Belleek Celebrates its 150th Anniversary

Jenny Cathcart meets the international collectors addicted to the oldest pottery in Ireland

The Craft
The Belleek touring exhibition, currently showing at Armagh County Museum, is the first event in an outreach programme of exhibitions and lectures, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund that will allow the Ulster Museum to continue its work during the refurbishment of its building at Botanic Gardens in Belfast.

Terracotta Water Cooler (c) Castle MuseumKim Mawhinney, curator of Ceramics and Glass. singled out some of the objects on display at the opening of the exhibition: a pair of kidney shaped earthenware plates dated October 8, 1868, hand painted by William Patterson, founder of the Belfast Naturalist Field Club whose members visited Belleek soon after the factory opened in 1857. A plaque commissioned as a wedding present for Isabelle Hamilton depicts Glengarriffe Cove in Co Cork, a scene painted by Eugene Sherrin. Born in Kilskeery, County Tyrone in 1856, Sherrin’s reputation grew when he decorated the 58 pieces in a full tea set with a different Irish landscape.

A small lidded acorn pot, the very first piece of Belleek to be acquired by the Ulster Museum collection, was donated in 1891 by Canon John Grainger from County Antrim, a phenomenal antiquarian who gave over 20,000 objects including pottery and archaeological specimens to the Museum Arts Centre in Royal Avenue, Belfast, prompting plans for a move to larger premises which eventually took place when the Ulster Museum was opened in Botanic Avenue in 1972.

This exhibition offers a glimpse of the range and variety of products which have been made in Belleek over the years; a pair of decorative ice pails from the Prince of Wales Dessert Service; a delicate Art nouveau glazed butter dish; a lidded basket festooned with flowers, gleaming with pearly nacreous glaze.

From the beginning, the factory, founded by landowner John Caldwell Bloomfield, produced high quality earthenware and delicate parian china designed and painted with flora and fauna, typical of the natural beauty of the area. The clay was made from locally mined kaolin and felspar and coal to fire the furnaces was shipped in by boat to nearby Ballyshannon. From the first period (1863 - 1890) onwards, every piece bore the stamp ‘without which none is genuine’.

By 1865 prestigious orders for centrepieces, tableware, mirrors and other fine objects were being received from Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales who prized the Parian china for its delicate translucency and the intricacy of its designs. Parian figurines such as a bust of Charles Dickens modelled by William Wood Gallimore resembled the marble statues which the Victorians loved, but were less expensive. Frederick Slater's International Showpiece

Gallimore and William Henshall, who introduced basket making and flower modelling at Belleek were just two of the artists who came from Goss in Staffordshire to help train local workers and establish Belleek’s reputation on the international scene. Frederick Slater’s International Centrepiece, currently on display in the foyer of the Belleek visitors’ centre, won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1900. Belleek had a stand at the 1926 Wembley Exhibition. Commemorative mugs were made for George V and Queen Mary’s Silver Jubilee. Eighteen single plates were created for America’s Bicentennial celebrations.

Annie Williams Armstrong, wife of the first pottery manager, and Gertrude Johnstone were noted female designers. Hungarian designer, Madame Boroniuxz, introduced Celtic motifs inspired by the Book of Kells while Irish lace patterns were replicated on Belleek plates and trays. The sisters Louise and Maude Allingham from Ballyshannon were the first to paint the shamrocks that became a hallmark of Belleek, especially in America where Belleek was prized by nostalgic emigrant communities.

Over the years the skills of basket weaving, modelling and painting have been handed down from father to son. The current chief designer, Fergus Cleary, who joined the modelling department in 1978 is a grandson of former craftsman, James Cleary. A tradition of flawless product pertains to this day for any blemished pieces are destroyed, and that can account for up to 25% of the output.

To mark the new millennium, managing director John Maguire and his team introduced a new range of modern designs featuring the work of Derry-born artist Marie McGrellis. Belleek Living offers a range of tableware and glass, vases and lamps that now command between 50% and 70% of the market.

The Collectors
At the launch of the touring exhibition some 350 collectors converged on the Castle Museum in Enniskillen, welcomed by the president of the International Collectors Society Angela Moore, a native of Newry, Co Down, whose husband George Moore has owned Belleek Pottery Ltd since 1990.

Among the visitors were Vicki and Bob Pearce from Maitland, Florida who, inspired by a piece which Bob’s mother acquired as a wedding present, have been collecting Belleek for 25 years. 575 unique pieces are on permanent display in all areas of their 3000 sq ft American home, known to their friends as ‘The Museum’.Items in collectors salesroom

The couple live in a perpetual pleasure dome fitted with special door and window shutters and insured against hurricane damage to protect the precious objects. They are most proud of their Twisted Convolvulus Basket, hand made on a mould with twisted spaghetti-like strands of clay. As secretary and treasurer of the Sunshine Chapter of Florida, Bob hosts collectors’ meetings in his home, serving dinner on Belleek plates. The lure of Belleek has been so irresistible that the couple now own a cottage in the village where they spend at least two months every year.

Linda and Eddie Murphy from Stoke on Trent in the Potteries district of Staffordshire drove to the convention in their Range Rover, which has a custom made Belleek emblem emblazoned on the spare wheel cover. They are so knowledgeable about the history of the Belleek range that they have picked up many bargains. For them the spell of Belleek lies in the constant references to nature – lilies, lotus flowers and lizards; thistles, thorns and tulips; butterflies and beetles. Eddie and Linda Murphy

At a collectors' salesroom set up during the convention, stall holder Eileen O’Loughlin from Newry had ‘priced to sell’ as much as possible of her considerable collection. Marion, Lady Langham was on hand to share her vast knowledge and to sign copies of her three publications which are important reference books for collectors. Olive Clarke, one of Fermanagh’s foremost collectors, was selling items which she and her mother Beatrice McElroy had collected.

In 1979, American Richard Degenhardt set up the first Collector’s Society and today there are 99 chapters in the States and over 8,000 members worldwide. Angela Moore believes that men, who make up more than half the membership, enjoy collecting because it appeals to their hunting instincts. Gene Krock was known as the ‘Teaset King’ because he acquired pieces from all of the 39 different sets which have been manufactured.

The writer Mark Twain, a Southern gentleman who liked to take tea on his estate ordered a 24-carat gold Chinese tea set with silk handles to be sent from Ireland. The teapot alone is now worth $12,000.

One of the largest ever collections belonged to a Texan named Horace Manning Mann which, when it sold at auction in 1988, was reckoned to have fetched around $7 million. Items in collectors salesroom

The Collectors’ Convention elected their 2007 Honouree, the person whom they believe has worked most assiduously for the Belleek Collectors International. The honour was bestowed on Helen Rankin, Secretary of the Northern Ireland Collectors group. The Collectors also contribute to an annual study bursary for a student in Ceramics and Celtic studies at the University of Ulster.

At the visitors’ centre shop in Belleek, convention delegates inspected the latest designs, including the Belleek Living range. As they jostled to buy discontinued lines in the warehouse, one eager American lady, keen to add to her collection boasted, ‘I’m a 375 piecer!’

Take a tour at the world famous Belleek pottery.