The invention of transfer printing on porcelain and pottery was, without doubt, one of the most important innovations in the development of the ceramic industry. The honor of this development goes to the English engraver, Robert Hancock, born in Birmingham (1730-1817). We first meet Robert, recorded as a copper plate engraver at York House, at Battersea's enamel works in London. Here, beautiful little copper boxes were made for the English 18th century luxury market and quite costly objects of vertu, the so-called bijouterie, scent bottles, little snuff boxes and practical wares, such as boxes to contain sewing implements, toothpicks, trays to hold pens, canisters for tea and sugar and even candlesticks, designed to imitated expensive silver pieces.
In 1756 the Battersea factory closed and we next find Robert at the Worcester porcelain factory in the same year. Robert Hancock had obviously taken his knowledge and expertise to the factory management, under the direction of Dr John Wall. The management was highly impressed with the idea of this rapid decoration technique!
Since the opening of the factory in 1751, porcelain painting had been a laborious and expensive process, undertaken by painters with coloured powdered enamels, mixed with lavender oil and brushes.
Robert was able to teach his printing skills and the process was soon mastered with the first, famous, copper plate engraved, black transfer print being produced in 1757. The subject being Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, ally and hero of the seven years war.
Transfer printing as developed at Battersea, began with the unique skill of the copper plate engraver, who deeply engraved, with a fine sharp steel, the desired design. The design was engraved in reverse!, allowing the final print to appear "right way around".
Pigment was then added, often mixed with oil and heated to allow the colour to run deeper into the copper plate engravings, the excess ink then wiped away with a palette knife. The copper plate, after being cleaned off with a cloth was then covered with a sheet of tissue which was dampened and pressed onto the plate. Next, the tissue was gently lifted from the plate and set carefully onto the shape to be printed. As the tissue was deftly lifted away, the design was left behind. This early printing style left the print on top of the glazed item, which was then fired to finally set the print onto the glazed surface.
As the 18th century turned into the early 19th century, new ceramic printing techniques were developed, to not only improve the technique, but make it faster, time is money! The great name at this point is Josiah Spode who is credited with the introduction of under glaze blue transfer printing into Staffordshire, during 1781-84.
During the early 1800's, the tissue was replaced by a sheet of paper, or sometimes fabric. With a layer of glue applied, this could easily be cut and shaped to fit around curved objects such as dishes and teapots. This is known as the "bat" print and gives the process its alternative name "bat printing".
The inked bat was then placed on the ceramic object and an impression left, leaving the print adhering to the shape. The item was then dipped into the glaze and returned to the kiln for the glost, or, low firing. The glue bats were reusable, plus they conformed better to curved surfaces. Cobalt blue, under glaze transfer printing became a standard of the Staffordshire pottery industry.
Men like Josiah Spode, Wedgwood, Thomas Minton and others, were all entrepreneurial types and leading figures of the great Staffordshire ceramic industry.
While sharing amicable business relationships, each kept an eye on the market! It was at this time that large export markets were opening or expanding in North America, Europe, and India where consumers sought elegant, matched sets of wares.
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