The idyll of the farmhouse kitchen evokes images of a glowing kitchen range and a rustic dresser filled with blue and white tableware, the latter a tradition that has been around for centuries.
There are three main types of blue and white ware. Porcelain, the origin of all later ceramics, is what the explorer Marco Polo saw on his travels in the 1270s. Almost transparent when held up to the light, this is the finest of all ceramics. Delft, Europe’s answer to porcelain, is simply terracotta or earthenware pottery with a tin or lead glaze, giving the appearance of porcelain. It scratches easily and decoration can be chipped off. The third type, bone china, is made from a mixture of clay, potash and bone which turns white when fired. It can be decorated in any style and this is mostly what we think of as ‘Granny’s blue and white china’.
Most antique fairs, car boot sales, auctions and antique shops will have some blue and white ware, from whole dinner and tea sets to more unusual items or single pieces. Dating from the 18th century or earlier to modern factory-made tableware, prices range from a few pounds to several thousand. It’s possible to buy Chinese blue and white plates made in the Kang Isi period (1760-1810) from £10 to £15 for a damaged or cracked plate to £200 or more for a perfect one. Tea bowls (18th century tea cups) are a simple and cheap way to start collecting blue and white porcelain and again simple pieces found at car boot sales or auction for under £20, make a wonderful display on a mantel piece or shelf. Some of the smaller antique shops specialise in ceramics – Mrs Humphreys in Thistle Street, Edinburgh often has a good selection of blue and white wares, as so George Heggarty at 137 West Port, Edinburgh, and Tim Wright Antiques in Glasgow’s Bath Street.
Although Spode still make blue and white, if you want to start collecting you could start with earlier Spode Italian ware which is both functional and decorative. An impressed two digit number on the base of a piece of Spode represents the year, eg 35 for 1935. 19th century and early 20th century Spode blue and white is decorated with a much deeper and richer blue than that found on modern examples. The decoration on Spode was applied by transfer as opposed to hand and manufacturing imperfections can frequently be spotted, such as patterns which have been applied squint or overlapped. Expect to pay from £5 to £10 for a plate in a shop and, if you’re lucky, £20 - £30 at auction for a bowl. Delft ware can be difficult to find in this country, particularly undamaged. That said, it’s not always expensive; expect to pay £20 - £30 at auction for an 18th century tile, and from £30 to £200 for a plate depending on decoration and condition. There are more unusual items in each type of blue and whiter ceramic, such as Delft tulip vases which can now fetch some £10,000 to £20,000. Tulips in Holland in the 17th century were worth more than gold and only the very rich could afford them. As a result, few of these vases were made – their rarity reflected in the price today. More affordable unusual items include apothecary jars – sometimes still with the name of the original contents written on the front. These can be acquired for around £80 to £500 depending on whether they are 19th century copies or 17th century originals.