Longton Hall porcelain is much sought after by collectors, and is very valuable. As it cannot truthfully be called beautiful, the reason for its value must be looked for in other directions. It will be found in the life history of its maker and the mystery, which has never been clearly solved, that attaches to this factory and its work.
William Littler, of Longton Hall, lived a life of hard work and much disappointment. His is a pathetic instance of the unrewarded toil which is sometimes the lot of a really great man. Perhaps in one respect he had his reward, for he eventually produced the first porcelain made in Staffordshire
In the early part of the nineteenth century it would seem that his work had at last found true appreciation in that county, for it was then written of him that "the perfection to which porcelain is arrived is due to William Littler of Longton Hall." This, alas ! was some years after he had died in abject poverty.
We first hear of William Littler in 1745. He was then twenty-one years of age, and had inherited a small estate at Brownhills, near Burslem. He had seen some of the Chinese porcelain which in those days was the wonder and envy of every English potter, and he seems to have been struck with the similarity between this and the fine white Staffordshire ware called saltglaze. He set to work at once with his brother-in-law, Aaron Wedgwood, to improve this ware, and is said to have been the first potter to use a fluid glaze. Simon Shaw, in his "History of the Staffordshire Potteries," speaks of the "fine glassy surface" of this ware. He says "some excellent specimens are ornamented by enamelling and gilding; others, having a little manganese applied, resemble the finest lapis-lazuli."
A few pieces of this blue ware may be seen at the South Kensington Museum, ornamented with raised white enamel and with a little size gilding.
Littler's object, however, was to discover the secret of porcelain, and this may have been achieved while he was still at Brown-hills. If so, the result was disastrous to him from a business point of view, for he failed financially, and was obliged to sell his patrimony. In 1750 he moved to Longton Hall, and here, it was said, he " so successfully prosecuted his experiments as to surpass all the expectations of his contemporaries, and to excite the astonishment of the Potteries." We may take it, therefore, that he was by this time making porcelain. Advertisements of sales appeared in the Press, and Simon Shaw mentions that the chief workman was Dr. Mills, who was not only " a good practical potter, but a tolerable modeller."
Apparently, Littler's porcelain did not meet with that appreciation from the public which it deserved, for John Ward, in his " History of Stoke-on-trent," makes a significant statement when writing about certain pieces which he had seen. He says, " They would certainly have won their way in aftertimes." Thus it came about that Littler failed again in business.
What happened exactly to the Longton Hall works after this second failure is not clear, but apparently a second venture was made, and in advertisements of sales William Littler's signature continued to be used till 1758, when announcements were issued by "William Littler & Co." It is supposed that William Duesbury, of Derby, who finally bought the stock-in-trade, may have had a financial interest in this factory for some years. After the works were dismantled, about the year 1760, Littler became manager for Messrs. Baddeley & Fletcher, potters, of Shelton. Failure, however, overtook this firm also, and, as before mentioned, Littler died in poverty. He had lived to an advanced age, but had become very infirm.
Historians of the Staffordshire potteries speak of the composition of Longton Hall porcelain as "a frit body" - that is to say,
" a mixture of the flint and alumina with alkalies to render them easily fusible, and cause the mass to appear white when adequately fired. The frit to be ground and dried into an impalpable powder, which is subsequently mixed with clay."
The exact composition has never been clearly defined, but, although the early porcelains of Bow and Chelsea would seem to be nearly allied to Longton Hall, no bone ash, which forms such an important part in their composition, has been discovered in this porcelain. It is soft paste, and amongst the many difficulties which Littler had to overcome was that of firing. Many pieces were drawn out of shape in the oven, and at last it was found necessary to use wood only, owing to the inability of the ware to stand the heat of a coal furnace.
When compared with a piece of Bow or Chelsea porcelain, which in some ways it greatly resembles, it will be noticed that Longton Hall porcelain is of a colder, greyer shade. This is caused by the blue tone of the glaze and by specks and impurities. The glaze is thickly applied, and will be found to have accumulated and run in tears over the base of some pieces.
Plates were made without rings at the bottom, and whereas those of other factories are glazed both back and front, it frequently occurs that the Longton Hall plate will be found in the biscuit state at the bottom with lumps of glaze which have trickled over it, giving a very unfinished appearance.
There are certain well-known characteristics of Littler's porcelain. One of these is the frequent occurrence of leaves as decoration. These may be found as raised and moulded edges to plates and dishes where, in the shape of vine leaves, they form a border, one leaf overlapping the next. Again, they occur in what was termed in the advertisements of that time " leaf basons." Here the form may be that of lettuce or chestnut leaves, the shape being modelled as upstanding and overlapping. The edges and veining were painted in blue or in green and pink, and the inside was adorned by sprays and sprigs of flowers. A moulded leaf pattern was also used as a raised band at the base of jugs, tea-bottles, and other pieces. Dessert-dishes have handles moulded in the form of a stalk attached to a piece of the cane of the vine.