Belleek — The Beauty of Ireland

By Tom Cotter, Photos by Tom Cotter
   Sometimes from tragedy is born beauty. Following the great Potato Famine in the 1840s, John Caldwell Bloomfield decided to help the populace on the Castle Caldwell Estate along River Erne at the village of Belleek, Northern Ireland. He had found pottery and china quality materials and identified peat, water power, and available labor on the Caldwell Estate around 1850. Bloomfield sought capital and expertise to provide jobs and income on the estate. Through a chance meeting with Robert Williams Armstrong, a London architect, inventor, and ceramics aficionado, he found a willing co-conspirator. Armstrong partnered with Dublin investor and Caldwell friend David McBirney, brought English potters to supervise and train personnel, and designed and built the famous Belleek factory. Armstrong also arranged a train line to bring coal for kilns and remove finished products. While initial products starting about 1857 were primarily porous, lower temperature-fired earthenware, such as telegraph insulators, shaving mugs, kitchenware, and so on, in 1863 Belleek began producing its famous Parian porcelain/china, as well as high-fired stoneware. The kaolin-based porcelain became the hallmark of the factory. A series of marks (Black 1, 1863-90; Black 2, 1891-1926; Black 3, 1926-46; Green 1, 1946-55; Green 2, 1955-65; Green 3, 1965-80, + eleven more) were stamped on products from then until the present. (photo 1) Despite periodic financial difficulties beginning with the death of the founding partners in the 1880s after which locals bought the factory, Belleek has been a grand and gorgeous Irish tradition, weathering wars and downturns. Unique pieces have been designed and produced for royalty in Great Britain and other nobility particularly following a gold medal at the 1856 Dublin Exposition. Exports to the United States, Canada, and Australia ensued.
   The process has changed little in 150 years. Starting with mixed Parian raw materials (“China clay, feldspar, ground flint glass, frit, and water…”)1 the “slip” is poured into plaster of paris molds. Set up for a given time, each piece is removed from its mold, “fettled” which clarifies the pattern, trims excess, and adds extra parts (handles, spouts, lids, etc.), then dried and sent to a biscuit kiln. Initially biscuit firing at ~1,200o C for about 6 hours precedes scouring (inspecting and cleaning), dipping in a nacreous glaze, gloss kiln firing at ~1,000o C for a mother-of-pearl finish, painting and decorating, enamel kiln firing at 650-750o C, inspecting, trademarking, wrapping, and warehousing. This is a minimum six days in process; additional time is necessary for baskets and flowered pieces. Though labor-intensive and time-consuming, Belleek craftsmen create some of the most delicate, stunning porcelain in the world.
   For the collector, the selection is vast. In many pieces, age often determines the rarity and price of a piece or set. Belleek artists created statuary made as busts of Dickens, Shakespeare, Gladstone, the Queen of hops, and others. Other figurines include children, Venus, Meditation, St. Patrick, leprechauns, and many others. These may be unusual and pricy, as a “Prince of Wales” Icepail, originally designed for Prince Albert, can still be found on the factory website for $4,800 U.S. Made on order only. For the more budget conscious, cats, pigs, dogs, frogs, owls, swans, fish, fantastic dolphins, and other creatures are collectible.
   Intricate baskets are and were made from a dried slip and gum arabic mixture, which is more resilient than the normal porcelain. All basket parts have been produced by hand; plaited bottoms, extruded basket rods attached to the bottoms as lattice work. Flower petals, stems, buds, twigs, and shamrocks have always been individually hand-formed, carefully combined, and attached. Leaves were and are molded. Even the smallest basket has 273 “separate and distinct parts: twenty seven panels of four rods each, plus sixteen flowers and shamrocks of more than 165 separate segments.”2  Baskets are hand-packed in a sand-filled refractory basin lined with paper before firing to maintain structural integrity. All this leads to exquisite detail.
   Tea sets and accompanying wares may be the most recognizable and popular collectible items of Belleek china, particularly Shamrock Ware, with its woven basket and shamrock-decorated forms. Particularly unique are many sea-inspired designs, provided by Robert Armstrong’s talented wife, Anne. These include lines such in Limpet, Neptune (a mixture of whelk and cockle shells, I believe), Tridacna (giant clams), Echinus (sea urchin), and Shell (scallops and coral), found in individual pieces and sets. Rare older tea sets may have dragons, geese and grass, thorns, artichokes, bamboo, Celtic designs, Claddagh pieces, hexagons, lilies, masks, and thistles, among others.
   Holy Water fonts, crosses, and other religious items are available, along with a series of Christmas plates. Vases and containers appear in an amazing variety of forms and sizes.  Candlesticks, jugs, flower pots, and center pieces can be sought out. I have seen some amazing sets and pieces at the World Wide Antique and Vintage Shows (coming in March and June to Denver), as well as pieces on EBay and Etsy. Of course, as noted earlier, there is an active Belleek website for current production and information. Periods from 1926 through 1980 contain in the trademark the words “DEANTA IN EIREANN” (made in Ireland). May it continue so.
   I am grateful to Peggy and Jon DeStefano for supporting collectors through the Mountain States Collector. (Bibliography available upon request at Footnotes: 1 Richard K. Degenhart, Belleek, The Complete Collector’s Guide and Illustrated Reference, Second Edition, p. 48, 1993 2 ibid, p 57.

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