A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2, General; Ashford, East Bedfont With Hatton, Feltham, Hampton With Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1911.
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The founder of the Chelsea pottery and the date of its origin cannot be traced. The earliest information is derived from a white cream jug supported by two goats and having a bee in its natural size placed on the front. Several specimens exist which bear the maker's mark, a triangle, scratched in the clay, and one of them is inscribed in incised cursive characters 'Chelsea 1745.' The workmanship of these pieces is of high merit, and leads to the conclusion that the factory had been established for some time, or that (as has been said (fn. 1) ) the pieces were the production of some French workmen brought over from the factories of St. Cloud or Chantilly. Some curious information as to the early history of the enterprise is furnished by Simeon Shaw: (fn. 2)
Carlos Simpson, sixty-three years of age, 1817, was born at Chelsea; to which place his father, Aaron Simpson, went in 1747, along with Thomas Lawton, slip maker, Samuel Parr, turner, Richard Meir, fireman, and John Astbury, painter, all of Hot Lane; Carlos Wedgwood, of the Stocks, a good thrower; Thomas Ward and several others, of Burslem, to work at the Chelsea china manufactory. They soon ascertained that they were the principal workmen, on whose exertions all the excellence of the porcelain must depend, they then resolved to commence business on their own account at Chelsea, and were in some degree successful; but at length, owing to disagreement among themselves, they abandoned it and returned to Burslem.
No other information exists in support of this statement or concerning the factory said to have been set up by the Burslem workmen. R. Campbell, (fn. 3) writing in 1747, says: 'Of late we have made some attempts to make porcelain or china-ware after the manner it is done in China and Dresden; there is a house at Greenwich and another at Chelsea where the undertakers have been for some time trying to imitate that beautiful manufacture.' The probability that the Chelsea industry was at the first in the hands of French workmen is confirmed by information gathered by Mr. J. E. Nightingale (fn. 4) from newspapers of the period. It also appears, from the mention of a French chapel in an advertisement of property, that a French colony existed at Chelsea. In the London Evening Post of 19 December 1749 a freehold messuage is advertised to be sold in 'Great China Row, Chelsea,' inquiries to be made of Mr. Brown 'over against the French Chapel in Chelsea.'
From advertisements which appeared in 1750 it appears that the works had then existed for some time. The General Advertiser of 4 December 1750 announces a sale by auction of a 'Closet of fine Old Japan China' in which is included 'curious Dresden and Chelsea figures.' This is the first allusion which Mr. Nightingale has found to any English porcelain in an auction sale. In the same year rival advertisements appeared of the old and new proprietors of the Chelsea factory. The Daily Advertiser of 15 May 1750 contains the following:
Chelsea Porcelaine. The Publick is hereby informed that the Sale-Warehouse at the Manufactory there will from henceforward be constantly open, and that new Productions are daily produced, and brought into the Sale-Room. And the Publick may be assured, that no Pains will be spared to extend this manufacture to as great a Variety as possible, either for Use or Ornament. Note, the Quality and Gentry may be assured, that I am not concern'd in any Shape whatsoever with the Goods expos'd to Sale in St. James's Street, called the Chelsea China Warehouse. N. Sprimont.
Chelsea China Warehouse. Seeing it frequently advertised, that the Proprietor of Chelsea Porcelaine is not concerned in any shape whatsoever in the Goods exposed to Sale in St. James's-street, called The Chelsea China Warehouse, in common justice to N. Sprimont (who signed the Advertisement) as well as myself, I think it incumbent, publickly to declare to the Nobility, Gentry, &c., that my China Warehouse is not supply'd by any other Person than Mr. Charles Gouyn, late Proprietor and Chief Manager of the Chelsea-House, who continues to supply me with the most curious Goods of that Manufacture, as well useful as ornamental, and which I dispose of at very reasonable Rates. S. Stables, Chelsea China Warehouse, St. James's-street, Jan. 17th, 1750.
From these two advertisements, which comprise the earliest information obtainable respecting the proprietors, it appears that the business was shortly before 1750 in the hands of Charles Gouyn. It then passed to Nicholas Sprimont, but Gouyn set up a rival warehouse in St. James's Street, Chelsea, which does not seem to have lasted long, as no further mention of it has been found. The names of both proprietors declare their foreign origin, (fn. 5) but Nicholas Sprimont had long lived in London as a silversmith, residing in Compton Street, Soho. His name was entered at Goldsmiths' Hall on 25 January 1742, when he duly registered his mark, which was NS in italics with a star above. His silver work is chiefly remarkable for its representation in relief of coral, rockwork, crawfish, and reptiles. Among the earliest specimens of Chelsea ware are the crawfish salts in the British Museum, which are undoubtedly the work of Sprimont. Chaffers quotes (fn. 6) a statement from a workman named Mason who was employed at Chelsea and whose son worked many years at the Worcester manufactory. The statement is to the effect that he joined the factory about the year 1751, and that it was first started by the Duke of Cumberland and Sir Everard Faulkner, the sole management being entrusted to a foreigner named Sprimont. He proceeds: 'I think Sir Everard died about 1755,7 much reduced in circumstances, when Mr. Sprimont became sole proprietor, and having amassed a fortune he travelled about England, and the manufactory was shut up about two years; for he neither would let it or carry it on himself.' After working at Bow for a short time Mason returned to Chelsea, where he remained till the works were purchased by Duesbury, with whom he went to Derby 'about the year 1763.' The story has some additional support, and there is a further link to connect the Duke of Cumberland with the undertaking, in the beautifully-modelled bust of him which was produced at the works; the bust is of plain white glazed porcelain, and represents the duke bareheaded with a cuirass on his breast. Alexander Stephens, a reputable writer and resident at Chelsea, where he died in 1821, speaks (fn. 7) of the Duke of Cumberland and Sir R. Faulkner as patrons of Chelsea china. He adds that the ware 'was a long time in such repute as to be sold by auction, and as a set was purchased as soon as baked, dealers were surrounding the door for that purpose.' The same writer tells us, on the authority of a foreman of the Chelsea factory who had become an inmate of St. Luke's workhouse, that Dr. Johnson thought he could improve the manufacture of china, and obtained permission to bake specimens of his manufacture in the Chelsea ovens. 'He was accordingly accustomed to go down with his housekeeper about twice a week, and staid the whole day, she carrying a basket of provisions along with her. The doctor . . . had free access to the oven and superintended the whole process, but completely failed, both as to composition and baking, for his materials always yielded to the intensity of the heat, while those of the company came out of the furnace perfect and complete.'
The site of the factory has been located at the west side of the river end of Lawrence Street. (fn. 8) Faulkner says (fn. 9) it was at the corner of Justice Walk, a portion of the river frontage running east from Lawrence Street to Church Street, and that it 'occupied the houses to the upper end of the street,' i.e. Lawrence Street. Part of the works was situated in Cheyne Row West, where large quantities of broken figures and bases were found during some excavations in 1843. Some time between 1750 and 1754 a warehouse was opened in Pall Mall for the sale of the Chelsea ware, and by February 1757 the warehouse had removed to Piccadilly. There is in the British Museum (fn. 10) a memorial (written after 1752) from 'the undertaker of the Chelsea porcelain,' who complains of the smuggling of Dresden porcelain into England. He states that he sold last winter to the value of £3,500, and employed one hundred persons. Writing in 1750 Jonas Hanway (fn. 11) says, 'It is with great satisfaction that I observe the manufactories of Bow, Chelsea, and Stepney (fn. 12) have made such a considerable progress; on the other hand it is equally a subject of horror to see so many shops in the streets of London supplied with the porcelain of Dresden, though it is importable only under oath of being for private use and not for sale.'
A public sale of the ware by auction was held in March and April 1754 at St. James's, Haymarket, and lasted fourteen days. 'The undertaker of this manufactory, having at a very great expense brought it to that perfection as to be allowed superior to any other attempts made in that way,' hopes for the encouragement of the public, 'more particularly as he is determined to submit the value entirely to their generosity, and likewise that he will positively not open his warehouses, nor exhibit any article to sale after this till next year.' A further sale, however, of five days took place in November-December following, confined to small and fancy objects, such as snuff-boxes, smelling-bottles, trinkets for watches, and knife-handles. These articles were 'in lots suitable for jewellers, goldsmiths, toy-shops, china-shops, cutlers, and workmen in those branches of business.' The second annual sale took place on 10 March 1755 and fifteen following days, and among the goods mentioned is 'a most magnificent and superbe lustre.' This is probably a lustre similar to that made for the Duke of Cumberland, described by Mrs. Delany, (fn. 13) who visited the duke's lodge at Windsor in June 1757. Here she saw a closet decorated in gold and green with shelves filled with china, 'in the middle hangs a lustre of Chelsea china that cost six hundred pounds and is really beautiful.' None of the catalogues of the earliest sales have survived, but that of the next sale, held on 29 March 1756 and fifteen following days, has been reprinted by Mr. Raphael W. Read, (fn. 14) and gives a valuable account of the output of the manufactory. There was then a great popular demand for china. A retail dealer at 'Mr. Foy's china shop opposite the King's Palace' advertises in March 1756 'upwards of one hundred thousand pieces of china ware,' including Old Japan, Dresden, and Chelsea porcelain. Much of Sprimont's best ware went abroad, as appears from the catalogue of a sale advertised in April 1756 of the stock of Laumas and Rolyat, Lisbon merchants, which included 'one hundred double dozen of Chelsea knives and forks, silvermounted.'
A crisis now occurred in the undertaking: Sprimont was taken ill, and announced by advertisement in February 1757 that though the manufactory had been much retarded, 'several curious things' had been finished and would be sold at the Piccadilly warehouse. The annual spring sales were resumed in 1759, and continued in 1760 and 1761. The close of the advertisement in 1761 ran thus:- 'The proprietor, N. Sprimont, after many years' intense application has brought this manufactory to its present perfection; but as his indisposition will not permit him to carry it on much longer, he takes the liberty to assure the nobility, gentry, and others, that next year will be the last sale he will offer to the public.' The sale was deferred till March 1763, when Sprimont announced that on account of his lameness the manufactory itself would shortly be disposed of. Another announcement of the intended sale of the stock and plant was made in January 1764, 'as Mr. Sprimont, the sole possessor of this rare porcelain secret, is advised to go to the German Spaw.' No sale appears to have taken place, and another sale (the last of the regular spring auctions) was held in March. It included what was probably a replica of the magnificent dessert service in mazarine blue and gold presented by the king and queen to the Duke of Mecklenburg, as it is described as 'the same as the royal pattern which was sold for £1,150.' At a sale of specimens of all the English porcelain manufactories at the Exhibition room, Spring Gardens, in July 1766, Chelsea dessert services were priced at from £17 to £150 the set.
M. P. J. Groslet, (fn. 15) who visited London in April 1765, speaks of the Chelsea manufactory as having just then fallen, and says he had heard that the county of Cornwall furnished the clay proper for making the porcelain.
The output from the factory now dwindled down to very small dimensions, but had not ceased in March 1768, when a dealer named Jones announced (fn. 16) for disposal porcelain 'even still brought from that noble manufactory.' Writing in April 1769 to Bentley, who was then at Liverpool, Josiah Wedgwood tells him 'the Chelsea moulds, models, &c., are to be sold . . . there's an immense amount of fine things.' From a later letter in July it appears that Wedgwood wished to purchase some of the plant, but was not prepared to buy the whole. (fn. 17) In May 1769 Sprimont announced a further sale of Chelsea porcelain, 'he having entirely left off making the same,' and made another unsuccessful effort to dispose by auction of the plant of his factory. In the following autumn Sprimont's connexion with the works ceased, and a hurried sale of the remaining stock took place in February 1770. In the catalogue of the sale of his pictures in March 1771 Sprimont is described as 'the late proprietor of the Chelsea porcelain manufactory who is retired into the country.' The business was bought by William Duesbury, probably early in 1770. Bemrose gives particulars (fn. 18) of the various leases of the site of the works in Lawrence Street, from which it appears that Sprimont held a lease for fourteen years, dated 3 March 1759, and on 15 August 1769 re-leased it to James Cox, who again leased the property on 9 February 1770 to William Duesbury and John Heath. Duesbury obtained a further lease on 25 March 1773 for seven years, being then no longer in partnership with Heath. On the expiration of his new lease in 1780 he took a lease for a single year, after which he leased the premises for three years more. In 1784 he gave up the property and finally closed the works.
On Sprimont's retirement the first purchaser of the works was James Cox, who on 17 August 1769 gave £600 for the mills, kilns, shops, warehouses, and all their contents in the premises at Lawrence Street. Cox being unable to carry on the business sold it within a few months, at a trifling profit, to Duesbury. Sprimont's managing foreman was Francis Thomas, who died just after his master's retirement. A lawsuit then arose between Duesbury and Burnsall the auctioneer, Thomas's executor, it being alleged that Thomas had concealed 'a great quantity of finished and unfinished porcelain to the amount of several hundred pounds.' The list of this porcelain is of value, as it shows the nature of the ware made prior to 1769. (fn. 19) Sprimont seems to have contemplated, or actually entered into, a partnership with Matthew Boulton for the sale of porcelain vases mounted with ormolu, but did not regain his health, and died in 1771. His artistic tastes are shown in his gallery of pictures which was sold by Mr. Christie in the same year.
William Duesbury was born on 7 September 1725, and as his work-book shows was working as an enameller in London in 1751. He afterwards worked at Longton Hall, and settled at Derby in 1755-6, when with the financial help of the Heaths, the Derby bankers, he purchased the site of the Derby Porcelain Works. By his ability, integrity, and indefatigable diligence, he became the proprietor of four factories, Bow, Chelsea, Longton Hall, and Derby, and at his death in 1786 was probably the largest manufacturer of porcelain of his time in England.
When the Chelsea business passed into Duesbury's hands the auction sales were resumed. The first was on 17 April 1771 and the three following days, the next in 1773, and then after an interval of four years they continued annually until 1785. The ware was announced sometimes as Derby and Chelsea, and sometimes as Chelsea alone; and specimens of the various wares were on permanent view at the warehouse in Bedford Street, Covent Garden.
Some particulars of the Chelsea factory are given in a conversation between Nollekens the sculptor and P. Betew, an art dealer:- (fn. 20)
Betew. Yes, and Sir James Thornhill designed for them. Mr. Walpole at Strawberry Hill has a dozen plates by Sir James which he purchased at Mrs. Hogarth's sale in Leicester Square. Paul Ferg painted for them.
Betew proceeded to ascribe the failure of these works to the refusal of the Chinese to allow any longer the importation of china clay into this country as ballast. Thornhill could not have designed for the Chelsea works, for he died in 1734, several years before their establishment; and the plates spoken of by Betew were of blue and white delf painted by Thornhill with the twelve signs of the zodiac in August 1711.
The Chelsea ware, as far as regards the composition of its body or paste, groups itself naturally into two divisions. The first includes the earliest productions down to 1756 or 1757. These are generally characterized (fn. 21) by an ivory-white or wax-white hue, and by considerable translucency, much glassy frit being employed in the paste, both glaze and body being very soft. The pieces, owing to this softness, were often distorted in firing, and resemble the porcelain of St. Cloud in the richness of their texture and tone. These early specimens were frequently left white, and their decoration consists almost exclusively of sprays of flowers and leaves, butterflies and other insects, with portions of the modelled ornament very simply lined in colours, and occasionally in gold. The decoration was not always executed at the Chelsea factory. Parcels of white ware, glazed but not decorated, were frequently sold to artists who painted them in enamel colours to suit the requirements of dealers. William Duesbury, as appears from his work-book already mentioned, (fn. 22) decorated in this way pieces of ware from Chelsea, Bow, and other factories. Burton (fn. 23) has classified the productions of the early period under eight heads:-
2. Pieces with Oriental decoration: square and hexagonal cups, saucers, plates, and dishes in the Japanese style. The decoration is often in blue under-glaze in imitation of the Chinese pieces, or in red and gold on the glaze after the style of Japan.
3. Leaf dishes. These are generally decorated with a brown or pink-lined edge, and have the veins of the leaves touched in with the same colour. Little sprays of flowers, leaves and insects are scattered over the surface.
6. Porcelain trinkets and toys. The famous Chelsea trinkets comprised a charming series of small, delicately-modelled figures, bouquets, animals, groups and single heads, intended to be mounted in gold, and worn on chains. These made their appearance in the first period, but continuing in great demand were produced down to the close of the factory.
7. Statuettes and groups of figures. Chelsea was famous for these from an early period. The simpler groups and figures, slightly decorated and with very little gold, were probably produced first. These early figures include the bust of the Duke of Cumberland, figures emblematical of the Continents, the Seasons, the Senses, and the monkey orchestra. With these must be classed the birds perched on stumps and enamelled in naturalistic colours, of which there are many fine examples in the Schreiber bequest.
8. Green enamel decoration. Pieces of this class were produced during the early years, but at a later date also. On a perfectly white ground, landscapes, often with ruins, were finely outlined in purple, and then a very glossy green enamel was thickly washed over the scene. Dishes, plates, and particularly toilet sets, were frequently decorated in this way. The exquisite scent-bottles which appear in the sale catalogues of 1754 and 1756 frequently bear French inscriptions (sometimes incorrectly spelt), and were long mistaken for productions of the Sèvres manufactory.
The productions of the latter period of the works have two important characteristics, the presence of bone-ash in the paste, and the extensive use of rich coloured grounds with lavish gold decoration. In 1759 the works took a new development in striking contrast to the two preceding years, when through Sprimont's illness the output first slackened and then almost ceased. New experiments were now made, and the use of bone-ash produced a body mixture which was more manageable and therefore less costly in practice. The first departure from the simplicity of the early style is the introduction of a rich mazarineblue ground, a few examples of which appear in the sale catalogue of 1756. Other ground colours soon appeared, and were often employed to cover the main body of the vase or dish, a space being left white to receive painted floral or figure subjects. Pea-green and turquoise-blue were invented at Chelsea in 1758 or 1759, and the claret for which the factory became so famous in 1759 also. This colour was imitated at Dresden and at Sèvres; the Rose-Pompadour, which was the pride of Sèvres, appears in a Chelsea catalogue of 1771. These colours were enamelled-that is applied over the fired glaze-differing from the blue under-glaze of the earlier period. The gilding of the latter period is far superior to that of any other contemporary English porcelain, but came at last to be so lavishly used as to destroy all artistic effect. The style of decoration was entirely altered; instead of the simple use of flowers, birds or insects, carelessly thrown over their surface, the pieces of this later period are richly decorated with brilliant colours, ambitious paintings and excessive gildings. The form of the pieces also underwent a change. Large and elaborate vases in extravagant rococo style, but exhibiting the highest technical skill, were produced in great numbers, and the subjects painted on their panels now owed their entire inspiration to the school of Watteau, Boucher, and other French artists. The statuettes of this later period were larger and more important than the earlier works, and many of them were modelled by Roubiliac, who lived in England from 1744 to 1762. Some of his works have an R impressed on the paste, but many are not so distinguished. The following may safely be considered as from his design: 'The Music Lesson' in the Victoria and Albert Museum; 'Shakespeare'; 'Apollo and the Muses'; 'The Four Seasons'; and a group of a man playing a hurdy-gurdy and a lady teaching a dog to dance.
The use of raised flowers grew in this later period to an extraordinary excess. This form of decoration began with festoons and wreaths of flowers on the shoulders of vases or hanging down their sides; then little figures were made in combination with flowers and foliage; and finally elaborate boscage pieces were produced, of which 'The Music Lesson' is an excellent example. The earliest mark of Chelsea ware was an incised triangle, but this is seldom found and may have been only a workman's mark. The most general Chelsea mark is an anchor. In its earliest form the anchor is found in low relief upon an embossed ground. At a later date the anchor was drawn by the enameller or gilder, usually in red, but also in purple and sometimes in gilt; occasionally in later pieces two gold anchors occur side by side.