Agateware is characterized by the use of a variegated ceramic paste created by mixing two or more different color clays. ftn1 Produced in both stoneware and earthenware, agateware falls into two broad types: thrown agateware and laid agateware.
Potters manufacturing agateware mixed clays of differing colors in an attempt to create the look of agate, a semiprecious stone. Agateware can be classified into two main types: thrown agate and laid agate (Erickson and Hunter 2003). The difference in these two types lies primarily with the initial preparation of the clay and with how the clay is manipulated to form the vessel. These differences are summarized in the Description section below. The 2003 article “Swirls and Whirls: English Agateware Technology” by Michelle Erickson and Robert Hunter contains an excellent discussion and photographs of the production processes for both types of agateware, as well as a more extended historical perspective.
Thrown Agateware - The earliest documented agateware was produced as thrown stoneware by John Dwight in the 1670s and was also made later in the century by Francis Place of York (Erickson and Hunter 2003: 87, 90; Edwards and Hampson 2005:12). Larger-scale commercial production of agateware in England started in the second quarter of the eighteenth century (Erickson and Hunter 2003: 90). By this time, production appeared to have shifted to earthenware pastes. Thrown agateware tea and tableware continued to be manufactured into the early 1770s, but was most popular in the 1750s (Erickson and Hunter 2003:91).
Thicker-bodied earthenware vessels of thrown agate began production in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. These coarser agatewares were typically manufactured in utilitarian bowls, plates and dishes and often have rouletted rim bands accented with white slip (Erickson and Hunter 2003:91). The manufacture of these coarser wares had all but ceased in Staffordshire by the late eighteenth century, but some British centers continued production into the nineteenth century (Erickson and Hunter 2003:91).
Agateware was also manufactured in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, predominantly in lead glazed red earthenware. Agateware doorknobs (also known as “mineral knobs” in period patents and trade catalogs) with clear or Rockingham-style glazes were also being produced in the nineteenth century (Eastwood 1988). ftn2
It is uncertain exactly when the techniques for creating laid agateware were developed. Simeon Shaw, in his 1829 history of the Staffordshire potteries, suggests that Dr. Thomas Wedgwood of Burslem (1695-1737) was the earliest potter associated with this process. The earliest known dated laid agateware vessel is from 1746 (Erickson and Hunter 2003: 92-93). Laid agate remained popular until at least the 1770s (Hildyard 2005:90).
Agateware fabric consists of two or more colored clays “wedged together, cut and worked until the desired scale and complexity of the ‘agate’ pattern was achieved” (Hildyard 2005:222). Because of the clay mixing, the color variations run through the entire body of the vessel. This mixed paste contrasts with the color variations on marbled slipware, which just sit on the surface of the vessel. In the 1740s, Thomas Whieldon stained white clays with metallic oxides to create blue, black and green clays that supplemented the color palette of naturally colored clays.
Thrown agateware vessels were formed on a potter’s wheel using a paste of mixed clays. Clay slabs were stacked and restacked in alternating clays, then folded (wedged) into a ball to mix the clays. The wedged clay was then thrown on the potter’s wheel to form the vessel. The differently colored clays always form a striped, spiraled design on wheel-thrown agateware. These spirals are usually oriented on the diagonal, created by the rising of the vessel wall as it is pulled up on the rotating potter’s wheel (Rickard 2006:20). Thrown agateware vessels were trimmed on a lathe to better reveal the agateware pattern that had been “muddied” during the throwing process.
The creation of laid agateware involved different methods of preparing the clay and shaping the vessel. With laid agate, the veined clay pattern was produced before the vessel was formed. Preparing the clay was a multi-step, complicated process that involved creating thin slabs of alternating clays that were then used to create veined clay coils. Grouped coils were used to create thin sheets of alternating veined patterns, which could then be further refined by cutting, rearranging and joining thin strips of clay to form sheets. These sheets of prepared clay were then pressed into molds to create hollow vessels like teapots and cream jugs. Laid agate allowed greater flexibility in control over the veined design, which could be made smaller or larger by rolling or squeezing the clay (Hildyard 2005).
Earthenware-pasted agateware is usually glazed with a clear lead glaze that allows the multiple colors and veining of the mixed clay to show through. Agateware was one of the first earthenwares to be fired twice: first to a biscuit stage and then a second firing after being dipped in lead glaze. Stoneware-pasted agateware is salt glazed.
The veined and mixed paste was the primary decorative aspect of agateware and additional decorative elements were uncommon. Late seventeenth-century thrown agate stoneware vessels found at the Fulham pottery of John Dwight were sometimes embellished with sprig molding (Green 1999:129). Hollow vessels like teapots and coffeepots created with laid agate were often press molded in very elaborate and detailed designs that added another element of decoration.
During the second quarter of the eighteenth century, vessels of red earthenware were sometimes embellished with inlaid bands of agate clay, but it appears that they were not produced in large quantities (Hildyard 2005:69, 222). Fragments of teapots decorated in this fashion have been excavated from the Pomona Works of Samuel Bell, in operation between 1724 and 1744 (Barker and Halfpenny 1990:33), and similarly decorated wasters have been attributed to John Astbury, operating around the same time period (Rickard 2006:19). In the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century, sheets of laid agateware were sometimes inlaid or laminated on creamware and pearlware, often in conjunction with mocha decoration (Erickson and Hunter 2003:94).
Salt glazed stoneware agatewares were produced in bottle, tankard, gorge and flask forms. In the thinner-bodied, finer-pasted earthenware agateware (both thrown and laid), vessels were often produced in teaware and other hollow forms, including teapots, coffeepots, cappuchines, mugs, small jugs and bowls. Also produced were cutlery handles and figurines of animals, such as cats, birds or rabbits. Coarser agate earthenware wheel-thrown forms are found in utilitarian plates, bowls and dishes.
1. Agateware is not to be confused with Buckley coarse earthenware, which also has a variegated paste (typically red and yellow clays). Buckley wares are typically covered with a thick black lead glaze that obscures the variegated paste. For more information on Buckley wares, click here.
2. The earliest reference found in US Patents that mentions mineral door knobs is from 1843 (Improvement in the method of attaching door-knobs to their spindles. https://www.google.com/patents/US2904), but mineral doorknobs appear in hardware trade catalogs into the late nineteenth century.
Barker and Halfpenny 1990; Eastwood 1988; Edwards and Hampson 2005; Erickson and Hunter 2003; Green 1999; Hildyard 2005; Rickard 2006