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The transferware engraver: training, practice and scope at the Spode Works

Halliday, Richard (2018) The transferware engraver: training, practice and scope at the Spode Works. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This investigation focuses on the transferware engraver at the Spode Works. Transfer-printing on earthenware arose as an attempt to replicate the look of eastern ceramics. Spode Works began producing transferware in 1784, and made significant improvements to the process, widening the market across the classes. Transferware patterns could be derived from Chinese-export wares, extant printed images known as source prints, in-house designs or other transferware products. The designs were cut into copper-plates with simple hand-tools by skilled, trained engravers. Prints in underglaze colour were taken from the copper-plates, applied to the blank ware, glazed, and fired to form the product. The research aims were both historical and transformative. (1) To support the preservation of Britain’s largest and most complete archive of hand-engraved copper-plates used in the production of transferware: a repository of craft and design knowledge. The Spode archive contains most of the production plates spanning the factory’s life, 1784 to 2008, and representing all styles and techniques. Due to the intrinsic material value, such archives face rationalisation; the Minton case being known from publication. (2) To ascertain the scope of work undertaken by the engravers and define their role in image selection and adaptation as mediators at the interface between design and production, subjects hitherto insufficiently defined. (3) To define the engravers’ artistic status during key stages of the factory’s life, and to examine their degree of specialisation. (4) To investigate the nature and experience of apprenticeship training for transferware engraving through extant engravings and apprentice’s accounts. Connoisseurship study of archival copper-plates alongside source-work, ceramics and literature formed the basis of the multiple-aspect approach. Within the compass of this thesis, two in-depth case studies are presented that demonstrate surprising continuity in the industry with engraving processes remaining substantially the same over the course of two centuries. The role that the engraver played in working source images or designs into transferware patterns had been poorly understood; it has emerged that the transferware engraver is an intermediary translator of imagery rather than a designer, and authorship in a transferware pattern is multiple. Interviews with those who formerly worked in the industry, documentation of the engraving process from start to finish and a brief personal engraving apprenticeship experience provided detailed primary evidence of engraving from the perspective of the insider. An engravers’ apprenticeship is learning by observation and practice where coordination between tool, hand, eye and brain are internalised. This research expands knowledge of engraving techniques and practices in a specialist area hitherto ignored in the engraving literature. It offers new historical understanding of the role of the engraver as intermediary between design and production. The research points out diagnostic features for understanding the material evidence of copper-plates. Detailed comparisons including micrographic images demonstrate the stratified evidence contained within large object archives (Spode) and small design archives (Mountford tissue pulls), evidence threatened by selective rather than comprehensive retention. It provides thoroughgoing assessment of practical techniques for digitisation and replication of copper-plates so that archive originals can be spared routine handling and security risks. Finally, the research highlights the Spode copper-plate archive as a repository of major importance for the study of craft and design.

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