Belleek China and the History of Irish Pottery

Belleek China and the History of Irish Pottery

Posted by Julia Brodsky on 17th Oct 2018

Like many other forms of Irish decorative arts, Irish porcelain and companies like Belleek china, as well as traditional Irish pottery, have roots in ancient history—pottery fragments of coil pots from roughly 6000 years ago have been found in Irish burial mounds and tombs. Scholars estimate that these pieces were likely air-dried instead of fired. “Firing” refers to the heating process through which clay is hardened; the majority of pottery today is fired in kilns, but some older, more traditional practices still exist. The Normans introduced the potter’s wheel to Ireland in the 13th century, which streamlined the creation process of clay vessels, but pottery did not become seen as an art form in Ireland until nearly 600 years later.

For many years, pottery was less an art form than a necessity in Ireland, as it was in many other countries. Clay vessels were necessary to store food and beverages, and though decorative pottery began to flourish in the Mediterranean areas of Europe with classical Minoan, Greek, and Roman cultures, it normally served a strictly utilitarian purpose for the majority of ancient European cultures. It wasn’t until the global exportation of fine porcelain goods from Eastern Asia that pottery pieces as decorative art took real hold in places like Ireland and the British Isles.

Ancient Greek pottery depicting athletes and animals, 540 BC. (Carole Raddato / Flickr)

First, a quick overview of pottery in general:

There are three main types of pottery: earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. Earthenware is pottery that has been fired at lower temperatures and is nonvitreous. Vitreous comes from vitreum, the Latin word for “glass,” and refers to materials that have been converted into glass or a glasslike substance, most typically by exposure to heat. All primitive pottery falls under this category, and the earliest examples of it were pit-fired, a process that goes back as far as 29,000 B.C. Because it is not fired at sufficiently high temperatures, it remains slightly porous and must be glazed to be liquid-tight. It also is slightly soft and is easily scratched.

Stoneware refers to a large class of pottery that is kiln-fired at higher temperatures than earthenware, which makes it harder and more durable. Some—though not all—stoneware is vitreous and it is all nonporous, whether or not it is glazed. The earliest examples of stoneware come from China, as far back as 1900 B.C., where their technological advances allowed for firing clay at much higher temperatures than their European contemporaries. Stoneware production did not begin in Europe until the Middle Ages. Most modern commercial tableware and kitchenware is stoneware rather than porcelain or bone china, and it is the type most commonly used in studio and craft pottery.

A traditional Chinese blue and white vase from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). (World Imaging / Wikimedia Commons)

Much of the fine tableware that your grandmother only brings out on special occasions is made of porcelain (bone china is a type of porcelain). It is fired at the highest temperatures and is tough, strong, and often translucent—all of these qualities arise from the vitrification that occurs during firing. Porcelain also typically has a higher amount of the mineral kaolin than other forms of pottery. It is impermeable once fired, even before it is glazed. Porcelain production began in China, as the Chinese had perfected much more efficient firing processes than Europe as early as the third century. By 1368, the beginning of the Ming dynasty (which ended in 1644), Chinese porcelain was being exported to Europe. It became so popular and was so valued that it was often called “china” instead of the Italian word, porcelain. The has stuck through today. Though porcelain pieces often appear thin and delicate—the translucence often heightens this effect—it is incredibly durable and is easily handed down in families through generations.

Porcelain making in Ireland came to the fore in the mid-19th century with the establishment and immediate popularity of Belleek Pottery.

In 1849, John Caldwell Bloomfield inherited his father’s estate in the small market town of Belleek (it’s Irish name is beal leice, which translates to “flagstone ford”), County Fermanagh. The Irish Famine was coming to an end, and Bloomfield was all too aware of the destruction it had wrought on the country; he desired to provide his inherited tenants with some form of livelihood. He happened to be an amateur mineralogist, as well, and thought to order a geological survey of his land. This was a canny move, especially since his estate was fortuitously rich in kaolin, feldspar, flint, clay, and shale—the minerals necessary for clay. The River Erne was also situated nearby and powerful enough to drive a mill wheel capable of grinding those minerals into the liquid needed to form clay (called “slip” in potter’s parlance).

Bloomfield quickly acquired two business partners: Irish-born London architect Robert Williams Armstrong and Dublin merchant David Birney. Bloomfield also used his considerable influence to pull all the strings necessary for the newly-established rail service to construct a train line to Belleek. The railway line would have the dual benefit of bringing coal to fire the kilns for making Belleek china and taking the completed pottery to market.

Once Bloomfield and his partners had all their resources in place, they began drawing up plans for the final piece of the puzzle—the pottery building itself. In 1858, Mrs. Bloomfield laid the foundation stone of the structure.

Despite the fact that Bloomfield began the enterprise of the pottery with his tenants’ welfare and employment in mind, his partner Armstrong insisted on bringing in experienced potters from Stoke-on-Trent, understanding the company’s success depended on employing skilled craftsmen.

And succeed they did. While the pottery initially began by producing quality stoneware for domestic use—tiles, pestles, mortars, washstands, and tableware—Armstrong and McBirney hoped to expand Belleek’s offerings to include finer pieces that showcased the level of artistry that had developed in pottery. This meant, of course, utilizing porcelain, specifically parian. Parian ware is a form of bisque porcelain that resembles white Parian marble, hence its name. It was invented in 1845 by potters in Staffordshire, England. It was often used for creating figurines, such as might be made from marble, but also for small dishes. One major advantage of using parian is that it can be created in liquid form and poured into molds for large-scale production.

The first few attempts at parian ware failed, but by 1863, a few small pieces entered the Belleek china collection. Only two years later, only seven years after construction on the pottery began, the company had a strong market in Ireland and was exporting pieces to England, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Even Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales made large orders of the company’s porcelain. The Dublin Exposition featured a large display of Belleek china, which included several pieces of parian statues, busts, and ornate tableware.

By 1884, all three of the original partners had passed away, and a group of local investors purchased the property and the pottery business, which they renamed Belleek Pottery Company Works, Ltd. Nine years later, the company brought on English craftsman and designer Frederick Slater, who moved from Stoke-on-Trent and headed Belleek’s design department for the following forty years.

The first World War brought with it many restrictions on exports, causing Belleek’s business to suffer. In 1920, the company sold for £10,000 to mill owner Bernard O’Rourke. This was also the year in which production switched its focus from basic tableware to porcelain. However, World War II caused many similar challenges to WWI with its rationing of coal and drying of the export markets. In those years, the company produced utility earthenware pieces fired at lower temperatures and managed to survive as a business.

Belleek China Shamrock Cup and Saucer.

The basketweave and shamrock design has been a mainstay of Belleek's porcelain since the 1880s.

After the wars, new technology had allowed kilns to become more efficient, and the new kilns installed in the factory only needed nine tons of coal to operate, whereas the old ones had required 19 tons. At the same time, the company began to produce parian ware with greater emphasis—a move so successful the old kilns could not keep up. In 1952, modern electric kilns were installed to keep pace with the high volume of orders. In 1966, many of the older workshops were replaced, as well. Decorative tastes had begun changing, however, and there was less interest in decorative and ornate parian ware in the 1970s. The decade was tumultuous for the business, and Belleek Pottery Limited changed ownership several times in the 1980s. In 1989, however, the company opened a visitors’ center, and the following year, it was purchased by Erne Heritage Investments, owned by Dundalk-born, American-based businessman George Moore.

Since then, Belleek china has flourished and now operates as a group of decorative art and gift brands, including Galway Irish Crystal, Aynsley China, and Donegal China. The company employs over 600 people and still operates on the original site in County Fermanagh, though the enterprise has grown far beyond a humble pottery. There is now also a museum and a tea room for tourists and porcelain enthusiasts to enjoy during their visit to Belleek Pottery. “Belleek Living,” a collection established in 2003, added to the company’s offerings with a more modern and casual line of dining and giftware, which allows customers to enjoy Belleek along with their diverse decorative choices.

Every piece of Belleek china goes through a rigorous creation and inspection process, which the company refers to as the 16 Hands, as 16 different artisans are responsible for every piece sold to the public. From design, molding, firing (each piece is fired three times!) to packaging, each item of Belleek porcelain undergoes intense scrutiny. There are four different inspections in the the 16 Hands process, and if at any time a piece is deemed less than perfect, it is discarded, ensuring that every plate, every mug, every tiny salt shaker that enters a customer’s home is flawless.

The first step of the process is the design phase, in which Belleek’s design and marketing team collaborate to create drawings of new items or concepts. All accepted designs are then modeled in full detail using plaster or clay. From there, a mold is built—except with the case of Belleek’s famous baskets and flowers, which are all made by hand—and filled with slip. Once the slip dries into clay it can be removed from the mold and next, fettled (trimmed and perfected). After it dries completely, the piece enters the riskiest stage of production—biscuit firing, named for the slang term given to fired clay pieces. In the first firing, contraction of the clay occurs, and if the clay is cooled too quickly, it can very easily shatter. After biscuit firing, all pieces—now referred to as “biscuit”—undergo inspection.

All pieces that pass inspection are dipped in Belleek’s signature white glaze, which is formulated to give the finished items a slight pearlescent sheen, then fired again. If they do not retain any defects after this stage, they are stamped with the company’s trademark stamp. Next, any pieces that require decoration, including those with text or the delicate shamrock pattern for which Belleek is famous, are painted by hand. One final firing fixes the painted designs to the glazed surface, and all remaining items receive one final inspection. All perfect items are then packed with care—and lots of tissue paper—and are sent to their new homes all over the world.

Today, Belleek is the oldest craft pottery in Ireland, and just last year (2017), they celebrated their 160th year in business with the Belleek Archive Collection, for which they combed through their design archives to create 16 distinct pieces representing the different decades in the company’s long history. Each piece received a number and Belleek marks in the form of a Limited Edition backstamp—they are a must-have for any collectors of the company’s beautiful, delicate porcelain.

Though Irish craft stoneware has experienced a resurgence of popularity in recent decades, Belleek remains the country’s mainstay for porcelain, especially parian. Their offerings are not limited to tableware, either—their picture frames, vases, and wall ornaments make timeless gifts for anniversaries, birthdays, and housewarmings. After the company’s extensive and storied past, their design prowess is unparalleled, as is their commitment to quality and to ensuring every customer receives a flawless piece of Irish heritage.