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A History Of English Fine Bone China

Aug 18, 2008
Dinner sets, tableware and crockery are embedded in British culture. A standing cultural joke is the saving of the fine china for a visit from the queen. This personifies the resilient survival mechanism that we islanders patented centuries ago, the ability to laugh at ourselves. It also demonstrates how embedded fine china is in our culture.

This was not always the case and it started during the opium wars as the long-standing trade agreements with China were forged. Many products such as silks, tea, spices and fine china were introduced into British society. Ceramics were being produced in England, however the clarity and quality of the Chinese exports were far superior and sought after.

English fine china began as a series of attempts to imitate the oriental porcelain and legend has it that the formation of English bone china was due to misinformation supplied by a Jesuit priest in giving an account of the Chinese porcelain production process. The Chinese sometimes referred to their clay as the bone of the china, this is thought to have been literally interpreted by the original English porcelain pioneers.

English producers of fine china began adding bone ashes to their porcelain production in the mid to late eighteenth century, which gave it a unique translucent quality and clear whiteness. Around the same period came the demise of the oriental imports as interior design changed, rendering Chinese style porcelain all but obsolete.

The opportunist generally accredited with the commercialisation of English fine china was Joshua Spode I, who started life working in pottery from the age of seven. He saw his father buried in a paupers grave and vowed to himself he would not share the same fate. He learned his craft with the most significant development in his career being the formula for English bone china.

The traditional formula for English bone china is two parts bone, one part china clay and one part china stone. China stone is also known as Cornish stone and is still mined in Cornwall to this day. This combination created durable strong fine china, with a translucent and delicate appearance. It became a massive commercial success, sold throughout the country and sometimes referred to as Stoke China.

Today English fine china is sold throughout the world and a lucrative market in antique fine china has established itself with certain manufacturers and period demanding hefty prices at auction. Fine china is also extremely popular as commemorative gifts, for weddings and anniversaries alike. It has strong cultural significance in British culture, as using the fine china always marks a special occasion.

Obviously if you are in possession of an antique piece of English fine china then it is not recommended that you dine with it whatever the occasion, as it could be worth a considerable sum. Despite the confused origins of fine bone china it was an economic success and continues to be an essential part of British cultural heritage.
About the Author
Shaun Parker is a curator of fine china and a regular contributor to heritage surveys on the subject.
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