on the seabed

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Monday, 15 May 2006

Mystery antique: can you identify it and offer a valuation?

What do you do when you find an antique and need to get it identified? There used to be three choices: take it to a museum, a dealer, or an auction house and ask each in turn for an opinion.

The third choice is probably the best course of action because the first might be able to identify it but would be unable (or unwilling) to give you a value, while the second might be able to identify it but could give you a misleading price in the hope that you'll sell it cheap.

Now there's a new choice: ask online, which is what I'm doing here, because I genuinely have no idea who made this hand-painted pottery vase, or what it's worth. I bought it at a car boot sale for very little.

Clearly, it's a quality piece with some age - I'd say mid-Victorian. It's seen better days, though: one handle has been broken (not too expensive to have restored) and the gilding is badly worn. However, the flowers are beautifully painted and the foot is particularly interesting because it is decorated with a fish-scale pattern in deep pink. It measures 26 cms in height and I like it very much.

I just wish I knew which factory made it, who decorated it and what it's worth. All suggestions gratefully appreciated.


Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Minton’s Secessionist Ware is an epitaph to designer Leon Solon

plaque 2
plaque 1
by Christopher Proudlove©
In the post preceding this I wrote about porcelain decorated with magical images made at the Minton factory by French émigré Louis Solon. But that’s only half the story. Louis had a son, Leon, born in Stoke-on-Trent, so he had china clay in his blood. Léon’s innovations earned him his own place in the history of English ceramics. He was responsible for producing the remarkable porcelain plaques illustrated here, but he will be remembered best for his introduction to the Minton factory of so-called Secessionist Ware.

You will recall that Solon the elder had trained at the Sèvres factory in France, where he perfected the pâte-sur-pâte technique. Literally “paste on paste”, this involved building up layer after layer of white slip clay to produce decoration with a unique cameo-effect on objects such as vases, tiles and wall plaques. His arrival at Minton revived the company’s fortunes. Louis also married wisely, choosing Maria, the daughter of Leon Arnoux, Minton’s art director and regarded by many as “the man who made Minton”. The couple had eight sons and one daughter.

The first born, Léon Albert Victor Solon (1872-1957) was no less gifted than his father, the objects illustrated here bearing testament to his genius. Solon the younger trained at the Hanley and Kensington Schools of Art and joined Minton in 1895, rising to become head of the firm’s Art Nouveau department. Minton was quick to adopt the Art Nouveau style and when Léon’s designs were published by the design magazine The Studio while he was still a student, Minton were equally quick to offer him a job.

The development of the Art Nouveau movement as it spread across Europe was shaped in part by a group of rebel Viennese artists who had turned their backs on the Establishment. Vienna in the last quarter of the 19th century was a city of divisions: the rich enjoyed a lavish lifestyle of society balls and extravagance, while the poor struggled with a housing shortage, hunger and misery. The city's young intellectuals, the artists, writers and scientists, looked to the new century for a new beginning.

For its artists, it came with the founding of a new society - the Secession - which, unlike Vienna's long standing traditional Society of Artists, was intended to raise concern for art in the city and promote contact with artists abroad. It was founded by Gustav Klimt, Kolo Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich. They decided to form their own exhibiting society and to publish a magazine called Ver Sacrum - the Sacred Spring. The first exhibition was held in the spring of 1898 with already a sizeable contribution from foreign artists, including some from Britain - "corresponding members of the Secession" as they were called. In 1900, for example, Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh and members of his circle exhibited at the society's eighth show.

At the same time Minton was casting around for new ideas and with this European roots, Léon was eager to contribute. His first designs in 1898 were based on the principles of the Viennese movement and named Secessionist ware, underlining the Secession Movement’s impact even in North Staffordshire.

In 1901, Léon was joined at Minton by John Wadsworth and together they introduced many highly original designs to the Secessionist range. Shapes for the ornamental range of vases included inverted trumpets, elongated cylinders and exaggerated bottle forms, although tableware shapes remained conventional.

The complete Secessionist range comprised useful as well as ornamental wares including cheese dishes, plates, teapots, jugs and comports. Collectors today covet in particular the large jardinières, specially if their matching pedestal stands are complete and undamaged.

Initially patterns were accurate portrayals of themes from nature - flowers, birds and figures - but under the joint influence of Solon and Wadsworth, the natural sources were exaggerated and even distorted when the convoluted plant forms and floral motifs reach a peak of fantasy around the turn of the century.

Léon left Minton in 1905 and emigrated to America. The subsequent designs, the work of John Wadsworth alone, were well-defined, yet simplified abstract forms with the occasional use of classical motifs.

The body of the ware was made in cane-coloured earthenware and the surface decoration outlined in relief, either when each piece was cast from the mould or tube-lined. The latter technique involved squeezing a thin layer of liquid clay (slip) through a glass tube by hand on to biscuit (unglazed) ware in a fashion similar to icing a cake. The brightly coloured lead glazes were then painted within these outlines. Occasionally, a block-print would be used to produce a background effect, usually taking the form of foliage, and would form an integral part of the design.

One of the most visually stunning patterns on Secessionist ware features the so-called "Glasgow rose". This stylised, angular representation of the flower is probably one of the best known Charles Rennie Mackintosh motifs and it is fascinating to speculate on how Minton brought together Vienna, Glasgow and Stoke in a single piece. The final Minton catalogue for Secessionist ware was produced in 1920 but despite this relatively short production run, considerable quantities were produced. However, its individual hand-made appearance was largely retained and because of the instability of the coloured glazes in use at the time and the methods by which they were applied, firing produced somewhat unpredictable results. The effect of colours intermingling is often seen and imparts a distinctive character to the ware.

Most Secessionist ware is marked "Minton Ltd." with a distinctive black or green printed backstamp in swirling Art Nouveau style. When unmarked, "Mintons" can usually be found impressed into the clay. Impressed cyphers correspond to a year code by which a piece can be dated. Incised numbers of four digits identify the Minton shapes, while printed numbers denote the design sequence. Painted letters denote the various colour combinations used.

Pictures show, top: An extremely fine Minton porcelain plaque in multi colours depicting a bonneted lady in a long dress semi-kneeling at a shrine with a young seated angelic girl on a pillar and with an imaginary riverside townscape in the background, signed by Leon V. Solon. It sold for £1700. Below that is a Minton porcelain plaque depicting a lady in a long flowing dress kneeling at prayer, signed by Leon V Solon, 10.5 x 8 ins in a gilt frame. It sold for £1300

Below, left: These two Secessionist circular pottery plates, together with a similar square shallow dish sold for £240 in a recent auction of Minton ceramics

Right: The cover of Minton’s 1902 catalogue of Secessionist Ware

246catalogue 1902

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Wednesday, 3 May 2006

Minton pâte-sur-pâte - antique porcelain that’s prized by collectors

by Christopher Proudlove©

Minton master potter Louis Solon was livid. Returning home from Minton's Staffordshire Potteries works one day, to his horror, he found that his maid had blackleaded the fireplace. No big deal, you might think. On the contrary, beneath the gunge were tiles Solon had decorated with an experimental glaze technique over which he had toiled for hundreds of hours.

The maid's inadvertent snub is something that wouldn't happen today. For a start, the tiles with their ethereal, cloudy white designs which Solon had built into the grate's cast iron surround are more likely to be found in museums. And when an example comes on to the market, Minton's so-called pâte-sur-pâte ceramics can fetch prices that defy gravity.

The name pâte-sur-pâte means literally paste on paste and it describes a technique that involves building up layer after layer of white slip clay to produce a unique cameo-effect decoration to ceramic objects such as vases, tiles and wall plaques.

These layers of slip had to be applied to the unfired pot while it was kept in a workable or "green" state. With the speed at which clay dries, this meant only so much decoration could be done at a time. When forced to stop, the decorator was required to return the piece to a lead-lined box full of wet rags to so that the pot could soak up moisture. Consequently, much of the work took many months to complete.

The process was introduced at the Sèvres factory in France where Solon had studied and mastered the technique, becoming its best known exponent. When, in 1870, Solon was "headhunted" by Minton as designer and modeller, his secrets came with him. The masterpieces he created became one of Minton's major contributions to Victorian ceramics.

MSP - Minton's abbreviation for the Minton Solon Process - was laborious, time-consuming and expensive, but the company allowed Solon to devote all his time to it over a long period. He was soon able to build up a small studio where he trained a number of apprentices whom he made responsible for the more repetitive work. This left Solon free to concentrate on the main figures, usually maidens and cherubs in diaphanous veils floating ethereally on subtle blue, grey and black grounds.

Solon had his witty side too

It has been said that as Solon grew older, his maidens grew fatter. It is true that in his earlier work, they are sylph-like, while 20 years on, they appear much more voluptuous. Solon had his witty side too. One particularly amusing vase shows a sensuous lady with a wicked expression dancing with veils, while his cherubs always seemed to suffer. They were made to climb fiery rope ladders, were locked in cages, expected to dance like puppets and were washed in basins and pegged out by their wings on washing lines to dry!

Many of Solon's ornamental shapes were unique: large vases were adorned with the most complex handles, while a heavy font is supported by the arms of cherubs. His choice of ground colours also developed: his "changing pink" did just that, varying from strawberry to mushroom, depending on the light in which the object is viewed.

His other favourites included Prussian blue and celadon green, often used together, black, vivid green, salmon and chocolate brown, all of which were usually highlighted with the white figures. Occasionally, however, figures were in polychrome colours such as lilac, pastel blue, sand, grey, salmon and grass green.

Solon trained others and notable among them were Frederick Rhead, who later went to work for Woods and Sons, and Wedgwood, and Alboin and Laurence Birks who produced some stunning pieces.

A number of Solon pieces were on show at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 including déjeuner sets, dessert services, ice buckets, paperweights, trays and many pairs of vases. One pair, which cost £156 to produce, were sold to the retailer for 260 guineas and then offered for sale to the public at £350. Today, the same vases would fetch more than £4,000-6,000 or more.

Sadly, however, relatively few pieces of pâte-sur-pâte come onto the market and when they do, it is usually in a London auction room. Many eager bidders are attracted, particularly if a piece was actually made by the master himself. Examples of the work of Alboin Birks, Solon's top apprentice, also sell at a premium and do occasionally turn up in provincial salerooms, where sometimes they are overlooked.

Pâte-sur-pâte continued to be produced at Minton until 1937, when it was used to create royal profiles on commemorative wares. The largest vase ever produced by the company was commissioned by Queen Victoria to commemorate her jubilee. It stands more than three feet tall and is displayed at her summer retreat, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight.

Picture shows:
Detail from the reverse of The Idol Seller. Cupid, seated at his workbench, makes the toys that are being sold by his mistress. Note the line of finished dolls hanging behind him. The vase is worth £3,000-5,000

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