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Recipient of the 2012 American Ceramic Circle Book Award

Letitia Roberts | May 12th, 2013

A Book Review

 

Liverpool Porcelain 1756-1804
by Maurice Hillis
Maurice Hillis, 2011, 570 pages, hardbound, £60 plus S/H from (www.TheLiverpoolPorcelainBook.weebly.com)


In his foreword to this groundbreaking tome, Geoffrey Godden leaps from his long-occupied English porcelain pedestal to exclaim, “This is the most welcome and eagerly awaited of books.” Godden, who is not prone to exaggeration, has expressed the sentiments of the entire English porcelain community in saying that Dr. Maurice Hillis (with his wife, Lyn) produced a work of extraordinary magnitude and clarity. The subject had remained murky for nearly two centuries, and the work of Hillis has raised an entire city and its porcelain production from the “convenient ceramic dustbin” to an intriguing subject and a desirable class of wares.

Possibly because no records survive from what Hillis has discovered were the nine principal factories on seven different sites in Liverpool during the second half of the 18th century, a startling amount of misinformation became traditional knowledge over the years. The two books published by the collector/scholars Knowles Boney in 1957 and Bernard Watney in 1997 largely served to exacerbate the problem. As a collector/scholar himself, Hillis—who watched as the archaeologists in London first excavated at the site of the Vauxhall factory shards of the porcelain previously attributed to “William Ball of Liverpool” and then at the site of the short-lived Limehouse factory shards previously attributed to “William Reid of Liverpool”—realized that his ongoing work on the actual Liverpool production was gaining validity and urgency.

Liverpool Porcelain 1756-1804 is a masterwork based on years of exhaustive and thoroughly documented research. Hillis delved into Liverpool’s city archives, maps, letters, church records, and other original documents; he studied extant pieces in collections and shards from excavations in Britain and North America; and he confirmed, as well as disproved, previous suppositions with scientific analysis. The result is a book that at last focuses the “blurred identity” of what used to be attributed to Liverpool and now, with near certainty,can be attributed to Liverpool. We have Liverpool porcelain’s “Eureka!” moment.

Commendably, from what could have been a ponderous subject throbbing with his own vast expertise, Hillis creates a compelling narrative and treats the complicated subject with a refreshing absence of academic artifice and arrogance. His style is highly readable, without any presupposition of the reader’s knowledge or acquaintance with ceramic history or terminology. Unlike so many absorbed scholars, he offers well-reasoned theories and suppositions rather than dogmatic and self-congratulatory pronouncements, revealing a humility that ironically serves to enhance the reader’s confidence.

The book is handsomely produced on heavy paper with satisfactorily large type and beautifully reproduced illustrations, and with useful captions and distinct references (in bold type) to each within the text. It is very well organized. It begins with the acknowledgements, where the author lists almost every revered name in the field—a mere hint of how greatly respected Dr. Hillis has become and how willing his colleagues were to lend a hand on a subject everyone agreed was in dire need of exploration, correction, and expansion. Following the table of contents is the aforementioned foreword by Geoffrey Godden (who, for his own prolific scholarship, is referred to in the English porcelain world as “The God”) and the author’s preface. The subject is then covered in 15 chapters. The first two deal with “Liverpool and Ceramics” and an “Overview of the eighteenth century Liverpool porcelain factories,” followed by nine chapters on the individual manufactories, an illuminating chapter on “Underglaze blue printed patterns on Liverpool porcelain,” a chapter on the rare “Dated Liverpool Porcelain,” another on “Overglaze Printing on Liverpool Porcelain,” and finally a useful chapter on “Marketing and Distribution of Liverpool Porcelain.” He ends with a short “Select Bibliography” and “Picture Acknowledgements,” and an index.

The chapters on the factories are consistently and clearly organized into subdivisions: background information; a discussion of the factory’s history, geography, personnel, the type of porcelain produced (bone-ash or soaprock), bankruptcies, etc.; advertising and promotion; marks and dated pieces, if any are known; features of identification and attribution with comparisons to similar features in the products of the other factories; the decoration (illustrating characteristic and uncharacteristic types of painting, printing, and modeling); and the wares (listing, discussing, and illustrating the variety of shapes produced).

Of particular interest to the American reader are the important connections that Hillis mentions in several chapters between the city of Liverpool, its ceramic production (by 1710 delftware and by circa 1756 porcelain), and the expanding trade with the West Indies, North America, and Africa. The expanding trade involved coal, salt, slaves, and increasingly ceramics—no small element in Liverpool’s boom-town prosperity and growth in the 18th century.

It is in one magnificent (and at £60 [about $95] stunningly underpriced) book “everything you ever wanted to know about Liverpool porcelain, but had nobody to ask.” The book, which gently but firmly (and even amusingly) debunks some of the long-held theories based largely on convenient but erroneous conclusions, is a clear demonstration of how far ceramic scholarship has advanced in the past quarter century. The new thinking and attributions are based on archival documentation and archaeological evidence. By eliminating the ossifying uncertainties from the heretofore stultifying subject of Liverpool porcelain, Hillis has flung open the door for further scholars, historians, curators, collectors, dealers, and archaeologists in Great Britain, and especially in America and the West Indies, to reexamine, reattribute, and dig for new evidence and closer connections between the production and the trade in porcelain from Liverpool.

Reading Liverpool Porcelain 1756-1804 was both a pleasure and an enlightening experience. It was a privilege to recommend it enthusiastically and without reservation for the 2012 American Ceramic Circle Book Award, which it received, and which was announced in November 2012 at the organization’s annual symposium.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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