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SAMUEL ALCOCK STAFFORDSHIRE POTTERY

A figurine of a Spaniel by Alcock & Co, ca mid-19thC
A figurine of a Spaniel by Alcock & Co, ca mid-19thC

It was Dr. Johnson who said that history may be based on permanent monuments and records, but that lives can be written only from personal knowledge, which tends to grow less and less every day and shortly is lost forever. And let it be remembered that circumstantial evidence, upon which the historian may be obliged to rely when personal knowledge and records are lacking, may prove a false guide.

Samuel Alcock's life story depends for its reconstruction largely on remembrances of relatives and friends. Active in such a group have been a grandson, Doctor S. King Alcock, and Alfred Meigh. But recollections are not the only testimonials to Alcock's accomplishments: these are represented by his pottery, which still is to be found in sufficient quantity to interest collectors both in America and abroad.

Born at Kingsley, a moorland village of North Staffordshire, near the Potteries, Samuel was probably the fifth son of Thomas Alcock (1746-1816) and his wife Catherine (1756-1838). When he was twenty-three he seems to have been induced by two elder brothers - George and Joseph - to come to Burslem; perhaps he obtained their financial backing, since they were bankers, in taking a pottery at Cobridge in partnership with Ralph Stevenson. Soon a prosperous business was established under the name of Samuel Alcock and Company, noteworthy at the time for issuing a series of china-biscuit busts of eminent contemporaries. Simeon Shaw, the historian of the Potteries, who died in 1839, refers to these busts in 1828 as, "executed in the best manner of the art in regard to accuracy of delineation and taste and elegance of workmanship ... a very chaste, elegant and beautiful ornament, equally for the drawing room or the library."

Early Victorian Alcock & Co Staffordhire Chinoiserie Urn and a Jug
Early Victorian Alcock & Co Staffordhire Chinoiserie Urn and a Jug

The firm underwent changes until 1839; Stevenson ceased to be a partner and for a time Keeling took his place; quarters were moved to a Burslem occupancy of "three sets of Pot-works near together, situated at the Hill-top," hence known as the Hill Pottery. Such is the statement of Ward in his ‘History of Stoke-on-Trent’, where are to be found the further comments: "Whilst this article is in the press [1839] Mr. Alcock has completed the rebuilding of his manufactory, which presents the most striking and ornamental object of its kind within the precincts of the Borough, and of which his liberality enables us to introduce an engraving. Messrs. Alcock and Company are largely engaged in the export trade to America."

Samuel Alcock's firm achieved great pecuniary success during the decade of the 1840's. The Art Union for December 1846 declared this to be one of two Burslem houses most worthy of note. And for the head of the firm there had come honor: in 1843 Alcock was elected chief constable of Burslem, an office comparable to, and now superseded by, that of mayor. The duties of the office were particularly arduous in 1842, the year generally considered to represent the high tide of Chartist activity. Readers of Benjamin Disraeli's ‘Sybil’ will vouch for the scenes of class warfare that were enacted. The pottery district did not escape terrorism. The firm stand taken by the officials of Burslem, however, caused the mob to be dispersed with loss of only one life. In recognition of his services Alcock received from the townsfolk a gift of many pieces of ornamental silver, some of which are still retained by his descendants.

Alcock died November 10, 1848, at the age of forty-nine, and was buried at Kingsley, where his tomb may still be seen. He left eleven children to mourn him, in addition to a host of friends, as an account in the Staffordshire Advertiser for February 24, 1849, makes clear. Members of the congregation of Hanley Church, in which Alcock had been active, erected a monument in his memory.

A Samuel Alcock floral-encrusted Inkstand, ca 1835
A Samuel Alcock floral-encrusted Inkstand, ca 1835

His firm continued to nourish for a time, and eventually, in 1860, was taken over by Sir James Duke and his nephews. Additional changes in ownership occurred until the factory, by 1867, was in liquidation. Reconstruction of the life of an individual is usually worth the effort only if his accomplishments are of some significance. What, it may be asked, are the monuments to the pottery firm of Samuel Alcock and Company? Reference has already been made to the biscuit ware which early was used to model subjects from history and romance. China was also produced, during both the earlier and the later periods. Ward mentions the ornamental china "of a first-rate description, consisting of table and tea-services, enriched with exquisite landscape paintings, and other devices." And more modern writers have acknowledged the good quality of the china, whether put out by Samuel Alcock or by Sir James Duke. Still, boldness rather-than critical judgment would probably be required for any assertion that the finished product was superior to that of any number of Staffordshire firms which were functioning at the same period.

The Alcock firm also made fine earthenware - yellowish putty in color - which is sometimes labeled with the name of 'Ridgway’ or ‘Jones and Walley’. A gypsy jug in this ware is marked: Published by S. Alcock and Co., Burslem, July 1, 1842.

Another Alcock product was black-surfaced ware with encaustic painting. Mid-nineteenth-century writers on design, attempting to resurrect a style of the eighteenth century, which the eighteenth century in turn had resurrected from the distant past, frequently became enthusiastic about this type of ware. Many firms seem to have experimented with it.

A very fine grade of parian was also put on the market by Alcock after its discovery in the 1840's. Old designs which the firm had found popular in other types of ware were reproduced, and new designs created, in parian.

The wares thus far listed met demands of the English or the American trade, and came into the public's hands from many firms. With the possible exception of the biscuit figures, however, there was nothing distinctive in the Alcock versions of these wares. But collectors of things Victorian may find one type of Alcock pottery which is unique. This has been described as vitreous stoneware in imitation of jasper. Jasper it certainly is not, but excellent specimens of the white body with blue relief are not greatly inferior to Wedgwood jasper in the same combination of colors, or to a type of stoneware, approaching jasper in nature, such as was put out by Hollins. This white body with colored relief or figures frequently appears superior in texture to the colored body with white relief; dogmatic generalization, however, is dangerous, since occasionally an article in blue or lavender body is exquisitely done, especially where the body is pitted.

It is this ware in the white-and-lavender combination which caused the author of ‘The Old China Book’ to express enthusiasm: "The shade of lavender used by this firm is very beautiful; it is hard to compare it with any known tint, for violets are too blue and lilacs are too cold to give any idea of its warm rosiness." Beautiful, indeed, is the shade, but its tints vary considerably in marked pieces so that "lavender" in an Alcock pitcher may be almost as indefinite as "pink" in a peony. Moreover, it may be well to point out that Copeland and Garrett at the same time produced a lavender which might easily be confused with the Alcock lavender. Often, the same design is to be found in lavender and white and likewise in blue and white.

The Alcock jasperlike stoneware was made in molds, rather than with applied ornament on a smooth body in the Wedgwood manner. Many of the designs will hardly compare with work of the eighteenth century, but ingenuity was displayed especially in popularizing Biblical and Oriental scenes. A complete list of the designs will probably never be possible. The Art Union points out that the firm had for a time the valuable assistance of Signer Giovanni Meli, a native of Sicily, who is spoken of as a man of talent by the authors of ‘Staffordshire Pots and Potters’. M. Protat, a Frenchman, is regarded as an important modeler by N. Hudson Moore. The official guide to the famous London Exhibition of 1851 lists three designers, Alfred Crowquill, S. W. Arnold, San Giovanni, who were responsible for the fifty articles which Samuel Alcock and Company displayed.

It seems safe to conclude that the Alcock firm deserves more than passing mention in any discussion of English ceramic developments of the nineteenth century. The quantity and quality of the designs which represent its endeavors leave the decided impression that, as more information becomes available, Samuel Alcock will stand forth with increasing prominence among the potters of his day.

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