The art of decorating pottery by hand using sponge printing is nothing new. Some of the Minoan ceramics from 4,000 years ago on display in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, Crete, are decorated with basic sponge stippling. But the technique evolved in Britain during the 19th century, when potteries in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland began to use fine-pored sponges cut into shapes to print simple, coloured patterns on to inexpensive earthenware.
Key potteries included Llanelly in south Wales and David Methven & Sons in Kirkcaldy, east Scotland, which both produced a vast amount. Notable English potteries such as George Jones and WM Adams & Co were also big producers. Confusingly for dealers and collectors alike, copying was rife and many potteries didn’t mark their pieces.
Antiques dealer Robert Young, who has a personal spongeware collection of 150 pieces, says a lot of it was unmarked because it was decorated by individuals at home. ‘It was a cottage industry. Women would pick up cheap blanks from the pottery, sponge them on the kitchen table, then return them for the second firing.’ Because it was so cheap, it was well used and so only a relatively small amount has survived intact.
‘It was the kind of tableware you’d find in a farmhouse kitchen, used to serve porridge and soup to farm workers who lived in little bothies,’ says Becca Gauldie, an antiques dealer who started collecting spongeware at the age of 12, after gathering broken shards on beaches near Kirkcaldy. ‘Lots of it got scorched because it was kept resting on the range and people often poured hot dripping into spongeware bowls, which got right into the pottery and discoloured it.’
As such, collections are rare – even the Victoria and Albert Museum only has a small selection of relatively refined mid 18th-century sponged creamware from Staffordshire potteries on show. So where are the rural 19th-century pieces from Welsh, Scottish and Irish potteries? The answer seems to be that savvy collectors are snapping it up. Tim Bowen, an expert in Welsh spongeware, has noticed the trend.
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‘There’s been a recent resurgence in interest. When I started dealing 25 years ago, all the weekend auctions in Wales would have spongeware but now it’s harder to find and consequently prices have steadily gone up.’ Prices vary according to condition, age and design, but rare pieces can fetch thousands of pounds. ‘I sold a collection of 25 pieces of blue and white spongeware pottery from the 1800s for £6,500 recently,’ says Robert Young.
Small single items such as mugs can be quite affordable though, starting at around £40 each in antiques shops. It’s the simplicity of spongeware that draws many collectors to it today. Rudimentary spongeware was often, as Emma Bridgewater affectionately describes it, ‘a bit slapdash’. There are smudges, wonky patterns and mysterious gaps in otherwise unbroken friezes.
Dealer Tim Bowen has one piece in his own collection that he can’t bear to part with. ‘It’s a humble little mug, with the name “Dolly” on it. It’s not the most valuable piece – I have sold pristine, early blue and white spongeware mugs for £500 each – but it’s so sweet and personal.’
Robert Young prefers unusual pieces such as the mustard pot he currently has in stock, priced at £220. ‘It wasn’t just crockery that was decorated using sponges,’ says Tim Bowen. ‘We have a late 19th-century spongeware toothbrush holder for £110.’
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‘Japanese collectors love blue and white patterns because that’s what they’re familiar with, while ex-pats in Canada and America want nostalgic animal motifs but children’s porridge bowls with mottoes always sell well to everyone,’ says Becca Gauldie, who has a patriotic World War I design in stock, with the music hall lyric ‘It’s a long long way to Tipperary’ emblazoned inside, for £225.
The fact that spongeware is so robust and useable today is a big plus for buyers. ‘It doesn’t need to be put in a glass cabinet,’ says Tim Bowen. ‘The odd chip or hairline crack doesn’t matter when you’re serving up salads and stews on a daily basis. We have pieces at home that we use all the time. We mix them up with modern spongeware and it all looks great together on the dresser.’
Where to buy antique spongeware
Where to see antique spongeware
- Highland Folk Museum has around 20 pieces of spongeware on permanent display
- Kirkcaldy Museum & Art Gallery has a good display of spongeware from Kirkcaldy potteries. Make an appointment with the curator to view more in the archives.
What to read on antique spongeware
- Scottish Pottery by Graeme Cruickshank (Osprey Publishing, 2008)
- Spongeware: 1835-1935, Makers, Marks and Patterns by Henry Kelly and Arnold & Dorothy Kowalsky (Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2001)
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