By Kirsti Scott
Ever since humans discovered 4,000 years ago that heating clay made it harder, they have come up with infinite ideas for shaping and decorating clay pieces. When you find a piece of pottery or a shard of a dish or vase on the beach, having a basic knowledge of the different types of ceramic decorations can help you identify and decipher the origins of your pottery finds.
The earliest type of decorations on ceramics were patterns scraped, poked, or pressed into the clay. Find a piece with this simple type of decoration, and it could be 4,000 years old—or made last week by a kindergartner. You’ll need to identify the piece using information about where it was found, how long ago the area was inhabited, and any other artifacts found nearby.
Simon Maslin, Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS)
Slip is clay thinned with water and then painted, dripped, or trailed on the surface of a clay piece and then fired. If you are lucky enough to beachcomb in an area that was home to Romans in the 1st to 3rd centuries, you might come across ceramics decorated with slip, such as Samian ware. In the 15th to 17th centuries, pottery was sometimes coated with white slip and then overglazed to yield a bright color.
Jacqui Wise, Kate Sumnall (PAS)
And, from the 17th through 20th centuries, different styles of slipware decorations were used in distinctive ways. There are many types of slipware decoration found in the UK. Staffordshire slipware featured a light yellow slip and brown lines, often marbled by trailing a tool or metal comb through the wet slip before firing. Sunderland slipware was made from red clay coated in brown with small white slip decorations along the rim, often found on baking dishes. Metropolitan slipware from Essex was typically made with red clay covered in brown slip with yellow decorations.
Glazes have metal in them that fuse to the surface of the clay upon firing, and use of glazes became common during the medieval period. From the 16th to 19th centuries, salt glazes (formed by throwing salt into the kiln during firing) were used on Bellarmine Bottles. Tudor Green pottery was made from the end of the medieval period to the beginning of the 16th century. Westerwald stoneware from 1650-1775 has a characteristic handpainted cobalt blue or purple glaze with stamped and hand carved designs. Tin-glazed earthenware in Delft blue featured simple, blue handpainted designs on white pottery. Blue and Gray American Stoneware from the late 18th to early 20th century had simple hand-painted or stenciled glaze designs on jars, bottles, and bowls.
Some of the most popular tableware is found all around the globe. Handpainted blue Chinese export porcelain was made in huge quantities and shipped all over the world in the 18th and 20th centuries. Cantonware is a cobalt blue and white porcelain first produced in the port city of Canton (Guangzhou), China, and features distinctive hand-painted tea houses, pagodas, boats, and bridges. Each piece was made by a different craftsperson, interpreting the different elements of the design differently. You may have to work hard to determine if that little piece with a few handpainted stripes could be the leaves of a willow tree or waves on the ocean from a Cantonware piece.
Another example of mass-produced hand-painted porcelain is the Royal Copenhagen Blue Fluted collection from 1775. When I found this little painted piece of sea pottery, I thought it looked familiar. I had eaten countless Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other celebratory meals on it, as it is my mother’s formal china.
Classic blue and white Jasperware was developed by Josiah Wedgwood in the 1770s. With a matte “biscuit” finish and relief decorations in white, it came in a range of colors, including blue, lilac, green, black, and yellow. The most famous color was a light blue, now known as Wedgwood Blue. The designs on Wedgwood Jasperware were extremely varied, from ancient Greek-inspired themes, to silhouettes of contemporary personalities, to interpretations of nature, flora, and fauna.
In the 19th century, transfer printing revolutionized the decoration of ceramics. The process allowed potteries to add ink in a range of colors to engraved plates and then transfer complex and intricate designs to tissue paper that were then applied to vessels, plates, and more.
Kristina Braga, Jacqui Wise
Flow Transfer Printing
Flow transfer ware was a technique used in the mid-1800s where the glaze applied in the transfer process was allowed to run, creating a blurry pattern that looks more hand painted than the crisp designs of regular transfer ware.
Kirsti Scott, Lori Christofferson, Lesley Fellows, Leslie Fellows, Kirsti Scott
In the second half of the 19th century, spongeware and spatterware became popular, especially in Scotland. Small sponges were cut into shapes, dipped in colored glazes, and stamped on the pottery. Often the sponges were used to add texture to handpainted ceramics, for example, adding leaves to a tree. After 1820, cut-sponge patterns were used as the only decoration on some tableware and tea sets. Scottish spongeware was exported widely and can be found beaches around the world. Pieces glazed using rough, natural sponges are quite common and are known as spatterware.
Commercial china became popular in the late 1880s, with restaurants, cafés, hotels, and railroads commissioning chip-resistant china with their names on them, or custom designs available only in their dining rooms.
Cindy Cerefin, Anna Roche Clark, Rachel Dube, Megan McDonald, Kristina Braga
Polychrome features handpainted decorations with flowers, leaves, and other botanical elements. These date to from the early 19th to early 20th centuries.
As soon as any decoration style became popular, there were inevitable imitations. And, traditional designs are constantly re-introduced today, so it can sometimes be hard to determine exactly where a small piece of beach pottery originated. It’s always possible that you may have found a pottery shard from a one-of-a-kind ceramic piece, which you probably will never be able to definitively identify. So, while your piece might not be from hundreds of years ago, it’s still fun to learn about the original inspiration for your sea pottery. If you suspect that your piece is a old or valuable, contact a local museum to see if they can help you identify it.
Inspired by beach pottery
Jacqui Wise created a tile (above) featuring the winding River Thames, broken pottery shards (including willow pattern, slipware, and delftware), dress pins, and beads inspired by some of her mudlarking finds from the River Thames foreshore. Aileen Cabral matches sea glass to the colorful sea pottery she sets in her jewelry (below left). Teresa Sumerfield creates beautiful flat lays with her beach pottery (below center). And, Ginger Bowman made a beach buddy with her beach ceramic finds (below right).
Aileen Cabral, Teresa Sumerfield, Ginger Bowman
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2022 issue.