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Visitor Centre Museum

THE BEGINNINGS

 
In 1853 John Caldwell Bloomfield, owner of the Castlecaldwell estate, commissioned a mineral survey of his lands. It discovered that in an area approximately eight miles from Belleek at Larkhill, there were sufficient deposits of Feldspar and Kaolin (china clay) to make mining commercially viable. 
 
A crushing mill was built at Belleek on the site of an old corn mill and where there was waterpower from the River Erne to drive the machinery necessary to process the raw materials.
 
These materials were exported to England and a large contract was established with the firm of Kerr & Binns of Worcester, later to become Royal Worcester.
 
It was through this link that John Caldwell Bloomfield, Robert Williams Armstrong and later David Mc Birney met. Each of them was to contribute vital elements to the foundation and success of the Pottery- land, expertise and finance.
 
The resulting company was known as David Mc Birney & Co. In 1858 construction of the main pottery building started. It is difficult to say exactly when production began but by 1863 making of utilitarian and probably some sanitary ware had commenced.
 
In the Dublin Exhibition of 1864 the products shown by Belleek consisted of earthen and stoneware in “dinner, toilet and other table services” made by moulding, press and die, or pressure from powdered clay. (Royal Dublin Society, Official Catalogue of the Exhibition of Manufacturers, Machinery and Fine Arts 1864)

 

DOMESTIC AND SANITARY WARE

  
From the beginning Belleek produced a wide range of domestic and toiletry wares. These ranged from expensive decorated ewers such as the Etruscan Ewer, shown below right, to the simply decorated Ribbon basin, shown in front. 
 
As well, Belleek offered a range of needs for everyday use; hospitals and asylums were supplied with items such as bedpans, feeding cups and slop pans. Creameries and milking parlours could obtain milk pans and bowls. Kitchens with pudding bowls, baking dishes and jelly cans.
 
Earthenware was the mainstay of the Pottery’s early years. On a roll of employees in 1897, of one hundred and twenty five, forty-four were potters (earthenware), eight Parian makers and ten basket and flower makers.
 
Production of heavy sanitary ware began in the early 1870’s. The wealthy were fitting “water closets” into their homes and for a number of years this proved to be a very lucrative market.
R. W. Armstrong patented many of the Belleek sanitary ware designs and the design patent of the washbasin shown here was registered on the 28th July 1878.
 
By the 1890’s the manufacture of heavy sanitary ware ceased due to technical difficulties and the cost of manufacturing.
 

EARTHENWARE

 
As expertise developed many new lines were added. In early experiments Robert Armstrong developed a white earthenware clay body, which he called his “harp body”, thus many very early pieces have an impressed harp. He later said that he had perfected his “Harp” body and to demonstrate its excellence he placed a crown above the impressed harp.  
 
Contracts were undertaken for many institutions and organisations in both Ireland and Britain and often they had their crests or emblems printed on their purchases.
 
Decoration took many forms, the more decoration and colour, the more expensive. Monograms were printed in one colour and could be hand decorated with many colours, gilded and finished to a very high standard.
 
The dinner set shown here is one of the most recognisable Belleek earthenware shapes called the “Ribbon handle” In this instance it is decorated with blue bands and gilded. This along with other shape designs was decorated on a price scale from; plain white, to colour banded, to transfer printed in mono-colours i.e. brown, blue, black, green and red. Gilding was an added extra.
 
At this time transfer prints could only be printed in one colour. If additional colour decoration was requested, these were hand decorated over the base colour print. This involved several additional firings and as a result was expensive to produce.

 

THE DUBLIN EXHIBITION OF ARTS, INDUSTRIES AND MANUFACTURERS 1872
 

 

 The Exhibition of Arts, Industries and Manufactures organised by Sir Edward Lee were held in Dublin in 1872.

The firm of David McBirney & Co. featured Porcelain for the first time. 

The list included nine Parian statuettes and busts, twenty-nine different Dessert pieces, sixteen types of table ornaments the latter category including hand woven baskets. Also displayed were thirty-six pattern plates and twenty-four hollow pieces in the dinnerware section. Examples of the Echinus Eggshell Dejuener sets similar to the one purchased by Queen Victoria as well as the Chinese double spouted kettles and tea urns were also on display.

Also exhibited were Earthenware Dinnerware, Tea & breakfast ware, Toilet ware and heavy utilitarian pieces.
 
The presence of so many expensive heavily decorated, ornamented and gilded pieces, was the beginnings of Robert Armstrong’s goal of making products that would interest the wealthier classes and so raising the aspirational appeal of Belleek to the wider market.

Although Belleek did not win any awards at the exhibition their stand did form the largest section within the Irish and English industrial area of the Exhibition.

Read more about Belleek's Figure of Erne Piece and the Dublin Exhibition of 1872  

THE PARIS EXHIBITION 1900

 

The Exposition Universelle of 1900 was a World fair held in Paris, France to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next. More than 50 million people attended the exhibition (a world record at the time), yet it still failed to turn a profit, costing the French government 2,000,000 Francs. The fair included more than 76,000 exhibitors and covered 1.12 square kilometres of Paris.

The exhibition lasted from the 14th April until 10th November 1900.

Belleek won their fourth gold medal at this Exhibition for the International Centre-piece and it is displayed in the foyer. 

Here are shown some of the other exhibits brought to the Paris Exhibition. Some of these such as the Dolphin Candlestick were in production for many years but others including the Henshall basket were probably first introduced in Paris.

This mirror is, we believe, the actual mirror displayed in Paris, a similar styled mirror was presented to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

1904 CATALOGUE

 
Although Belleek previously issued trade catalogues, this listing is believed to be the first one to also feature pictures of the product. (Below are some of the original printers blocks of this catalogue). 
 
Since then this catalogue has become the “Bible” of early Belleek product. However one should remember that many earlier products shown in the Belleek “Old photograph album” of 1872, such as the three sizes of Triboy comports, are by this time discontinued and no longer offered for sale.
 
The catalogue shows a wide selection of Earthenware and Stoneware as well as the more recently developed China tea sets.
These China tea sets were developed in the latter twenty years of the 19th century by a team of modellers trained by William Gallimore.
These included Michael Maguire believed responsible for the development of the Shamrock tea set and James Cleary (Thistle teaset). The latter succeeding William Gallimore as head of the Art department until 1884 when he became the manager of the pottery. The catalogue offers twenty- eight different tea sets for sale.
 
In 1894 Frederick Slater arrived from Stoke-on-Trent to become head of the Art department, It is said that his first undertaking was to re-design the Shell set to become the New shell tea set. (Interestingly it does not feature in the 1904 catalogue) He also develops a wide selection of new tea sets including Sydney, Finner, Lily and Harp shamrock.
 
Also largely featuring in this catalogue are flowered vases and Jardinières, such as the Finner Jardinière (shown below). William Henshall heads a small department of ten or so flowerers but their creativity is prodigious and many hitherto un-flowered pieces such as the Thistle vase are revamped by adding flowers.
 
“Novelties or Fancies” are another innovation introducing smaller vases, pots and assorted giftware. These are less costly to produce and are popular gifts in the early years of the new century.

1928 CATALOGUE

 
The Belleek Pottery Works Company was sold in 1919 to a group of businessmen including Bernard O’Rourke, John O’Neill and Joseph Dolan. The new firm began trading as Belleek Pottery Limited.
Economies were made; large figurines, centrepieces and heavily decorated tea sets were all discontinued.
 
It was not until K. E’ Leod Kandee arrived as manager in 1922 that much thought was given to developing new designs. He asked fellow Hungarian Madam Boroniuxz to design new giftware and tea ware. She was a gifted designer and worked along with Fred Slater to create embossed and printed patterns taken from the Book of Kells.
This new Tea ware is first featured in the 1928 catalogue and includes the Low Celtic and Tall Celtic sets.
 
The earlier Ring handle tea set is adapted to a Celtic pattern by adding a printed outline design and decorating it with hand painted colours. This “print and fill” technique is expensive to produce as it involves two separate colour firings. It becomes also the more popular set and remains in production until the late 1960’s.
 
Belleek introduced its third mark in 1926. This was similar to the previous mark but has an additional round mark with the Gaelic words “deanta in eireann” meaning made in Ireland. As well the trade registry mark 0857 is added. This mark is used on both Parian and Earthenware, on the latter, only until 1934.
This catalogue also introduces a new product numbering system, as so many of the 1904 catalogue items are by this time discontinued.
 
There is a large section featuring religious fonts and figurines. These were in fact all introduced before 1914.
 
Omitted in this catalogue are earthenware and stoneware products. Stoneware had probably been discontinued in 1919 but earthenware did continue to be made. Colour print examples such as the Daffodil dish (show below) demonstrate some of the new innovations introduced on earthenware.

1949 CATALOGUE

 
The inter war years were very difficult for Belleek and for a time in the early 1930’s it was thought that Belleek should concentrate only on the cheaper earthenware product and cease to produce the more expensive baskets and Parian products.

All this changed with the arrival of Harry Arnold as manager in 1933. He had previously worked for Copeland Spode and was very definitely interested in continuing China production. Earthenware was trademarked “Melvin ware” so to differentiate it from the more expensive “Parian China ware.” which retained the wolfhound harp and round tower mark.
 
In 1940 his son Eric succeeded him as Pottery manager. Eric Arnold’s first years were a struggle in keeping the Pottery operational during the Second World War. Production was reduced, as it was difficult to get coal and other raw materials.
 
The years after the war brought new challenges including cheaper production methods and Belleek found that it could no longer compete making earthenware. In 1946 it was decided to no longer make earthenware and concentrate solely on Parian.
 
The 1949 catalogue differs very little from the 1928 catalogue but it features the Mask tea set (introduced in the mid 1930’s) and re-introduces some of the older tea sets such as the plain Ring handle. The main difference is in decoration as it presents more contemporary styles. A small colour section shows the new styles of painting.

The catalogue explains, “We have pleasure in introducing in the following pages reproductions in full colour of our latest creations of Parian China in beautiful pastel shade designs.” It goes on to explain that, “A number of our clients may prefer Belleek China without the painting, as of old, but the remarkably increased demand for the new designs proves that they are irresistible to many”
Most of these new decorative designs are the work of Cyril Arnold, brother of Eric and a very talented ceramic artist. His ideas would influence much of the design in the following years.

1962 CATALOGUE

 
This catalogue is introduced during 1962 and is different in style and layout to the previous catalogue. The product numbering system is changed again eliminating the anomalies that have grown since the more radical change in 1926. 
 
A forward by Malachy Hynes describes his visit to the Pottery. He is greatly impressed by the craftsmanship and beauty of Belleek. He describes flowers being made,
 
“In some cases as many as seventy tiny petals go into the making of just one of those blossoms. Almost forgotten now were the skills of those other craftsmen in the fascination of seeing little blobs of moist clay in the fingers of the flowerers grow into delightfully realistic leafy decorations, all so perfect, they seem to have grown as naturally there as ivy does on the crags along the Erne”
 
There is a large colour section featuring a selection of product including many baskets. Baskets had been offered for sale with colour decoration since 1955 but by 1962 this decoration becomes the standard and most popular form of painting baskets.
 
Two of the First mark tea sets are re-introduced, Grass and Echinus. With the Grass teaset the major difference is that the teapot and kettle spout are changed from the first mark styled ducks head to a plain spout.
 
The Pottery is enjoying a time of relative prosperity with order books full. Major refurbishment is undertaken with the introduction of new electric kilns and the building of new workshops.
 
In 1965 the third green mark is introduced which is smaller in size omitting the words “County Fermanagh.”  The US registry mark “R” is placed over the harp on the trademark.

1978 CATALOGUE

  
This catalogue is in full colour with many pictures of the pieces photographed in natural background settings. For the first time there is a brief history of the Pottery and a description of the process of making Parian. At this time with the quality of the photography, printing techniques and layout, the catalogue is considered a major step in revamping the image of the Belleek Pottery product range.
 
The sales of giftware are becoming more important and this is reflected in the reduced number of tea sets. Gone are the heavily decorated Celtic and Ring handle sets that were expensive to decorate and instead all decoration on tea sets is confined to “Cob lustre” or tinting in colours such as pink and green and adding gold edges. There are six sets remaining, these are; Tridacna, Limpet, New Shell, Neptune, Harp shamrock and Shamrock.
 
The enduring popularity of Shamrock tea ware is mirrored in the extensive number of pieces featuring in the catalogue. However there are no new shamrock designs! It re-introduces many old pieces from the Pottery archives notably the Prince of Wales Ice Pail and the Triple Fish Vase.
 
Baskets and flowered pieces are reduced in number with most of the un-flowered baskets and the large footed flowerpots being discontinued. In reality these were not made since the late 1960’s.
 
In 1970 Belleek introduced its first Annual plate featuring Castlecaldwell. Jim Kirkwood from the Kilkenny Design Centre designed it. This heralds many years of co-operation on various projects, including The Kilkenny tea set (shown below) This set is introduced around this time but interestingly does not feature in the 1978 catalogue.

THE BELLEEK VISITORS BOOK 1868-1884


The first entry is dated October 1st 1868 and is signed by the Earl & Countess of Lanesborough of Lanesborough Lodge, Belturbet, Co Cavan.
 
Captain John Vansittart Danvers Butler, 6th Earl of Lanesborough was born on 18 April 1839. He was the son of Captain Charles Augustus Butler Danvers and Letitia Rudyard Ross Freese. He married Anne Elisabeth Clark daughter of the Reverend John Dixon Clark, on 21 June 1864. 

The Earls of Lanesborough were extensive landowners in both Ireland and England and held estates in Co Cavan and Fermanagh.  The villages of Newtownbutler in Co Fermanagh and Butlersbridge in Co Cavan are named after the family.

They arrived accompanied by Viscount and Lady Templetown from Castle Upton, Templepatrick Co Antrim.
 
George Frederick Upton sat as a Conservative MP for Antrim from 1858 to 1863. In  1866 he became an Irish Representative Peer and sat in the House of Lords as Lord Templetown.

We cannot know if the Visitors Book was purchased specially for the visit of these important visitors but the arrival of such well-connected persons would have certainly been considered well worth recording to impress other visitors who in turn would also record their names.

In the weeks and months that followed many other important visitors are noted. Lord and Lady Enniskillen, Miss Brooke of Ashbrooke Co Fermanagh along with Miss Bloomfield daughter of John Caldwell Bloomfield of Castlecaldwell. Late in December 1868 Mr Richardson the High Sheriff of Co Fermanagh also visited the Pottery.

The first visitor from England is Archibald Anson from Longfield Rectory in Derbyshire signed his name in January 1869.

This entry is followed by a long list of persons from the titled aristocracy of the day to the landed gentry to visitors to the locality.

This latter category would increase in volume over the next decade with the popularity of travelling by train on holiday excursions.

The railway connection from Belleek opened in 1866. Another category visiting were returned emigrants who had made good in the New World and were able to travel back across the Atlantic, to visit the land of their birth. These included Rev William McNulty of Passaic, New Jersey visiting Ballyshannon, also Thomas McElderry Sinclair and his wife Caroline of Cedar Falls, Idaho visiting their families in Belfast.
 
Today we are ever mindful of the potential of tourism and in particular Belleek has been successfully attracting large numbers of visitors over the last twenty-five years with its Visitors centre and factory tour that encompasses every aspect of the making of Belleek fine porcelain. So it is perhaps surprising that the founders of Belleek had already seen the potential of attracting visitors.

The visit of The Earl & Countess of Spencer, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and his wife on May 12th 1870 was a remarkable event and it gave the fledgling Pottery an tremendous endorsement by the Viceroy, Queen Victoria’s representative in Ireland.  He later placed an order for a dinner service with his family crest and a porcelain tea service of the Echinus pattern also with his family crest.

His visit is recorded by a report printed in the Irish Times.

 

Echinus Tea set with the Spencer family crest purchased by Earl Spencer.  

                    


Part of the Earthenware Dinner Service with the Spencer Crest purchased by the Earl Spencer.

The book continued in use up until sometime after the last recorded date of August 31st 1884. The last page with signed names is not dated. As the book is not completely filled out we can only surmise that sometime soon afterwards the book was either taken, mis-laid or a decision made to no longer record Visitor names.

The complete story is still a mystery but the presence of the book is both a gem of Pottery history and a great source of social history of the latter half of the 19th Century.
 
We acknowledge the efforts of two members of the Belleek Collectors International Society to purchase the book and to give it to Belleek Pottery on loan to display in the Belleek Visitors Centre Museum.