India on a Plate

Taj Mahal (John Hall & Sons, 1814-32)
(Photo: TCC)
Have you ever selected a delicacy temptingly presented on a decorative blue and white dish, and then gradually observed the image underneath revealing itself to be – an early 19th century Indian landscape view, or perhaps a sporting scene – a tiger hunt?

Sue Norman checking items on

(Photo: R Dohmen)
From the 1780s onwards the Staffordshire potteries used their newly developed techniques to satisfy British customers’ burgeoning interest in ‘exotic’ views. As the British presence in India expanded, the allure of the places these people inhabited, and wrote about, mounted among their friends and relatives back home. And of course those who eventually did return to the UK often hankered after visual memories of the fascinating sights, animals and plants they had encountered. By 1850 there were over 180 India-inspired designs in production.

Around 20 BACSA members recently spent a very convivial evening at the home of Rosemary Raza, BACSA’s Events Officer, enjoying an informal presentation on Indian-themed blue and white china. The talk was given by Sue Norman, a long-established dealer with a passion for her subject.

Passing round a selection of beautiful items from her personal collection, Sue led us gently through the cultural and technological developments that underpinned the production of this very popular tableware.

Mausoleum of Sultan Purveiz,
near Allahabad

Thomas & William Daniell
Firstly, the process for making ‘transferware’, whereby designs printed on paper could be easily transferred to pottery, meant that, from the 1750s onwards, depictions of landscapes, animals, plants and architecture were no longer confined to exclusive, hand-painted china.

Secondly, artists like Thomas Daniell RA (1749-1840) and his nephew William Daniell RA (1769-1837) travelled round the ‘Orient’, sketching the exotic places they found. After touring north India from Calcutta to Srinagar, and spending time in Madras, they returned to England and, between, 1795 and 1808, produced a 6-volume work entitled ‘Oriental Scenery’.

This was followed, in 1810, by ‘A picturesque Voyage to India by way of China’, which included views of the Bay of Bengal and the landscape bordering the river Hoogly.

Indian Procession‘ (marked ‘Walsh’)
(Photo: TCC)
Thirdly, the development of ironstone china, patented in 1813, meant that high quality, durable tableware suitable for everyday use became accessible to those who could not afford porcelain. With readily available labour and materials, and the nearby canal network ideal for transporting the finished goods, the Staffordshire area became the cradle of firms like Wedgwood, Spode, and Minton.

Prints by landscape artists inspired designs showing views, buildings and scenes from everyday life in a very different part of the world. Plants and animals were often added to this backdrop – as were people wearing ‘eastern’ apparel; perhaps on horseback, or riding a camel – or even an elephant.

Meanwhile publications such as ‘Oriental Field Sports: Being a Complete Detailed and Accurate Description of the Wild Sports of the East’, written in 1807 by Captain Thomas Williamson, with drawings by Samuel Howitt, sparked interest in tropical wildlife pursuits: Spode’s ‘Indian Sporting Service’, launched c.1810, included a large platter with a picture entitled ‘Driving a Bear out of Sugar Canes’, a vegetable dish and cover, and a small platter, with ‘Hunting a Buffalo’, a sauce tureen with ‘A Dead Hog’, dinner plates with ‘Death of the Bear’, side plates with ‘Common Wolf Trap’ and soup bowls with ‘Chase after a Wolf’.

Death of the Bear‘ (Spode, 1820)
(Photo: Bonhams)
Transferware was generally produced as a one-colour pattern on a white background. Blue, derived from cobalt, could withstand high-temperature firing and was found to last well (interestingly, customers in the USA preferred a much darker shade of blue than those in the UK). While the Chinese-inspired ‘willow pattern’ design proved very popular in the West, many people, especially returnees, often preferred tableware depicting views or scenes they, or their family members, had known and loved.

After the talk, several members of the group rounded off the evening with a meal at a local Indian restaurant. Our thanks are due to Rosemary Raza, BACSA, for organising, and hosting, a very enjoyable event; to Sue Norman, for preparing such an informative presentation, and bringing along so many beautiful items to illustrate it; and to Marcela for discreetly ensuring the hospitable flow of drinks and nibbles.

Rachel Magowan