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Parian Ware–Affordable Art for the Masses
by Bob Brooke

The marble-like beauty of Parian Ware captivated Victorians. It allowed the middle classes to possess articles of high art. And by the end of the 19th Century, every properly furnished Victorian parlor contained at least one piece of it. Victorians welcomed Parian’s inexpensive, small-scale copies of busts of literary and political figures, as well as its decorative vases, boxes and pitchers, adorning their homes with these ornaments to show their gentility. It’s been said that Parian had the same effect on statuary as the invention of the print to painting.

Less expensive than bronze and more durable than plaster, Parian was a development of earlier biscuit porcelain. Its invention did not come out of thin air, however. It was a derivative of the unglazed, white porcelain biscuit figures produced by French factories such as Sevre. Since biscuit was a very flat and cold porcelain, various firms and individuals attempted to find a warmer, creamier material, more like marble from which they could mold decorative items.

History of Parian Ware
The official catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851 gives Thomas Battam credit for inventing Parian, saying that "he succeeded in producing a very perfect imitation of marble, both in surface and in tint." While Battam may have invented it, several English factories claimed credit for its development. But the Staffordshire firm operated by William Taylor Copeland and Thomas Garrett was the first to produce and sell it in 1842, and went on to become one of its major manufacturers.

Parian blacksmith.Several potteries marketed it under different names. The Copeland firm called it "statuary porcelain" because of its resemblance to the fine white marble of neoclassical sculpture. Wedgwood named it "Carrara," after the Italian quarry patronized by Michelangelo. But it was Minton which coined the word "Parian" to suggest Paros, the Greek isle that furnished much of the stone used in the classical period. Thus, it quickly became the medium's generic name.

Ultimately, potteries produced two varieties of Parian ware: statuary Parian, used in the making of figures and reproductions of sculpture, and standard, Parian, from which they made hollowware. Statuary Parian, incorporating a glassy frit–a semi-fused substance used to add density–was classified as soft porcelain. Standard parian, with a greater proportion of feldspar in the composition but no frit, was hard porcelain. The presence of iron in the feldspar without iron silicate caused early Parian statuary to appear ivory-tinted. Both English and American potters either obtained details of the original formula or worked out their own, resulting in enormous production of Parian wares on both sides of the Atlantic. Plus the invention in 1844 of a patented machine that allowed scaled reproductions of larger bronze or marble originals made replicas of figures and busts by noted sculptors widely available.

The Art Union of London's order in 1846 for Parian models of John Gibson's marble statue of Narcissus was the first major commission of Parian statuary porcelain. The Art Unions, subscriber services for fine art reproductions, proved crucial in popularizing Parian ware.

Christopher Webber Fenton and his brother-in-law Julius Norton first made Parian in America at their pottery in Bennington, Vermont. Bennington had been a center for the production of utilitarian salt-glazed stoneware since the early part of the century, but Fenton and Norton seized the opportunity to expand their horizons that the developing mechanization of the ceramics industry offered. The arrival of John Harrison, a potter from England's Copeland Works, in 1843, enabled Fenton, by 1846, to begin manufacturing Parian figures that at first copied English designs. Using plaster molds, Fenton made not only figures but also decorative ornaments that included everything from vases decorated heavily with applied grapes, leaves and tendrils to boxes and cologne bottles destined for the mantles and whatnots in scores of American homes.

Parian doctor statue.During the next two years, Norton having abandoned the operation, Fenton used the mark "Fenton's Works; Bennington, Vermont." When he acquired a new partner, a local businessman named Alanson Potter Lyman, Fenton changed the factory's name to the United States Pottery Company.

Daniel Greatbach, a Staffordshire potter who arrived in Bennington after beginning his American career in Jersey City, New Jersey, did much of the firm’s designing. Consistent with English counterparts of the mid-1840s through the 1850s, relief molding on Bennington pitchers and vases usually consisted of the naturalistically rendered plant forms of the Rococo-revival style.

Unfortunately, the factory closed in the Spring of 1858 due to the high cost of labor, the high losses by breakage, and the rough competition posed by cheaper imported articles. Unfortunately, a stigma of inferiority marked the American Parian industry, for it was generally held that imported goods, English in particular, were inherently better, whatever their quality.

Thus, over the following 60 or so years, England’s best known Parian makers continued to produce large numbers of pieces. By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, Parian ware had declined in popularity.

Until the arrival of Parian, sculpture was primarily the domain of royalty and the wealthy. Queen Victoria surrounded herself with marble statues of her children and commissioned a statue of her beloved Prince Albert attired, surprisingly, as a Roman. And Americans often returned triumphantly from their Grand Tours of Europe with Parian statues that spoke eloquently of their Continentally acquired "culture."

Making Parian Ware
Potters made Parian statues by slip-casting. They poured liquid porcelain, or slip, into a mold and allowed it to harden enough to coat the walls of the mold. They then poured out the excess, creating a thin-walled, hollow form.

Parian statue of Narcisus.Because Parian had a higher proportion of feldspar than porcelain, makers fired it at a lower temperature. The increased amount of feldspar caused the finished body to be more highly vitrified, thus possessing a color verging on ivory and having a marble-like texture that’s smoother than that of biscuit, or unglazed, porcelain. Potters either made relief ornamentation by hand or in a mold. They left most Parian in its natural, creamy white state, but applied background colors, usually shades of blue, to contrast with the relief motifs.

During the 1870s and 1880s, as the Parian era flourished and faded, potters introduced tints into the medium. Because the matte surface of the material attracted dirt, which was difficult to remove, makers protected much of the Parian made here and abroad with a smear glaze, achieved by chemicals added to the kiln in much the same way that they add salt to a kiln of stoneware. The slight sheen of the smear glaze also preserved the Parian’s crisply molded details, which would have blurred under a viscous finish. However, potters fully glazed the interiors of vases and pitchers intended to hold liquids.

The exact ingredients of Parian, as well as the firing process, varied between different manufacturers and even for different pieces and batches by the same manufacturer producing all sorts of variations. There’s little doubt that some of the early Parian statuary pieces did indeed achieve the look and feel of marble. However, others developed a color, texture, and feel which wasn’t a replication of marble but which had its own unique characteristics. It may have been this evolution of Parian into a unique material in its own right which led some of the manufacturers to think about producing non-statuary pieces in Parian.

Among the most beautiful and successful wares invented by 19th-century potters were those decorated in what came to be known in England as pate-sur-pate, a paste-on-paste technique devised sometime after 1870 by Marc-Louis Solon of Minton's in England. Solon used pate-sur-pate, involving both modeling and painting techniques, on stained Parian ware decorated with reliefs in translucent tinted or white slip, the colors being laid one upon the other.

In most fields of human endeavor, progress tends to produce better results over time. This wasn’t the case with Parian, as inferior material tended to predominate and many later figures were poor copies of earlier high quality ones. It’s a characteristic of Parian that it loses up to one third of its size in firing and many later direct copies are physically smaller than the originals. Thus, most of the finest quality pieces tend to be from the first 30 years of Parian production.

Generally, only the major Parian makers marked their pieces and then only their statuary. Many non-statuary pieces weren’t marked.

"Fenton's Works; /Bennington,/Vermont," the mark used by Fenton’s Bennington firm, clearly identifies the pitchers made prior to 1853, the year in which the pottery changed its name to the United States Pottery Company. The earlier of the two is a raised or applied mark impressed "UNITED STATES/ POTTERY CO./ BENNINGTON, VT.," which appears on four of their pitcher patterns–Cascade, Climbing Ivy, Tulip and Sunflower, and Paul and Virginia without figures. A raised ribbon mark with the initials "U.S.P." was the last mark used on Parian by this firm. The ribbon also features two numbers denoting the pattern number and the capacity of the pitcher.

Popular Forms of Parian
A long parade of portrait busts of such diverse notables as Shakespeare, Disraeli and Napoleon, and statuettes of everyone from Venus to Red Riding Hood emanated from English makers who followed their making of statuary with such other ornamental pieces as pitchers and vases. Copeland even issued Parian figures of a black slave to cater to the American market during Civil War years.

American factories issued busts of Milton, Byron, and even Apollo, as well as figures representing Autumn, angels, cherubs, children, animals and birds, along with copies of noted American sculptors such as Hiram Powers' famous statue, The Greek Slave. They made everything from three-quarter life-size busts to small heads that capped the handles of canes and umbrellas.

American makers also borrowed subjects from national sports–the baseball figures made at the Ott and Brewer pottery by Isaac Broome, for example–or from national occupations, such as the blacksmith executed for the Union Porcelain Works by Karl L. H. Muller.

Victorians valued pitchers and vases of various sizes and shapes, including those shaped like hands holding receptacles for flowers or ears of corn or shells. Some had white relief decoration of grapes and vines, oak leaves, or climbing roses against a blue stippled background.

Potters at Bennington made some with blue porcelain slip baked and fused with the white Parian. They also used other colors, notably pink and green, which aren’t commonly found these days.

What to Look For When Buying Parian
Parian pitcher.There’s a misconception that any unmarked Parian pieces from New England had to have been made by the United States Potter Company of Bennington. This myth seems to have originated in the 1920s with Dr. Charles Green, a New York physician and ceramics enthusiast, who amassed a large collection of Parian trinket boxes and vases during his antiquing forays throughout New England. Without knowledge of imported English ceramics into New England, he reasoned that anything found there must have been manufactured there. Since the Bennington pottery was known to have made some Parian, Green reasoned that all his unmarked Parian must have been made there as well.

It’s a known fact that English immigrant potters brought with them a supply of English plaster casts and design molds to use in America. A pitcher can resemble an English one so closely as to suggest that it was cast in a mold made from the original piece. Therefore, it can be extremely hard for a beginning collector to tell the difference between unmarked English and American Parian Ware.

Potteries all over the British Isles produced Parian pieces to meet the growing demand for this affordable ware. Leading makers of it included Copeland, Minton, Worcester, Wedgwood, Goss, and Robinson and Leadbeater. Much of the statuary came from the work of the period’s finest artists, who approved of the fidelity of reproductions in Parian.

Since many collectors of porcelain regard Parian as too austere in its marble-like whiteness and not of the high quality of pure porcelain, interest in it by dealers is low. Few dealers on either side of the Atlantic specialize in it to any extent. Some may have a few pieces of Parian on hand, while others sell it when they come by it.

Some pieces may be heavily and/or poorly restored. It’s always worth looking at what small dealers have, but the serious collector is likely only to find acceptable pieces perhaps one time in a hundred.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.

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