The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Liverpool delft transfer-printed tiles; or, theatrical tiles explain’d

Thank you for all of your guesses on last week’s Crocodile Mystery! As several folks correctly surmised, this image is pigment on ceramic! Specifically, it is on a Liverpool delft transfer-printed tile, seen here in full: 

Jane Lessingham as Ophelia, ART 241098

And if you’re completely confused by the phrase “Liverpool delft transfer-printed tile”, well, I don’t blame you. So let’s break it down: “tile” is pretty self-evident. It really is a tile, just like ones that might go in your bathroom or kitchen. This particular type of tile was intended either to be displayed on its own (in a frame or in the same manner that people might display decorative plates), or inlayed around a fireplace for display. “Liverpool” does indeed refer to the city in England, which is where these tiles were produced.1

“Delft” and “transfer-printed” are where things get a bit more tricky. For some folks, “delft” probably conjures visions of blue and white images of windmills and tulips. And you’re not wrong! This particular style of tin-glazed earthenware was first made in the Dutch town of… Delft. Dutch potters brought the technique to England, and thus tin-glazed earthenware produced in both Holland and England are referred to as “delft”.2

“Transfer-printed” pottery (also referred to as “transferware”) are earthenware pieces that have their decorative features applied like a decal. This can be done two ways. The first (and generally more common, even in the 18th century) method was to use very thin paper (close to what we’d now call tissue paper). The desired image would be printed (via either woodblock or copper plate) onto the paper3 and then the paper would be applied to the pottery while the ink was still wet, thus adhering to the piece.4 The paper would then either be soaked off or burnt off in a subsequent firing (more on that in a moment). 

The other method for transfer-printing was done with a “glue bat“. Using this method, the copper plate would not be “inked” but instead would be “oiled”—that is, a layer of oil would be applied in the same manner as ink is in a traditional printing setup. Like the ink, the excess oil would be wiped off, leaving it only in the lines. The oiled plate would then be pressed into a “glue bat”, a sheet of gelatin, that would take the oil from the plate. The gelatin sheet would then be pressed against the pottery, transferring the oil outline of the design. Pigment was then dusted across the pottery, sticking only to the oil. 

The glue bat method was an “over-glaze” method; that is, the image was transferred onto the pottery after the object had been fired a second time, to apply the (usually clear) glaze. The paper transfer method could also be done in this manner. In both cases, the pottery would be fired a third time, at a somewhat lower temperature, to set the colored design. This had the advantage of allowing for a variety of colors to be used, but also made the designs more prone to wearing away, since they didn’t have anything protecting them. That is effect is visible on the right arm of Mrs. Lessingham:

The paper transfer method could also be used for “under-glaze” transfers; that is, the image was applied before the final glaze was added. The advantage here was that the images were more durable, being protected by the glaze. However, for a long time cobalt was the only coloring agent that could stand up to the temperatures required to fire the glaze (around 1000 C), which is why blue-and-white transferware is so ubiquitous from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

So now that we’ve established just what a “Liverpool delft transfer-printed tile” is, what is going on with this one in particular? 

This tile, “Mrs. Lessingham as Ophelia” is one of a set of about 30 tiles depicting actors and actresses of the British stage.5 These were produced in the late 1770s by Guy Green, who, with his partner John Sadler, was probably the first to perfect the art of transfer-printing.6

Ann Barry as Sir Henry Wildair. ART 241097

Printed in black or red (which, if you’ll recall from above, means they are almost certainly over-glaze transfers), these tiles depicted some of the most popular actors, actresses, and characters of the day. Being ever economical, Green didn’t bother to hire an illustrator to create new portraits. Instead, he lifted them, almost line-for-line, from the popular Bell’s British Theatre series of publications, which produced editions of 140 plays, including portraits, between 1776 and 1778.

Left: Macklin as Shylock, delft tile, ART 241091
Right: Macklin as Shylock, illustration in Bell’s, ART File M158.8 no.9

Like the illustrations they were based on, these tiles captured some of the most popular actors and actresses in some of their most popular roles. The tiles were relatively easy to produce: a 1756 affidavit from Sadler and Green swears that “without aid or assistance of any person or persons, [they] did within the space of six hours, to wit between the hours of nine in the morning and three in the afternoon of the same day, print upwards of twelve hundred earthenware tiles of different patterns”—now that’s efficiency!7 People could collect just their favorites or try to go for the whole set, to be placed around a fireplace.8

The Folger holds about 70 of these tiles (some images in duplicate and even triplicate). Some are framed together in groups of six or nine; others are individual tiles. They were clearly a popular commemorative piece, even for folks who might never make it to the theater to see the plays in person.  

  1. There has got to be a good Beatles joke in here somewhere, but I’m not finding it.
  2. You’ll also see the terms faience and majolica used to refer to similar objects; it mostly depends on when and where the object was made, and who is doing the categorizing.
  3. To break your brain, think about this: the image that went down onto the paper had to be the reverse of the way you wanted the image to look on your mug/plate/tile. So the copper plate actually had to be carved as you want it to look in the end. I can’t imagine how long the engravers and etchers took to wrap their heads around this. “Wait, you want me to engrave it… the way it should look in the end? Not reversed??”
  4. If you’ve ever tried applying decals to anything you know how difficult this is. Now try doing it with tissue paper on a small curved object. There’s a reason the transferware industry regularly exploited child labor.
  5. My count of 30 comes from the list in R.J. Broadbent’s Annals of the Liverpool Stage, 1908, p. 68-69. If anyone has a, ahem, slightly more authoritative source, I’d love to know about it.
  6. As with most technological discoveries, there is a lot of debate as to who first invented transfer-printing. What is generally agreed upon is that Sadler and Green were the first in England to really make a commercial go of it. There is a grand telling of the Sadler-Green partnership in the December 1904 Burlington Magazine (Vol. 6, no. 21, p.232-234). Look it up if you want a giggle.
  7. Quoted in Hans van Lemmen, “From over-glaze to under-glaze: British transfer-printed tiles 1756–1854,” Journal of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, Vol. 23, 2017, p. 1
  8. Winterthur Museum’s Simsbury Room has a fireplace with these tiles in situ. (The linked blog post was done by a conservation postdoc at Winterthur.)

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