The Belleek factory was founded in 1857, in an area rich in the raw materials necessary to make porcelain as well as earthenware and stoneware.
It originally traded as McBirney & Co and produced a wide range of domestic earthenware.
Once technical problems had been overcome the factory began to make mostly slip cast porcelain in a vast array of unglazed and glazed, enamelled and gilded wares. The Belleek Pottery mark their wares with the emblem of a harp, round tower and Irish hound.
By changing the colour of the mark they date code the pieces into separate periods of manufacture. Many pieces, which were designed and manufactured in the first period, are still in production today.
Image Right: Belleek. Erin awakening from her slumbers. BELUM.V352. Click to enlarge.
- The plaster model from which the mould is cast.
- Slip, liquid clay, is poured into the mould and left for an allotted time until the required thickness has built up on the walls. The slip is then poured out of the mould leaving the cast vase behind. Any extra relief decoration is then applied to the vase.
- The vase is biscuit fired and will shrink up to a third of its original size.
- It is coated in glaze. The glaze contains a purple dye to make sure that the vase is entirely coated in glaze. The colour disappears after firing.
- The vase is then returned to the kiln for the glaze firing. If the vase is to have coloured or gilded decoration it is applied at this stage and returned for a third and final low temperature firing.
Everyday for Everyone
Belleek continues today to be famous throughout the world for the production of fine Parian porcelain but in the beginning the company relied heavily on its manufacture of earthenware to keep the factory operating. The high quality earthenware production included domestic wares such as transfer printed and hand painted tableware, and also more utilitarian pieces such as floor tiles and telegraph insulators. Techniques like transfer printing reduced the retail cost of the pieces allowing a greater number of people to buy Belleek’s goods.
Sculpted in clay
Parian porcelain, so called due to its resemblance to marble from the Greek Island Paros, allowed the Victorians to acquire sculpture for their own homes. The fine quality of the slip casting technique allowed mass reproduction of popular sculptures. Many potteries in England, such as Copeland, Worcester and Minton, made Parian figures.
Time for Tea
Belleek not only produced art pieces in porcelain but also made a selection of tea wares. The fineness of the porcelain made it perfect for drinking tea. Unfortunately it also meant that it had to be looked after extremely carefully. Instructions were found on the inside of some of the teapot lids advising the heating of the pot with blood warm water so the porcelain would not crack. Many themes were used in the design of the tea wares including natural forms, Chinese and Celtic designs.
A Work of Art
Porcelain baskets have been produced by a few potteries but these are usually moulded rather than constructed in the distinctive Belleek style. To make Belleek baskets, clay is extruded (pushed) through a machine that has a mesh containing circular holes. The very fine strands seen here are indicative of the quality of the First Period baskets. The strands of clay are draped over a mould to form the basket shape. Flowers are then attached to the basket as extra decoration. The palette of colours used on the early baskets is very subtle. Some of the other pieces on display in the section are very rare, including the unique very ornate vase and cover.
The vast majority of the pieces designed at the Belleek factory have historically drawn on nature for their inspiration. Many vases, tea sets and centrepieces have natural forms such as seashells, sea urchins or flowers within their design. The Belleek designers not only used natural forms in the shape of a piece but in its decoration with transfer prints and painting.
Parian porcelain, which was fashionable during the Victorian period, was also made in English factories such as Worcester. Over the course of its history Belleek has had a few direct imitators. Towards the end of the 19th century the Ulster Pottery Company was set up to make similar Parian porcelain to Belleek. Some workers from the Belleek factory joined the Ulster Pottery Company but the factory only had a very short period of manufacture. Each piece made by the factory is usually clearly marked Ulster Pottery Co. Coalisland Ireland in a circle surrounding a red hand of Ulster. In the 20th century other workers left the factory and set up small short lived workshops in Clyhore and Bundoran.
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