Combining digital print technologies with 18th Century underglaze ceramic printing to retain an industrial heritage process in collaboration with Burleigh potterySteve Hoskins and David Huson have been awarded follow-on-funding from the AHRC for the 12 month project Combining Digital Print Technologies with 18th Century Underglaze Ceramic Printing to Retain an Industrial Heritage Process in collaboration with Burleigh Pottery.
This project builds upon previous research Hoskins undertook in 2000, also funded by the AHRC: Reappraising the creative potential of underglaze ceramic transfer printing in the light of new technology
Underglaze tissue ceramic transfer printing was first developed in the mid 18th Century and involved the use of engraved or etched metal plates, from which the tissue was printed with a cobalt blue or manganese ceramic ink (an oxide with a printing vehicle) the famous ‘Willow Pattern’ being perhaps the best known example. Underglaze tissue has a very distinctive, subtle quality, due to the oxide blending with the glaze. It is an integral part of English ceramic history, which cannot be replicated by any other means. The process lost favour because it was slow and required skilled artisans to apply the transfers. This 18th Century process continued to be used in the UK ceramics industry up until the 1980s.
However from the 1950s it began to be replaced, first by lithography, then by screen-printing. Screen-print remains the most common printed decorative technique for complex shapes, supplemented by Pad printing for hollow ware. Screenprinting is cheaper, quicker, multi-coloured and photographic imagery can be printed. However because it is on-glaze (on the glaze itself) it will wear and fade in a dishwasher and has none of the subtleties and delicate qualities of underglaze. Underglaze is far more permanent because it is being literally under the glaze. Pad printing (both onglaze and underglaze) is very quick and produces a very similar result to screenprint, however it can only be used on flat and gentle concave surfaces. Technological change is never an even process and a few companies continued to hold onto the original tissue process, Spode alongside Burgess and Leigh (Burleigh) were the last tissue printers to continue the
process into the 21st Century.
With the demise of Spode in 2008, Burleigh were left as the last commercial underglaze tissue printers. This project seeks to collaborate with Burleigh to consolidate a commercial future and retain the unique skillbase for this historic, very British, process whose development is part of a uniquely British form and thus of our cultural heritage. Its aesthetic qualities are not reproducible by other methods and it offers numerous artistic as well as commercial possibilities. The underglaze print process involves either engraving an image, which is cut or punched into the metal with specialist tools, or etching which involves the use of acid to bite the image into the plate (in on-glaze the image is either screen-printed or laser printed digitally onto a gummed release paper that is then subsequently coated with a covercoat, to create a waterslide transfer). In both processes ink containing suitable ceramic pigments is applied into the recesses of the plate. Excess ink is wiped away from the surface leaving the recessed image areas filled with ink. Printing can take place from a flat plate or engraved roller. The printed image is then either transferred to the un-glazed (biscuit fired) ceramic ware via a wet strength tissue, or slab of gelatine known as a ‘bat’, the resultant print is then fired, thus bonding the image permanently to the ceramic surface. A clear glaze is then applied to the ware. This both protects the printed image and enhances the colour of the pigments.
Burleigh are the last company to print underglaze tissue commercially and were funded by the Princes' Regeneration Trust in June 2011, saving the company from imminent closure. The Trust's involvement has already saved 50 jobs, maintaining the traditional manufacturing skills unique to Middleport, and preserving the historic buildings, collection of moulds and machinery. The Princes' Trust has specified that pottery production should remain at Middleport for the next 25 years. However there is a long-term issue with both the maintenance and production of printing rollers and plates, which in the past have been hand engraved. CFPR’s project aims to redress that issue by introducing the potential of printing traditional potters underglaze tissue, both printing and applying it in the same way as the 18th Century process, but creating the plate from a digital file - thus reducing the time taken to engrave a roller from one month to less than a day to create a digital equivalent roller, whilst retaining the integrity of the final product. This project offers the potential to retain important skills within the pottery industry and make sure that an extant and working Victorian Pottery remains a viable part of the community and the nation's industrial heritage.