Kya deLongchamps looks at the incredible history of Belleek, the jewel in Ireland’s pottery crown.
THE International Centrepiece, winner of the 1900 Paris Exhibition Belleek porcelain, is beyond my powers to own. I’m a clumsy oaf, with a child’s impulsive need to poke things. The moment I behold the unbearable lightness of Parian, I’m on an inevitable journey towards throwing it to a slab floor.
I did notice on a recent safari to IKEA, that the glazed cabinet is very much back in form. Perhaps there’s a chance I could archive a few little beauties the colour of clotted cream, securely behind glass. Classic, unmistakable with that translucent loveliness, Belleek pieces have been made since the 1860s, collected hotly since the 1920s, and are still produced today. If you’re looking for something in cabinet ware or a lovely vintage thing to wow anyone of Irish ancestry this Christmas, you simply couldn’t do better.
John Caldwell Bloomfield, the founder of Belleek pottery, was a fascinating character. A compassionate landlord and an amateur mineralogist, he took over his father’s estate of Castlecaldwell, Co Fermanagh, at the height of the Famine in 1849. Inflamed by the age of industry tearing through England and a fleet-footed, lateral thinker, Bloomfield looked beyond the immediate problems of the agricultural tragedy and conducted a geological survey on his land. To his excitement they discovered a range of materials ideal for producing domestic pots. The River Erne, situated in the village of Belleek, was ideal to provide the hydo-mechanical power to drive the mill stones of the new enterprise. In league with architect Robert Williams Armstrong, and capitalist David McBirney, Bloomfield all but dragged new railway lines to the door of his factory to deliver coal and take his product to market. He then imported his most important resource to Belleek — 14 skilled craftsmen straight from the legendary potting floors of Stoke-on-Trent.
The factory had two product lines stamped with their earliest mark — a regal Irish wolfhound, the Denenish Round Tower and an Irish harp. Earthenware, a popular robust pottery, was relatively uncomplicated to produce and the bread and butter of Belleek’s early years. The other choice by the partners, and it was a bold one, was Parian, a difficult protégé, highly complex to fire and save intact from the kiln. It was 1872 before Belleek’s designers could show their version of this remarkable iridescent porcelain at the Dublin Exposition. By 1893, Bloomfield was dead, and the factory had changed hands entirely, re-established as the Belleek Pottery Works Ltd. Now it took on its single greatest genius of in-house design, Fredrick Slater, who was to remain with the company for the next 40 years.
Most Belleek is made in a mould in a process known as slip-casting, but the woven baskets and exquisite details of flowers and woven baskets are made almost entirely by hand. The quality still defies belief. Block moulds and master cases from as far back as the 1860s are still archived and used to made secondary moulds for new pieces, so the work has a perfect timeline from its Victorian ancestors. The body of slip-cast Belleek is comprised of a carefully determined combination of china clay, feldspar and frit which goes through three firings from the green-clay stage where it emerges from the mould, to the finished pot.
The craft of basket and flower making was introduced to Belleek by William Henshall in the 1860s, and remains at the factory as a generational skill passed hand to hand. Basketwork pieces are made from a more malleable material than the slip-cast pieces, and include Gum Arabic and ‘salvage’ from the Fettler’s bench (where patterns are sharpened on the still unfired clay and pieces built from parts). This mixture is manipulated using oak tools through a ‘dod box’ to make those signature strands for building baskets. Single pieces of slip are worked into tiny botanical details from shamrocks to minute rose buds. Every leaf and petal is fashioned and applied individually to deliver one tiny blossom or the stump of a tiny bough. After the first biscuit-firing and the complex process of cooling the delicate wafer thin pieces of infant Belleek, the baked clay is dipped in a mixture of borax and frit before being glost-fired to give it that pearl-like finish. The final enamel-firing fixes the stamp and any painted decoration, delivering the finished piece.
If you’ve never seen a high end Belleek basket or rippled oyster shell treat yourself to a trip to the visitors centre at Belleek in Co Fermanagh. Full details of tours, ordering pieces online and information on dating your older pieces from their back-stamp can be found at the Belleek website www.belleek.com. Now, where is that IKEA catalogue?
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