Plymouth porcelain sauceboat

© Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

Within the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery sits the largest collection of Plymouth porcelain with over 600 items.

Amongst these are two sauceboats and a teapot which might seem fairly normal at first glance. But turn them upside down and the inscriptions on the undersides reveal that they hold a very special status. They are, in fact, some of the very final items to be produced at the 18th century Plymouth porcelain factory.

Why was this particular factory so special? It was actually the first place in the UK to produce true porcelain. The Quaker and chemist William Cookworthy, who had a shop on Notte Street, not only discovered China Clay deposits in Cornwall but also realised they could be used to make porcelain.

Having discovered China Clay in the 1740s, Cookworthy spent the next 20 or so years trying to make it into porcelain. This was easier said than done though.

The aim was to produce porcelain like the Chinese – sometimes referred to as ‘hard paste’ porcelain. Only the Chinese knew the recipe and methods for making this however, and they weren’t sharing their secret!

In Germany, at Meissen in 1708, a factory became the first in Europe to produce true porcelain, but they weren’t giving anything away either.

Cookworthy had to use his own knowledge as a chemist and a lot of trial and error to work out how to mix the China Clay in the right quantities. He then had to experiment with firing the porcelain as well as decorating it. This took a long time but finally, in 1768, he was able to patent porcelain production in Plymouth.

He leased a warehouse in Coxside – now the site of the China House pub – where he based his factory which had two tall kilns.

The production of porcelain was such a great achievement that Cookworthy wanted to mark this momentous occasion.

The British Museum actually has one of the products from the very first firing in its collections – a tiny blue and white coffee can. This remarkable piece is dated with 1768 and bears the Plymouth Coat of Arms.

marking on Plymouth porcelain sauceboatThe two sauceboats and teapot in our collection shows the other end of the spectrum and the final firing at Plymouth. This happened in 1770 after the factory had been running for only two years.

Usually, factories used very small marks to identify pieces. Cookworthy’s Plymouth factory used a mark that looks like a 2 and a 4 together – the alchemist’s sign for tin.

Dated ceramics with a full inscription like these are very rare and quite remarkable. To have three dated pieces in our collection marking the factory’s last firing is very significant.

You can find out more about Plymouth porcelain by visiting our ceramics collections page.

Alison Cooper, Curator of Decorative Art. This article was first published on 1 July 2014.