Saturday, April 10, 2010
Belleek Pottery and Porcelain
In 1849 John Caldwell Bloomfield inherited the Castle Caldwell estate, which encompassed the village of Belleek (just across the border in Northern Ireland). Mindful of the plight of his tenants in the aftermath of the potato famine, he sought to provide some form of worthwhile employment. An amateur mineralogist, he ordered a geological survey of his land. To his delight it revealed the necessary raw materials to make pottery: feldspar, kaolin, flint, clay and shale.
The village of Belleek was a natural choice to locate the enterprise, because it provided the best opportunity to exploit the power of the River Erne to drive a mill wheel strong enough to grind components into slip, the term applied to liquid potters clay.
Bloomfield acquired partners in the venture, an architect from London with a keen interest in ceramics and a wealthy Dublin merchant. Next he pulled strings, lobbied and practically paved the way single handedly for the Railway Service to come to Belleek. By rail, coal could be brought in to fire the kilns. and the finished Belleek product could be sent to market with ease. Raw materials, power, capital and transportation all in place, plans for the construction of a pottery plant were drawn up. In 1858 Mrs. Bloomfield laid the foundation stone.
The Belleek Pottery Factory as seen today.
Young apprentices and capable workmen were found locally, but 14 craftsmen were brought in from Stoke-on-Trent (England), since the partners knew that success hinged on experienced and talented craftspeople. Stoke-on-Trent was the epicenter of fine pottery and china production, home to Wedgwood, Spode, Royal Doulton and Minton.
This shamrock-shaped lattice basket is typical of the superior designs and craftsmanship of Belleek porcelain.
The pottery's early production centered on high quality domestic ware – pestles, mortars, washstands, hospital pans, floor tiles, telegraph insulators and tableware. However, from the beginning the partners wanted to make porcelain, not only to utilize the available mineral wealth, but also to give full scope to the craftsmanship developing in the plant. By 1863 a small amount of Parian porcelain was produced, although earthenware remained the principal product at Belleek until 1920.
Porcelain is a mixture of kaolin clay and feldspar. The descriptive name that stuck — Parian — was coined by Herbert Minton, after the Greek isle of Paros, the marble quarry for much of Greek statuary. Minton porcelain (now part of the Royal Doulton group) is produced in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Early commercial Parian porcelain products were typically molded designs of classical statuary; Parian porcelain is an unglazed marble-like product that became the rage during the Victorian era.
The years marched on, and so did the affairs of the nations. The Belleek plant struggled through the war years, with restrictions on exports taking their toll. World War II brought traumatic times to the factory, as coal for firing the kilns was rationed. Belleek ceased earthenware production entirely in 1946. In post war years electricity transformed the manufacturing process as water turbines and imported coal were retired from use. Belleek designs and craftmanship achieved a world-wide following from collectors who demanded the finest.
Ready to be painted and fired.
The 1980s and 1990s saw new ownership and an infusion of operating capital, culminating in the acquisition of Galway Crystal, Aynsley China, and Donegal Parian China. The Belleek Group today employs over 600 people with a yearly turnover of €40 million.