W. T. Copeland and Sons, Spode Works, Stoke-upon-Trent
NOTE: This article which follows originally appeared in a 1956 book 'British Potters and Pottery Today', is based mainly upon accounts provided mainly by the firms themselves.
All the world loves Spode. It was so in the beginning when, in the mid-eighteenth century old Josiah Spode the First started to make his fine bone china and with it to create ceramic history, It is so today, for there has been a remarkable revival of interest, during the last decade, in the superb wares for which he and his successors were responsible.
Josiah Spode, it will be remembered, was an apprentice of Whieldon in 1749. Under the great Master Potter both Spode and Josiah Wedgwood received the same careful training side by side. It is indeed instructive to note, in the history of these two great potters, how divergent was the evolution of their respective talents. They were, however, alike in exerting a powerful influence upon the subsequent development of English ceramics.
While Wedgwood showed the world what marvellous gems of art could be created in the highest qualities of pottery, Spode did likewise in the realms of porcelain. To translate the oft quoted words of Brogniart, (the one-time Director of Sevres), 'Spode made a porcelain much superior to any that had been made in England up to that time. He attempted to equal the ancient porcelain of Sevres and the resemblance is very close. He introduced, or at least perfected, the employment of calcined bone in the body of his paste.'
There, in a nut-shell, we have the sum of his great achievement – as far as his paste was concerned. But he was far more than just a specialist in technique. He had a fine sense of form and a talent for good design, like his old master Whieldon. Thus his productions during close upon fifty years ere he died in I797, were produced during, and helped to create, the finest period of English ceramics (speaking now without account being taken of the present time).
It was a memorable event, even for Spode, when John Turner, of whom we have spoken elsewhere, came into his life in 1762, when Spode was 29 years old. They both worked with Turner and Banks of Stoke in the works which occupied the very site on which the Copeland factory stands today. But in that same year (1762) Turner left and Spode took his place as manager, continuing in that capacity for eight years; until, in 1770, he took over the works on mortgage, becoming sole proprietor and complete owner in 1776.
As his own master Spode soon showed his ability. He evolved a cream-coloured ware decorated with simple designs in enamel colours which was a triumph. But a greater one followed when, seeking to discover a new technique of under-glaze decoration, and to some extent inspired by Worcester's fine blue and white, he eventually brought to perfection (in 1785) his own solution by producing his now famous under-glaze blue transfer printing which, applied to his table wares immediately commanded admiration, success and emulation.
His next achievement was the technique of over-glaze painting imposed on. under-glaze outlines in transfer printing. These great improvements in decoration technique had immediate repercussions throughout the pottery industry.
But these achievements apart, we must remember that the eulogy of Brogniart was in relation to Spode's porcelain. Perhaps from the time when he was only Manager, Spode had been experimenting in the hope of discovering a method of improving the hardness, durability and appearance of the old soft paste wares and, as a result of dogged persistence he eventually succeeded by perfecting a body in which the new ingredient was calcined bone ash. Thus was Bone China introduced to the world with far reaching results which could hardly have been dreamed of even by Spode himself; It was a combination which was as near to perfection, for its purpose, as a paste could be.
In the important matter of decoration his designers were hardly less successful. Much of their work was in the Oriental style then in vogue and, though it can hardly be contended that they surpassed the craftsmen of the Far East, yet their Chinoiserie patterns were more convincing in that they had a definite individuality about them which made them widely popular – so much so that they were imitated by other factories.
It was in the 90's of the eighteenth century that the name of Copeland first became linked with that of Spode. William Copeland was a tea-merchant in London and perhaps the association of tea with teapots, cups and saucers led to his becoming Spode's London representative.
In 1797 Josiah the first died and his son Josiah the second took his place. He was very well equipped, had gained practical experience in the factory and, having been some time with Copeland in the London warehouse, was also well able to direct the commercial side. While he continued to produce bone china as his father had done, he at the same time turned his attention to the discovery of an even harder and more durable paste. 'Felspar Porcelain' was the result. It has been described as a 'technically perfect body'.
But perhaps his most notable achievement came in 1805 with the invention of a type of earthenware in which felspar was also an ingredient – the now almost universal 'Stone China', which has been aptly termed 'the aristocrat of earthenware'. It became immediately popular and has remained so to the present day.
Josiah II was not only an innovator in the technical field. He was in the forefront in installing power in the working of the factory. In 1802 a Watt steam engine of ten horse power was introduced and eight years later a thirty-six horse power steam engine was installed for the grinding of fint, stone and colours, by which the output was greatly benefited.
William Copeland had become a partner in 1797 and after Josiah Spode II died in 1827, William Copeland's son, William Taylor Copeland, bought the business from the Trustees of Josiah Spode III. Thus in 1833 William Taylor became sole owner. But he took unto himself a partner, Thomas Garrett and the firm became 'Copeland and Garrett', continuing so until 1847.
It was this Copeland who introduced the so-called 'Parian' imitation of marble, which, in the early days of Queen Victoria, was so widely employed in the making of statuettes, busts and other ornamental pieces to adorn the watnots (or should it be what nots?) of our forebears. This was an achievement of the 1840's and some of the greatest sculptors of the day were commissioned to design the models.
Copeland had a grand show at the all important Great Exhibition and those following exhibitions which did so much to encourage and foster the industrial acts.
In 1867 William Taylor Copeland's four sons were taken into partnership and, as this new generation matured in their directive capacities, so the firm settled into that dignity characteristic of an old established concern, maintaining its reputation for high-class production by ever retaining its standard of excellence. Eventually the proprietorship devolved upon the youngest of the four sons, Richard P. Copeland, whose sons in their turn are now the senior members of the firm.
These two sons R. R. J. Copeland and A. G. Copeland were in control when, in 1932, the business was turned into a private limited company, under its present name of W. T. Copeland and Sons Ltd, thus perpetuating the memory of William Taylor Copeland who did so much to build up the reputation of the firm in Victorian times.
Copelands have perhaps done more than any other existing firm to maintain the traditions of the original founder – Spode. They have continued to reproduce designs which have so justly found favour in the past and all through the nineteenth century, as in the first fifty years of this, they have upheld an exceedingly high standard. They thus benefit, as only an old established firm can do, by the inspiration of their traditions gathered from accumulated experience, handed on from generation to generation.
NOTE: This article which originally appeared in a 1956 book 'British Potters and Pottery Today', is based mainly upon accounts provided mainly by the firms themselves.
Questions, comments, contributions? email: Steve Birks