English Painted Enamels

11 Minute Read

By Erika SpeelMore from this author

English enamels, in the genre also widely classed as Battersea work [after the initial place of their manufacture] were profusely made from 1753 to the late 18th century, and there was continuity into the four subsequent decades.

For the articles in this category, produced in tens of thousands, there is a certain range of forms and quality of design that define these pieces, but despite uniformity in these respects there was an engaging diversity of ornamentation. The bases of these wares, typically quite small, were of thin gauge copper, shaped to suit the enamelling processes as well as practicability for use. The copper shapes were coated with comparatively thick layers of white enamel, to strengthen the wares and serve as the grounding for the pictorial work.

The application of pictures or outlines to the wares was with transferring methods, using engraved copper plates, enabling repetition of each design recreated with fusible pigments, applied and fused into the prepared enamel surfaces. The resulting monochrome images were then often given further ornamentation with over painting and enameled borders.

english painted enamels
Pic 1. The most 'artistic' effects from the Battersea factory emulated elegant French fashions showing mythological scenes, as here, depicting Venus arising from the Sea, with sensuous, naturalistic figures.

Some of the technical processes involved with the making of 18th century English enamels will be summarized in Part 2. The books and catalogues listed before can be followed up to see gain an overview of the span of articles produced in this manufacture.

The original attractions of these wares was that such functional items - boxes, etuis, walking stick handles and candlesticks etc. ^ were available within trinket range prices, while emulating far costlier enameled objects.

Pic 2. The detail - of a plaque after the myth of Danae and the shower of Gold - shows the intricate style of engraving for well-modulated prints on enamel.

The on-going popularity was maintained with flexibility of designs - it only needed further engraved plates to be prepared to add new motifs to the range, keeping up with trends for the wider public taste.

The best pieces in this way were produced up to the 1790s, and for the later items, in large-scale manufacture up to 1840, the style was usually of boxes with sentimental, commemorative and souvenir motifs. The more ornate and unusual pieces were among the objects collected in the last quarter of the 19th century, leading to a revival and making of fakes. Collectors, interest and rising prices of good pieces in this genre continue. From the modern enamellers, view, the English enamels, created only with opaque colors and within formulaic applications, are seen as an industrialized offshoot rather than true artwork with these materials. However, these objects rank among those that are most widely recognized forms of enamelwork among the general public.

Pic 3. The picture inside a box lid, of an 18th century actress [known as Mrs. Brooks] was begun with a transfer printed image, then very well over painted with traditional miniature techniques.

Representative pieces are in many museums as part of their displays of 18th century artefacts, and comprehensive and catalogued collections are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Wolverhampton and Bilston Museums in Staffordshire [England].

The Rise of English Enamels

These semi-mechanical processes, and specifically the use of transfer methods to apply whole pictures to enamel, were newly perfected by about 1750, when processes were used to enable the images to be successfully recreated with fusible pigments without blurring, slipping and voids. From each engraved plate prepared made for this process, the transferred images could be obtained in black, brown, sepia, purple, blue or green versions.

Pic 4. The stylized portrait, of 'Lady Harding', representing an 18th century London socialite, has recreated with overglazes the exaggerated make-up in the height of the prevailing fashion. The miniature scent flasks, up to 5 cm. [2 in.] high, were carries to such events as balls and visits to the theatre.

Mostly transfers were with red-brown colour, as best for blending in with over-painted tints, or with black for strong impressions [firing as grey according to depth of the engraving]. The best portraits were obtained from engraved plates created in the stippling manner, giving pointillist style images. The majority of the engraved plates were made in the more traditional graphic manner for outlines and hatching to texture the pictures, and the quality and detail varied according to the skills, dimensions and requirements. The printed pictures were sometimes produced with a combination of traditional engraving and stippling for the faces.

For the over painting of transfer printed images, the artwork included pieces that quite closely adhered to traditional miniature work with enamels, but with these exceptions, tints were applied far more quickly, often as simple washes, to add flesh tones and coloured backgrounds over quite sketchy outline designs. The quick processes of coating the wares and ornamenting these, often resulted in flaws in the glazed surface, such as speckling and stretch marks. However, these objects were popular for their overall appearance, irrespective of such minute imperfections: they were acquired for their illusion of far costlier wares, for their useful, cleanable surfaces, and for the personal appeal of the various designs, and in modern times are enjoyed for their historic interest also.

Pic 5. The Birmingham workshops produced of the largest boxes in this genre, as here with inset enameled plaques up 20.5 cm. [8 in.] across. The ornamentation, includes transfer printed outlines, and a sketchy manner of over painting with very bright overglazes for figures and details, as well as impasto style borders, to give an overall very rich appearance.

The small wares, often under 5 cms. [2 in.] across, included boxes, perfume flasks, etuis of various shapes to hold miniaturized sewing or writing implements and the so-called bonbonnières. The latter were produced in unusual and amusing shapes - exotic heads or animalistic and bird forms: they held medicinally scented lozenges to freshen the breath and aid dental hygiene or digestion, and such forms were ornamented with brush work.

Larger pieces in the genre were up 20 cms. [8 in.] in breadth: these included trays for quill pens and ink bottles, canisters for tea or sugar, and candlesticks.

The complex designs were chiefly of light-hearted and amorous subjects after famous oil painters: scenes of fancy dress balls, musical gatherings and outdoor parties, against architectural or rustic settings. Simplification of these themes followed, including conventionalized romantic scenes such as of poets serenading shepherdesses. For the modulated portraits and detailed figurative scenes, for which the engraved plates were prepared in the stipple manner, the transferring method differed from those effective with plates prepared with standard engraving for images with strong outlines and which could include texts. The transfer methods in themselves therefore contributed to the finished effects that could be produced.

Detail Pic 5a

The processes were readily adaptable to follow transient fashions and supply articles for special interests, requiring only engraved plates prepared after the required designs. These could include portraits of actors or figures dressed in the prevailing fashions, or depict patriotic and Masonic subjects, as well as political and humorous motifs. Designs for which texts predominated included those with extracts of musical scores and for 'calendar boxes' with events of the year. The mainstream designs were of rural views of lush pastures and grazing cattle, and extended to themes related to seaports and to hunting, racing, and many other sports. For feminine taste, as well as freshly coloured floral designs and romantic themes, there were pictures of ladies in fashionable costumes.

Standardized little boxes from the early 19th century featured emblems of popular resorts and other mementos appropriately augmented with short texts, such as 'A trifle from Bath' etc. or 'A token of friendship'.

Pic 6. Imported Indian and China teas and West Indian sugar, as luxury commodities of the 18th century, were stored in attractive containers made in sets. Those in the English enamel style were either ornament with detailed transfer printed designs in a single cotour, such as sepia, or as here painted vignettes were set against a pink or other fashionable colour for the backgrounds heightened with gilded borders.

The First Makers - The Battersea Factory

Starting in about 1750, the genre began officially in 1753, in the factory established in the premises of York House, in Battersea, then still outside the city of London. This traded initially as Janssen, Delamain, and Brooks: Sir Stephen Theodore Janssen, who owned the premises, and funded the venture, was an aristocrat and entrepreneur. Brooks brought expertise in the printing processes and Delamain was a potter, but both these experts had left the partnership by 1754. Janssen was a man of wide artistic and business interests and had a high social standing. In starting the enamel factory, he arranged for copies of costly and very fashionable imported objects to be made in these much cheaper versions. The articles were therefore shaped after portrait plaques, gold snuffboxes, small scent bottles and other items in vogue among London society. To be able to add superior designs to these Battersea made artefacts, Janssen commissioned the French-trained engraver, Simon-Frangois Ravenet [c. 1706-1774] to make the plates that copied elegant and sophisticated figurative pictures in the manner of the Parisian ornamental artists.

The Battersea factory went out of production in 1756, and later manufacturers then continued the genre with a far greater output. The term of Battersea wares tended for long to be applied to the whole genre, but now, more accurately, the pieces are generally classified as English enamels.

Pic 7. Novelty containers [bonbonniers] were pass molded from thin sheet copper for the high contoured forms, coated with white enamel and ornamented by brush painting. The hinged lids, slightly arched, were the bases when standing up the forms as table ornaments, and these parts could be ornamented with transfer printed motifs.

The Main Production - The Post-Battersea Manufacture

The contents of the Battersea factory had to be auctioned due to Janssen's bankruptcy in 1756, and the remaining large stock of materials, including metal blanks, engraved copper plates and printing equipment were bought up by workshop masters already trading in the production of simple enameled wares. With access to the Battersea stock and engraved plates, the new owners also acquired technical knowhow on the successful transfer methods, to enable them also to specialize in such production.

The successive makers who acquired engraved plates from the Battersea factory could make objects with the same underlying images as for the original wares but with overuse the prints became weaker as copper wears down, and the resulting images required more over painting. The closest copies were made using the best quality of 'Venetian' enamel to produce the 'milky white' groundings of the admired Battersea pieces. The change to mass production was that of coating with a different quality of enamel: this was domestically made, cheaper, and readily available, and importantly, this quality of white enamel could be prepared to make a suitable slurry needed for speedy coating of even highly contoured objects to apply the initial white coating with dipping or ladling processes. The new factory methods also entailed firing wares in larger batches, for economy and uniformity. A device to give more colour variety to the pieces, while also masking many of the uneven or speckled parts of the white grounding due to the processes, was to surround the printed images with fancy borders, which could be worked up with impasto.

Pic 8. This baton-shaped etui for miniature sewing items has a top section to be used as a thimble.

The workshops established in the town of Bilston [in the county of Staffordshire, in central England] became the leading successors of Battersea style articles from 1760 to 1780, when 18 makers were recorded.

A large workshop of Bilston, that of the Bickley family, was sold off in 1776, and the stock was acquired by makers of the nearby towns of Wednesbury and Wolverhampton, where the genre was continued. The leading Wednesbury factory in this output, founded by Samuel Yardley, remained the longest in production, continuing until 1840, with the later output chiefly for novelty and souvenir trinkets, with strongly outlined motifs.

Liverpool became another centre for this output, with the firm of Sadler and Green known to have produced in this way.

In Birmingham, the famous English centre of metal production, the factory of John Taylor [1717-1775], producers of copper ware, who had probably supplied blanks to the Battersea factory, added such enamels to their range including those using original designs from that source. Another very important Birmingham factory, that of Boulton and Fothergill, eminent producers of metal wares, sold English enamels also but probably subcontracted this branch of their manufacture.

Pic 9. English enamel boxes for miniature writing or sewing items, or snuff [powdered tobacco] or cosmetics, were ornamented in greatest variety. The smallest box here, from Bilston, combines over-painted transfer printed designs within enameled borders with some raised patterning. Largest box with Italianate scene [top] probably Birmingham, measures 6.30 x 11.5 cm., height 5.5 cms. [approx. 2π x 4π., height 2 in.].
  • Benjamin, Susan [19781 English Enamel Boxes, Orbis Publishing.
  • Charleston, R. J. [1967] 'Battersea' Bilston or Birmingham,, Victoria & Albert Museum Bulletin, vol. III, No. 1, January.
  • Cook, Cyril [1953] 'New Light on Battersea Wares 'The Antique Collector, June 1953.
  • Hughes, H. W. [1953] 'Authorship of Some Designs on Porcelain and Enamel' Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle, no. 3.
  • Hughes, Therle & Bernard [1951 & 1967] English Painted Enamels, Country Life/Hamlyn Publishing Group.
  • Jourdain, M. [1924] (ESubjects in Eighteenth Century Enamels, The Connoisseur, November.
  • Le Corbeiller, Clare [1966 & 19831 European and American Snuff Boxes, B. T. Batsford / Chancellor Press.
  • Mew, Egan [1926] Battersea Enamels, The Medici Society.
  • Morris, Mary S. [1973] Catalogue to the Exhibition of English Painted Enamels at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum.
  • Rackham, Bernard [1924] Catalogue of the Schreiber Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, Vol. III.
  • Schreiber Collection Catalogue [1885] Catalogue of English Porcelain, Earthenware, Enamels, etc., presented to The South Kensington Museum.
  • Sotheby & Co. Bond Street, London [9 June, 1975] Catalogue of fine English Enamels [sale of the collections of the late Hon. Mrs. Nellie Ionides and the Late Lord Ilford of Bury].
  • Speel, Erika [2007] 'English Pictorial Enamels' in The Magazine Antiques, June, pp. 88-95.
By Erika Speel [Volume 26, Number 5, December, 2007]
In association with
glass on metal
Glass on Metal is the only publication dedicated to enameling and related arts. Technical information, book reviews, how-to articles and insight on contemporary enamelers highlight each issue.

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