At breakfast-time, Victorian sideboards would groan under the weight of delectable dishes served in attractive, specialized china.
From country houses to relatively humble homes, there was commonly more food on offer at a Victorian family breakfast than the table could decently cope with. The excess a choice of cold meats, devilled kidney, kedgeree, bacon, boiled eggs and loaves of bread, among other delights - were accommodated on a sideboard, which was generally covered with a white linen cloth.
All of these dishes, and others besides, had their own serving dishes, covered pots and boxes and platters. Sometimes these were part of a breakfast service. More usually, though, they were sold separately. As one-off, special zed items, they gave the potters the chance to indulge themselves in gorgeous glazes and flights of fancy. Majolica ware, introduced in the 1850s, was a favourite medium. Its vivid, cheery colours and relief moulding were ideally suited to serving china.
Dishes were moulded and decorated to reflect their use. Sardine boxes, similar to butter dishes but made to contain the fishy breakfast delicacy, were adorned with shining silver fish that served as handles, while boiled eggs were kept in warm water in basketwork dishes with covers moulded and coloured to resemble a sitting hen. Loaves of bread were brought to the sideboard on platters decorated with the colours of young and ripened wheat.
In the genteel urban breakfast rooms of Victorian industrial society, all the decorative motifs found on serving china were inspired by idyllic images of agricultural peace and plenty. Colourful, fat hens sat smugly on their nests, surrounded by platters wreathed in luxuriant and fruitful
CHINA COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Decorative and often brightly coloured, collectible without being prohibitively expensive, serving china is an excellent subject for collection. The wares can make an attractive display, or be used; modern standards of hygiene and taste, however, mean they will not necessarily be used for the same dishes. Few people today would gladly tackle salted sardines at the breakfast table, while a nest egg will gradually turn a three minute egg it to something more hard-boiled.
You'll very likely find one or two pieces at any specialist china dealer, while bargains may turn up in more general antiques shops, in antiques fair on market stalls or even at a car boot fair or jumble sale. It'll also be worth your while checking out lots of miscellaneous china at local auctions. The price of a piece of serving china will depend on its age, its maker, its condition and, crucially, its charm.
Mid-Victorian pieces are not always that easy to find, but don't despair. Edwardian and later ones, though generally less rare and expensive, can be just as well made and as much fun to collect.
Check everything you intend to buy for makers' marks. Marked pieces tend to be more valuable than unmarked ones, while some marks are a virtual guarantee of a good price. Majolica ware carrying a Minton mark, for instance, always fetches a premium price. Minton's china is also year marked; earlier pieces tend to be more expensive. Take a book of ceramic marks with you when you shop so you can do a quick on-the-spot check.
Serving china may have had some hard use in its time, so always check the condition of anything you are thinking of buying. Run your fingers over it to find hairline cracks, and hold the piece up to the light. Look for chips around the edges of dishes and boxes and on the inner rim of lids and be particularly careful to check for repaired or restored handles. Such difficult-to-spot defects will not make a piece valueless, but they should be reflected in a lower price.
As a general rule it's always best to buy only pieces that you like; purchasing a piece simply because you think it might be worth more than you are being asked to pay can lead to some expensive mistakes.