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Researching and Recognizing Enameled Collectibles


Though it is usually easy to decide whether an enameled object was made at Battersea or in South Staffordshire, it is difficult to attribute a piece which does not fit into either of these categories to one of the other possible sources. The extent of the problem will be realized when it is recalled that the Sadler factory at Liverpool and the smaller independent decorators purchased the boxes, plaques, and other forms that they used, ready-made with a white enamel ground applied to them. Their part was confined to decorating the white-enameled objects with scenes painted in polychrome or, in the case of Liverpool, with transfer prints. The mounts were obtained from the same manufacturers who supplied the South Staffordshire enamellers. Thus the only difference between the work of the Staffordshire group and that of the independent enamellers lies in the painted or printed ornament.

Birmigham Enamels

In Birmingham the most important enterprise was the Soho factory of Boulton and Fothergill, and some experts suggest that many of the more important pieces must have been made by this firm. It may well be that they manufactured the copper forms and ormolu mounts which were used by the South Staffordshire enamellers, but there is no positive evidence that any of the pieces painted with scenes were decorated at Soho. The Boulton factory is chiefly remarkable for its so-called Sheffield plate, for ormolu, and for silver objects, mostly candlesticks, made of thin stamped sheet silver.

English Porcelain Cabbage Leaf Jug with  polychrome Enamel -  late 18thC
English Porcelain Cabbage Leaf Jug with polychrome Enamel - late 18thC

There are groups of objects, all enameled a turquoise-blue color, which can be attributed with reasonable certainty to the Boulton factory, because they are stamped from the same dies as were used for silver pieces bearing the Boulton mark. They include candlesticks with spiral or fluted stems and knives and forks with spirally fluted handles. Other objects, painted in the same turquoise blue may be attributed to Birmingham because they have ormolu mounts from the Boulton factory. These include covered vases, sometimes with reversible covers which could be turned over and used as candlesticks. All these pieces are designed in the Greek neo-classical style of the late eighteenth century and are probably not earlier than 1770. In comparison with the great quantities of South Staffordshire enamels, these monochrome Boulton pieces are extremely rare and not as attractive.

The Boulton enamels are of late date, but there are literary references to enameling in Birmingham earlier. A certain John Taylor, a button maker by trade, is credited with having introduced to Birmingham the manufacture of painted snuffboxes. He died in 1775 and may have been making enamels by 1750, but so far no pieces have been discovered that can be attributed to his factory. He died a rich man and was evidently in business in a big way.

Liverpool Enamels

The Sadler factory at Liverpool offers fewer problems since its productions were confined to printed enamels. The firm of Sadler and Green began to produce transfer-printed tiles in 1756. A few signed Sadler enamels exist; others can be recognized because they bear the same transfers as Liverpool tiles; but hitherto few designs have been attributed to Liverpool, and the Schreiber Collection Catalogue gives the great majority of transfer-printed enamels to the South Staffordshire factories. The tile factory at Liverpool was functioning as late as 1799, and probably a great many of the transfer-printed enamels should, in fact, be attributed to it.

Enamels from London and Independent Artisans

Of the many independent enamellers who must have found a living in London painting watchcases and plaques, there is only one to whom we can attribute a number of pieces. This is W. H. Craft, who painted large plaques of classical and allegorical subjects and aspired to the status of a portrait miniaturist, though he also decorated clock cases and ormolu vases for the Boulton factory. Following the example of the miniaturists, he signed his works in full and often dated them as well. Though Craft was a painter of considerably more competence than most of the Bilston decorators, his work has a hardness and dryness which is absent from their slight and rapidly executed painted panels. Craft is said to have begun his career as an enameller in the Battersea factory, but no evidence has been produced to support this supposition, and his hand cannot be recognized among any of the Battersea enamels. He would have been only a boy when the Battersea factory existed. He began exhibiting his enamel portraits at the Royal Academy in 1774, and thereafter exhibited almost every year until 1795. His latest recorded work is dated 1802, and he died in 1805.

English Porcelain Enamel patch boxes, ca 19thC
English Porcelain Enamel patch boxes, ca 19thC

It is probable that one of the main occupations of the London independent enamellers was the decoration of watchcases and chatelaines for the watchmakers and the goldsmiths. These objects were usually made of gold and do not, therefore, come within the scope of this survey of English enameling on copper. However, these artists must also have enameled on copper. Several pieces by this anonymous master are known, and they number among the finest English enamels in existence. An alternative suggestion as to his identity is that he was or had been a decorator at the Chelsea factory. The painting of some snuffboxes are certainly reminiscent of the Chelsea gold-anchor period, and the dark-blue ground, the finely tooled gilding, and the exotic birds are all characteristics of Chelsea porcelain.

In comparison with the numerous enamels by German independent decorators, the works of the English independent enamellers are extremely rare. Nevertheless, most collectors will at some time or other have come across pieces that for some reason could not be fitted exactly into the framework of the Battersea or Staffordshire production. In the past, the tendency has been to ascribe everything, irrespective of such distinctions, to either Battersea or Bilston, but in fact, such pieces should probably be recognized as the work of some anonymous artist.

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