Friday, 2 November 2012

The potted history of collectable Victorian pot lids

potlid-1oWho among readers of this weekly missive collects Staffordshire pot lids? Clearly no one who was at a sale I watched the other day because not one of 16 lots of the things, mostly with two lids in each lot, found a buyer prepared to pay the - generally - £80-120 per lot that the auctioneer was expecting.

Let’s assume the reserves were on the low estimate. Is £40 too much to pay for a colourful, ready-made (and often ready-framed) little work of art that once had collectors falling over themselves to own? Answer: a resounding yes. Fashions change and just like the Clarice Cliff vase that I know cost its owner £450 and she let go in the same sale for £260, it’s very easy to get caught out and left to count the cost.

Which I suppose means that now is the time to buy Staffordshire pot lids. They will probably never be cheaper. Read on and perhaps by the end, you’ll know what you’re looking for.

potlid-12Like so many antiques that have fascinated us, we were introduced to pot lids by Arthur Negus. In 1981, he interviewed actor Leslie Crowther, arguably the best known collector of them, and “The Price is Right” star explained how Victorian manufacturers of fish and meat pastes were quick to realise that the attractively decorated lids enhanced the sales of their products.

We had to find one that we could afford. With prices then often topping the hundreds, they were out of our reach. Then, amazingly, we dug one up in a long-forgotten rubbish dump. We still own it today.

Small earthenware pots with lids decorated first in black and white and then in full colour were commonplace in the mid-19th century. They had been around since about 1760 and were ideal as “packaging” for utilitarian products such as bear's grease hair lotion, cure-all ointments, and tooth powder.

Today, pot lids provide a fascinating lesson in social history. A host of different illustrations appear on them, covering such diverse subjects as the Australian gold strike, the Crimean War, Shakespearian plays, assorted portraits of royalty, heroes and actresses and the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The man to thank is Felix Pratt (1813-1894) who introduced multi-coloured printing on ceramics at his works in Fenton in the Potteries in 1846. Pratt went on to dominate the market, largely as a result of the expertise of his engraver, Jesse Austin, who developed the process for decorating pot lids.

Austin was a gifted artist who drew inspiration from celebrated paintings, events and other aspects of Victorian life. He painted the designs in watercolour and then etched them onto copper plates in order to reproduce the scenes in miniature.

Four colour plates were used in all, one for each prime colour in the printing process and a fourth black key plate to lay down the image on the pot lid.

Each plate was charged with its respective colour and covered with a sheet of special tissue paper. Plate and paper were then passed through a mangle-like machine that applied pressure, to transfer the impression to the paper. This was then laid over the fired but unglazed pot lid which absorbed the colours under further pressure, one at a time, until the picture was complete.

Once this was done, and each step in the process sometimes took several days while each colour dried out, the lids were glazed and fired revealing the full strength of the colours for the first time in the entire process.

This long and extremely delicate operation called for absolute accuracy to ensure correct colour registration. One tip to help weed out reproductions and fakes is to look for the small black dots at either side of the picture which were used ensure successive plates were aligned correctly. Only authentic lids have them.

Collectors seek out the work of Jesse Austin in particular as it shows a marked excellence. His name or initials can be found on a number of lids engraved by him.

The height of pot lids' popularity was in the 1860s, although they were still in production in the 1900s, still used for their original purposes. Some were reproduced in the 1920s by such firms as Cauldon and Coalport but purely for decoration. The earliest of pot lids generally had flat tops and black borders with an unevenness that later mechanisation overcame. They were also smaller in diameter than later lids, which had a convex surface.

The best colours appeared on lids produced between 1860-1875, while later lids had a heavier, less artistic feel about them. Look particularly for brilliant reds and blues which, generally speaking, denote an earlier lid.

The idea of collecting pot lids started in 1897, three years after Felix Pratt’s death, when an exhibition of his work was held in Blackpool. Stand-alone auctions of Prattware pot lids began in 1924 and by the mid 1960s, the hobby reached its height with the formation of the Pot Lid Circle collectors’ club. It continues today.

By then prices were reaching astronomical heights, well into four figurers, with the result that reproductions and outright fakes began to appear – one fact alone that had a serious affect on confidence among buyers and consequently the prices they were prepared to pay.

The fakes are still out there, so buy from a reputable dealer with a reputation at stake. If he values his good name, he'll be straight with you. If he shows a reluctance to guarantee the authenticity of what he's selling, you'd be best served taking your custom elsewhere.

Another pointer might help. Most early lids show signs of crazing in the glaze, while repro lids do not. Or if they do, it will be a faker's crude attempt at imitating crazing. Try running your thumb nail across the surface; if there is any resistance caused by the crazing, think again.

The definitive book on pot lids was written by Abe Ball. “The Price Guide to Pot Lids and Other Underglaze Multicolour Prints on Ware”, published by the Antique Collectors' Club, lists with very few exceptions, each of the 550 or so recorded Prattware pot lids. It also includes illustrations of superb watercolours painted by Jesse Austin together with the pot lids produced from them demonstrating his accuracy and engraving ability.

Pitfalls apart, pot lid spotting and collecting is great fun and with prices currently as low as they are, there’s no better time to buy them.

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