As a bit of an ‘end of the holidays’ treat I bought some good quality coffee and not wanting to drink it from the more usual mug I planned to savour it in one of the china cups taken down from our kitchen dresser.
The cup and saucer I chose was from a small set my sister had given me years ago. As I sipped the bitter coffee I, for the first time, took a close look at what turned out to be a visually remarkable cup.
The energetic combination of stencil patterns and bold sloshes of intense colour was fascinating, in fact I’d never seen anything quite like it before. The base of the cup bore the legend H&B and a reference number.
I typed it into a search engine and the fascinating story of Gaudy Welsh unfolded.
Gaudy Welsh china was pretending to be something it was not and could never be. It was produced for working class families at a cost of only a few pennies. It was china with aspirations, like the people who bought it.
The pots produced by factories such as those in Swansea, Llanelly and subsequently Staffordshire, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland were thick and coarse, covered with pitting and often woefully out of shape.
The appearance of Gaudy Welsh ware coincided with a transformation of life in Britain. The Industrial Revolution was beginning to get up steam (literally), railways had replaced horse-drawn carriages and the population was on the move from the country into the towns, seeking work in the factories.
The result was a burgeoning middle class who could afford the finer things in life and a working class that couldn’t but was striving to do so. A home decorated with cheap and cheerful china ornaments was seen as tangible evidence that the family’s move from country farmhouse to industrial slum had been a wise one.
The generic name seems to have been coined by American collectors, in Wales it tended to be called more prosaic names such as Welsh Lustreware, Peasant Enamel, Swansea Cottage or simply cottage ware.
Gaudy Welsh first appeared around the late 1820’s. It was a working class chinaware for show on the dresser, and yes, it was gaudy, The main colours chosen for decoration were orange, dark and light greens and most spectacularly a intense cobalt blue, in addition turquoise, yellow and pink were also used along with gold and pink lustre.
Gaudy Welsh was visually eclectic, with references taken from different styles and eras. It often shows a collision of images and sets up tensions between craftsman-like fine detail and brash-naive hand-painted additions. Tulip (or Daffodil), sunflower leaf and oyster patterns combine with energetic gestural strokes and heavy blocks of cobalt overpainting.
To my eye, there’s a kinship between Gaudy Welsh and the painted ware found on narrow boats. Whilst there’s no evidence of them being directly connected, they do talk to each other from a formal and social perspective. They were contemporaneous. Both were working class appropriations of middle class ornamentation. Both took pride of place in the family home/boat. Both featured highly stylised, abstracted elements loosely based on natural forms. Both utilised the slick skills of skilled artisans to produce an affordable, cost-effective yet precious object.
Gaudy Welsh was produced over a long period of time and Staffordshire potteries in particular continued production into the early 20th century.
I’m beguiled! Oh no, I can feel the collecting bug coming on!
‘Gaudy Welsh’ from interpretingceramics.com
‘Gaudy Welsh’ from antique-marks.com
‘Gaudy Welsh’ from Facts at your Fingertips