Slipware was first produced in what is now the Netherlands and northeastern France in the 16th century. The product was successfully traded throughout continental Europe and found its way to England, where the imports inspired English potters to create local versions.
The English potters had previously used slip when making medieval tiles, and had also employed slip to decorate pottery jugs, but imported functional wares seemed to spark a large increase in slipware production in England the late 1500s, first in Somerset and later in north Devon.
Slip is essentially just clay mixed with water. Potters would apply an even coat of this liquified clay across the vessel to decorate. Early on, English potters would carve away portions of the slip coating to reveal the color of the underlying earthenware clay, a technique known as Sgrafitto.
Potters developed other techniques to blend together different colored slips into interesting, swirling surface patterns. English potters applied slip onto earthenware ceramic vessels with a quill, or through “slip trailers” made out of cow horn or pottery. Potters applied the slip “trails” directly onto the earthenware clay, frequently after first appling a light, uniform coating of slip over the earthenware surface. These “trailed” designs became quite elaborate and playful.
I love English slipware for its simplicity – almost naïve quality. It is lyrical and fun. Warm and engaging.
I am preparing a separate blog post about two of the more prominent English slipware potters: Thomas and Ralph Toft. I encountered several other interesting slipware potters when doing my research on the Toft family, including Henry Ifield, John Eaglestone, John Finley, Samuel Malkin, William Simpson, John Phillips Hoyle and George Ward. I’ve attached an example of several of these artists below (all from the Fitzwilliam Museum):
An interesting booklet on English Slipware, by David Barker, is available from Shire Books. Unfortunately, the illustrations are all B&W.
The Gardiner Museum has a small online collection of English slipware. Two delightful examples are shown below – the first a cup with the script “THOUGH NERE SO DEEP – YOU’L IN ME PEEP” encircling the rim, the second a “charger” or decorative plate.