First sold in the Regency period as a robust alternative to porcelain, Mason's Ironstone China soon won customers with its attractive enamelled decoration, and is still widely appreciated today.
A great variety of patterns appeared on Mason's Ironstone including blue and white in the Chinese style. Most, though, drew on the Japanese tradition and were rendered in a sparkling palette of luminous enamel colours over a natural white ground.
Mason's Ironstone, a strong, hardwearing stoneware that imitated the shapes and decoration of 18thcentury porcelain, was developed in the early 19th century by Miles Mason, a Staffordshire porcelain dealer and manufacturer. Although it was a stoneware, it became the 'household china' of the aspiring middle classes who could not afford porcelain for everyday use.
Mason retired in 1813 and handed the business to his sons, Charles, who patented the name 'Mason's Patent Ironstone China', and George, who worked mainly on the administrative side. The patent name was a masterstroke, conjuring up both the strength of stoneware and the refinement of porcelain.
The ware backed up the name. Made from a whitish clay mixed with a powdered glassy slag, it was smooth, slightly translucent, but robust. When tapped with a fingernail, it gave off a satisfying metallic ring. It was also richly colourful and sold for an affordable retail price. These features made it an instant success.
The basic decoration was transfer-printed onto the body of the ware and then given a protective glaze. Pieces were hand-coloured with bright enamels - luminous greens, blues and reds, together with subtler washes - then finished with rich gilding.
The designs were usually all-over patterns, the majority of them derived from oriental designs, particularly the Japanese Imari style, but various European designs, including Italianate landscapes, were also used.
CANDLESTICKS AND CARD-RACKS
An astonishingly wide range of wares was produced. As well as individual pieces, like teapots, mugs and covered bowls, there were extensive dinner and dessert services and the famous octagonal vases in graduated sets. Inkstands, tall 'Chinese' vases, candlesticks and card-racks, footbaths with matching jugs, ewers and basins, colourful
chamber pots and dainty sprinkling bottles for lavender water all came from the factory at Lane Delph.
From 1813 to about 1830, the quality of potting and decoration was high. In the 1830s, however, standards began to slip. Colours became harsher and gilding was less tastefully applied. Later, labour troubles began to afflict the factory. In February 1848, Charles Mason, who was by that time sole owner, was forced to file for bankruptcy, and the Patent Ironstone Manufactory was sold.
Many of the moulds and printing plates were acquired by Francis Morley, who, in partnership with Taylor Ashworth, created renewed interest in the ware. From 1862 to 1968, the business was run by members of the Ashworth family. In 1973 Mason's Patent Ironstone China became part of the Wedgwood group. It's still being made today.
MASON'S IRONSTONE COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Small sets of tableware and single pieces from Mason's more modest ranges are still quite widely available from antiques shops and fairs, specialist dealers and auction houses.
Marks on Mason's Ironstone can give a reasonably accurate idea of date. Pieces made between 1813 and 1815 bear the mark 'Patent Ironstone China' impressed within a circle. Between 1815 and 1825, 'Mason's Patent Ironstone China' was impressed into the clay in one, or two, lines. From just before 1820, a printed mark was also introduced. It consisted of a crown with 'Mason's' above and 'Patent Ironstone China' below.
With variations to the crown motif, and occasional substitutions of the word 'Improved' for 'Patent', this mark stayed in use even after Charles Mason sold the original business and it remained right up to the 1960s. The addition of the word 'England' points to a date after 1861, while 'Made in England' appears only on pieces made this century. Current pieces are marked 'Mason's Patent Ironstone'.
Precise identification remains a problem with a number of pieces, though, because not every item in a pair, trio or set was marked. Where these have been split up, it is difficult to know where and when the individual pieces originated. One clue is that pieces made by Ashworth, that is from the 1860s on, have a whiter body; earlier wares have a creamy tinge.
Mason's Ironstone is so durable that even pieces that have seen a century or more of use are still in remarkably good condition. For this reason, there is no real point in buying damaged pieces. The factory had a habit of releasing wares that would have been thrown away as wasters by others, with the glaze covering kiln cracks and even missing handles. These pieces do have collector's value.
Read articles and references:
Good standards are Warman's
English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain (Susan and Al Bagdade), and Marks
& Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain (William Chaffers).