Temptingly graphic with stories to tell, antique transferware comes into its own at holiday time. With elaborate borders and endearing scenes, each piece of transferware pottery is a miniature work of art. A few pieces grouped together or a large collection displayed en masse make an exquisite decorative statement. Transferware, with its subject matter, technique and colors, is timeless—a classic that is admired just as much today as it was in the 18th century.
What Is Transferware?
Transferware is a type of pottery that is decorated by a process developed in England in the mid-1750s. To produce each colorful design, a master pattern was engraved on copper, glazed with color and transferred to thin paper. These sections of paper were applied one by one to a piece of pottery before the piece was put into the kiln. Many patterns were so complex that it took over a month to engrave the copper master sheet.
Transferware was made all over Europe and the United States in many colors and patterns. Before transfer printing was developed, each piece in a dinner set had to be painted by hand, a costly process, making decorated dishes completely out of reach for working class families.
The industrial revolution in England changed that. The transfer process meant pottery patterns could be reproduced repeatedly, allowing middle class families to enjoy appealing dinnerware similar to that found in the homes of the gentry. By the 1800s, factories were producing entire tableware sets, most in romantic patterns featuring a man and woman in lush landscapes.
What to Look For
Most transferware on the market today is from the mid to late 1800s. Especially appealing are pieces from the late 1800s Aesthetic Movement, when artists believed that creating something for beauty alone justified their artwork. Look for Oriental patterns, free-flowing asymmetrical designs, lavish florals and garden scenes filled with exotic birds, trees and lush landscapes.
Most transfer pieces are marked on the bottom with the maker’s mark, and often with a pattern name. Some early pieces are unmarked; they are just as valuable. The older the transferware, the more “misses” you will see where the pattern joins at the seams. Unless it truly is a huge miss, this does not devalue a piece.
Prices can range from a lucky find at a flea market for well under $100.00 to thousands at an auction house, depending on rarity, size, and who else wants to add that piece to their collection. Of all the colors of transferware, yellow was the least produced, therefore the most rare and costly to acquire.
Next time you come across a striking platter, bowl or cup, don’t hesitate to add it to your antique collection. The darling of decorators, transferware is decorative as well as useful. Whether you display your collection on your walls, or set a holiday table, these pieces have survived for over a hundred years and are meant to be used and bring joy.
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