A couple of old ceramic jugs have come to my notice lately, one very collectable, the other quite common, but both perhaps offering something to canal history and the folk arts of the canals in particular.

The first is a very elegant piece from 1823, a three pint pearlware ‘ale jug,’ although in an age without taps it might have been an all purpose liquor jug — water, milk, cider or beer. It is a piece of ‘lustreware’, decorated with a lovely pink and copper lustre glaze that gives the jug its striking smokey gold colour, both in the band round the top and in the pictorial decoration. What makes it even more collectable and rare is that it is named and dated, not by the maker but for the man that owned it, and who presumably commissioned it in the first place. It is inscribed on the front with the name W.Massey – Flatman 1823. Now, at present the only trade that I know that would be described at that time as flatman would have been someone who worked on  Mersey ‘Flats’, the regional sailing barges of the Mersey estuary and all its associated waterways, including  the local coastal ports from North Wales to the Furness peninsular. On one side it bears a little landscape featuring a couple of houses with two tiny figures in the foreground, a generalised picturesque view of some fairly humble buildings amongst trees with a vague mountain in the background. Such romanticised views of rural life are turning up on all sorts of decorated items by this time so it is not a big surprise to find one here, but the view on the other side of the jug is more of a challenge.

Two old jugs with waterway links

Here the central subject is a square-rigged barge sailing past a rather grand house against the obligatory mountainous back ground. Is this a real place with a real barge or just an imagined landscape with a generalised barge-like boat? Did Mr Massey specify what he wanted the decorator to do, and would he have accepted it if the flat wasn’t accurate? There is some evidence of square rigged barges in the area in the late eighteenth century but by the middle of the nineteenth, when there is a clearer record, all the Mersey flats were rigged with a single high peaked fore and aft mainsail and jib. Perhaps if we knew where it was made it would help. If it were made in Liverpool — which is possible — our decorator could have been familiar with the local boats. However it is more likely to have been made and painted in the Staffordshire potteries where the information link might be more tenuous. Or it might have been made in Yorkshire, or up in the North East of England where much of this lusterware was produced. Oh, so many questions, and most of them probably unanswerable at this distance in time.

But we still have the object, which is a delight. It is an elegant shape and each of the landscapes are neat proficient compositions that fit their allotted spaces gracefully. The paintwork is confident but careful as befits a good professional and each picture tells its story very subtly considering it is all done in pure tone, without natural colour. Lovely.



The other jug is a much more humble crock, a curvy slip-moulded one pint jug for milk, or beer perhaps, made in the 1830s or 40s my expert daughter thinks. But where it was made is again something of a problem. It is quite likely to be from the Stoke-on-Trent potteries of course but could equally be from Burton or Manchester or Leeds or any other little pot works around the country because it was such a common pattern. So too is the decoration –assorted flowers and sprigs of leaves swiftly painted on with confident free-flowing brush strokes. In fact the design is almost thrown on and what grace it has is largely down to the slick professionalism of the brushwork, the brash confidence of a tradesman, or tradeswoman more likely, decorating dozens or maybe hundreds of such items every day. Any subtlety of colour is down to the variation of the thickness of the glaze and the pattern of the translucent brushmarks, and each flower is really just a vague floral idea dashed on to the white background with a single colour without any fiddling or retouching. Attractive, fast and cheap!


The canal interest here is the striking similarity of the floral decoration on the jug to the style of flower decoration that had developed on canal narrow boats a half a century later. Was it a pottery painter who started the tradition? There’s no proof, but it is certain that there were hundreds of skilled decorative painters close to the canal who were capable of doing this sort of work. Boats from the Potteries were carrying cratefuls of the stuff down to the docks for export and it is unlikely that the cabin boats were not well furnished with this sort of crockery as well, whether legitimately or otherwise. The imagery of the lusterware jug is interesting too although somewhat further up the class ladder. Gentle friendly picturesque landscapes were appearing everywhere in this early Victorian period, on art gallery walls at the top end and on papier-mache and tinware trays at the other, as well as on our pottery. The fashion, imagery, technique and tradesmen were all present alongside the canal so what more do you want? Well some hard evidence would be nice and less of an information gap between the documented fashion and the surviving decorated canalware that remains to us. Oh, so many questions….



All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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