Previously, I posted an article about Early English Slipware. Two prominent producers of this style were Thomas Toft and Ralph Toft — so influential, in fact, that early English slipware style is sometimes referred to as “Toft ware” regardless of who produced the piece. Thomas and Ralph Toft created large slipware plates and platters, boldly decorated with trailed slip, and are highly prized pieces held in museums around the world.
Thomas Toft worked in northern Staffordshire, England, in the mid- to late-1600s. He is known to have died in 1698. Thomas Toft, like other English slipware potters, first coated earthenware clay “base” with a uniform coat of slip, which is essentially clay mixed with water, to form a smooth, even foundation for his decoration. Toft then used “trailings” of liquid clay of a different color atop a the slip foundation. Typically Toft used darker red slip trailings atop a cream-colored pale slip foundation, but in one example below he used black and green slips. Slipware potters like Toft used a lead oxide glaze which gave the pieces a warm amber tone.
About 30 pieces attributed to Thomas Toft remain in various collections around the world. As can be seen in the few samples provided here, Thomas Toft employed a variety of decorative motifs (heraldic animals, mermaids, portraits, vegetative forms, and biblical themes). The slip drawing on all pieces is simple, casual and naive, suitable to a type of ware sold to ordinary citizens as opposed to the aristocracy.
The Victoria & Albert Museum holds several examples of Thomas Toft pieces, one called “The Mermaid Dish.” The V&A has extensive notes about this piece on its website here. Quoting from this source:
“…whereas functional cups and posset pots were probably sold at fairs and taken in wicker panniers on horseback to distant parts of the country, these huge dishes emblasoned with the name of their maker seem to have been made as local advertisements for the (widely varying) skills of their creators. Despite the many surviving examples, they were apparently completely ignored in Staffordshire until Enoch Wood acquired two specimens for his factory museum, which opened about 1816…
“Although such wares were recognised as interesting examples of folk pottery by the time that the South Kensington Museum acquired this piece in 1869, it was only in the 1920s that the writings of the art critic Herbert Read helped to raise them to the level of English Primitive Art. The striking simple image perfectly adapted to its ‘frame’ on the dish was much admired by early studio potters such as Bernard Leach (1887-1979).“
The Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford holds a 3rd Thomas Toft dish, this one believed to show a portrait of the royal couple.
Because of the scale and preservation of these works, most scholars believe they were used primarily as decoration rather than cooking ware or dining ware.
I did find one multi-color piece by Thomas Toft, located in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University, shown below. (The Fitzwilliam Museum holds the single largest collection of English slipware that I found. Access their online collection here.) Notes on the museum’s website state: “The Temptation or Fall was a popular subject for the decoration of seventeenth-century slipware and delftware dishes. This one is unusual in having a dark brown slip ground. The angel, wyvern [winged dragon], and rabbit symbolize good, evil, and lust or fecundity respectively.”
Ralph Toft was believed to be Thomas’ brother, but could have been Thomas’ son. Ralph, too, created slipware pottery (as did a Cornelius Toft and a James Toft). An example of Ralph Toft’s work from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is shown below. Once again the artist employs a cream-colored slip foundation and dark clay slip trailings for decoration:
The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University has 5 items from Ralph Toft, including these two vessels. The first shows an example of “feathered” designs on the top and bottom, probably created by blending wet slip trailings into wet base colored slip with a feather.