Delicate Irish Pottery Shows Strength Through the Years

Eggshell thin and creamy white, the pottery known as Belleek is a perfect choice for the table as St. Patrick’s Day draws near.

Classic Belleek sports pale green shamrocks and delights collectors. Collectors all over the world enjoy it and purchase new pieces or old treasures when they can find them. Even QVC sells contemporary examples. But its story goes all the way back to the potato famine.

According to the Belleek Pottery Corporate website (belleekpottery.ie), it was in 1849 that John Caldwell Bloomfield inherited the Castlecaldwell estate, encompassing the village of Belleek, from his father. Because he was sensitive to the plight of his tenants due to the cruel famine, he was happy to find that his land included all the necessary raw materials to make pottery — feldspar, kaolin, flint, clay and shale.

The village is located on the River Erne, and this added the necessary power to turn the mill wheel and grind the raw materials into slip, the liquid clay that transforms into this lovely, luminous white pottery in the hands of a skilled craftsman.

Belleek is easy to like with its pearl-like luster and variety of tableware, baskets, figurines and vases. Shamrock, Tridacna, Echinus and Thorn are a few of the more popular patterns of Belleek tableware that have been produced historically. There are modern streamlined patterns, too, that are perfect for sophisticated brides and home decorators.

There are even lamps and vases done in colors, like green and blue, to tie in with fashion shades in home decor.

Prices aren’t bad either for these stylish accents; just check out the website mentioned above. A classic teapot is around $50 online right now, new.

Belleek is an example of Parian ware, an English and American hardpaste porcelain ware that was first developed in the mid-1800s. It has a white, hard surface and was used mainly for biscuit figures, at least initially.

Early Belleek pottery owners were able to make this fine porcelain once they added skilled craftsmen from England’s porcelain hub, Stoke-on-Trent. Early on, Belleek was focused on quality domestic ware like pestles, mortars, washstands, floor tile, tableware and even telegraph insulators.

But utilitarian items were not the only dream of the early owners. Like most Victorian glassmakers or pottery businessmen, they wanted to compete and gain international fame. In 1872, the Dublin Exposition featured Belleek. Items listed in the old catalog include artistic ware, such as statues, fancy compotes and impressive centerpieces.

Today in the Belleeks’ visitors center the famous piece that won the gold medal at the 1900 Paris Exhibition is on display. This decorative urn stands 28 inches tall and is a tribute to its master craftsman creator, Frederick Slater. It is decorated with flowers and Irish harps and rests on Irish wolfhounds.

These symbols are part of the famous Belleek mark. With some variation, the backstamp has always included the Irish wolfhound, a Celtic round tower, harp and shamrocks, so it’s an easy mark to distinguish. Dating a piece is possible if you know the colors of the mark through the years.

For example, the first three marks were usually in black and date from 1863-1946. After that, a series of green marks were used from 1946 till 1980. Then the gold/brown version followed until 1992, followed by a blue one (1992-96). Then Belleek went back to its original simple black mark but added a registry mark (an R inside a circle). From 1997-99, the mark was blue, and a special black version for the Millennium was used and retired at the end of the 20th century.

Recently the mark was green. Special red-marked pieces are those designed for the Belleek Collectors’ International Society and are limited edition pieces; it also added a brown 13th trademark to mark its 160th birthday.

Because consumers are becoming more knowledgeable and there is vast amount of buyer research online, the company launched its new website in 2010 and placed the website address on its current backstamp.

Membership in the international group is free, so check this offer out online if you’re interested. It includes limited edition opportunities, convention invitation, online magazines and a chance to buy, sell and trade with other collectors.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at zambitomaureen @hotmail.com or by writing in care of this newspaper.