The enormous dinner services so prized by the Victorians have mostly been broken up; reassembling one is an enjoyable challenge for today's collectors.
The story of the dinner service - large and small plates, soup bowls, meat plate, vegetable tureens and comports
- begins in the middle of the 18th century. Although plates, cups and dishes existed before this, the British pottery industry, localized and disorganized, did not make them to uniform designs.
A dinner service came to be seen as a status symbol by rich families, who liked to display their wealth to guests. They were mostly one-offs, custom-made from English soft paste porcelain. These elegant services continued to be made from about 1745 until the early 1800s, although breakages and the
split up of services through inheritance mean that complete set is a great rarity today.
The fashion for dinner services spread to the burgeoning middle classes. They were cate d for by the Staffordshire potters, who
produced more affordable designs in both earthenware and stoneware. A great leap
forward came in 1761, when Josiah Wedgwood combined a strong, earthenware body with a fine, cream-coloured glaze.
This first 'creamware' proved instantly popular. Five years later Wedgwood introduced chin clay and china stone into the
creamware, and in 1780 reduced the amount of the latter to create an improved version,
known as 'pearlware', which proved to be an ideal ground for the newly fashionable decorative technique, transfer printing.
There was a great variety of transfer designs in the Regency period, often associated with gilding, but the most popular were oriental motifs, with willow pattern predominating. This fashion for all things oriental spread to hard paste porcelain, bone china and
- a special favourite for dinner services - Mason's Ironstone, patented in 1813.
The best quality services were hand-painted. Factories such as Worcester,
Derby and Coalport produced handsome services in sizes to suit the grandest mansions and smaller homes alike. Because Victorian families tended to be so large, it was not unusual for services to boast 18 or 24 place settings as well as a variety of dishes, tureens and comports.
As time went on, the average size of services decreased with the size of families. Six or eight place settings were normal by the Edwardian period. Throughout the 19th century, services continued to be made in bone china and porcelain as well as earthenware and stoneware. The cheaper materials, though, came to predominate as more and more families could afford to acquire the badge of respectability that was a dresser displaying their 'best' china service.
A dinner service was not just for dining. Whether it was brought out to impress guests invited to a formal meal or proudly displayed on a dresser, it showed that the owner was a person of substance and standing in the community, who appreciated the finer things in life.
The choice of 19th-century dinner services available to the collector is as wide as it was to the Victorians, but the price of a complete service has risen dramatically, far beyond the pockets of most people. As a result, the most practical approach to collecting is to buy single pieces, and attempt to build up a complete service over time.
Look around at what is available, and read general books on Victorian pottery and porcelain. Choose one or two factories and styles that you like and make yourself
familiar with their marks. Thus armed, you can look for individual pieces in china dealers, general antiques shops, markets and fairs, and even in boot sales and junk shops.
PAY AND DISPLAY
You are most likely to find plates and bowls for sale, but the quality and price of a service is largely fixed by the number of large pieces tureens, meat plates and comports - it contains, and these pieces are correspondingly more expensive when you buy them singly.
Dinner services can of course be used, but many of them were made as much for display as for the table. If you have the space for it, a Victorian dresser can be the ideal place to show off your treasures.
• Until 1828, finishing detail on transfer printed landscapes was pointed over the glaze. After that, new techniques make underglaze finishing a possibility.
• If a piece is crazed, the irregular cross crossing lines should be fairly close together. Where it has been faked, the crazing is widely spaced.
• Many porcelain designs were inspired by the French factory, Sevres, particularly Coalport and Worcester. The gilding is noticeably thinner on the British examples.
• Colours on earthenware are much bolder than on porcelain, which is translucent.
• Chipped edges reduce value, but it is worth considering a slightly damaged piece to help build up a service.