At the time when these brothers settled in this country tea-ware and coffee - pots were being imported from China at very considerable expense; and it was these articles in red stone ware with relief ornamentation, known as "dry red porcelain," which they set themselves to copy. The red clay they found in Bradwell Wood. How these foreigners made the discovery is not known, but some secret information may have reached them, for it would seem that they spent little time after their arrival in this country before we hear of them in Staffordshire.
Elers' red ware, though one of the oldest, is perhaps the most beautiful product of the Staffordshire potteries; indeed, it has been said that it has never been equalled, even by the great Josiah Wedgwood himself. The exquisite tea and coffee services were copied over and over again by other potters in this part of the country for more than half a century, and very few authentic specimens made by the brothers can be identified, a mark being rarely used.
Our museums, however, are fortunate in possessing a few pieces about the authenticity of which there is little doubt. They came from the celebrated Enoch Wood collection, brought together in Staffordshire at a time when it was possible to get specimens the true history of which had never been questioned.
The colour of this ware is a dark red, and, according to Simon Shaw, the Staffordshire historian, the body was composed of " one part of Bradwell red clay, and four parts of clay from Hill Top." The ingredients were mixed, and so careful were the Elers that, after the mixing, they strained the slip thus produced through sieves, so that a really fine body could be made. After this it was turned on the lathe with great accuracy. Pieces were generally of small size, and these were characterised by delicacy and sometimes by extreme elegance of form. Besides tea and coffee services, mugs, jugs, and piggins were made. In shape the piggin resembled a diminutive bucket with an upstanding handle at one side, and a tiny delicately modelled ladle with which to help its contents. It is said that the handles and spouts of tea-pots were always hand-made, and certainly this statement is borne out by the appearance of these on some early pieces; but we have the authority of Wedgwood for the statemerit that the Elers were the first to introduce alabaster moulds into Staffordshire, though these, of course, may not have been used at first.
In the South Kensington Museum
This red ware is characterised by a form of decoration which no doubt had its origin in China, in the moulded prunus-blossom and other devices used by the Chinese on their red stone ware, and also notably on their white porcelain. This ware was either ornamented by engine-turned designs, or more frequently by relief ornaments formed by applying small masses of wet clay to the surface at any point where a relief was desired. These were stamped with a metal die in the way in which a seal is taken upon wax, the superfluous clay being afterwards tooled away from the edges of the stamp.
The ornamentation generally consisted of prunus flowers, birds, geometrical patterns, fleurs-de-lis, and small figures. In the case of flowers the stems were hand-made, and were added after the flowers had been applied. The same geometrical design was used over and over again, variation being obtained by the raised hand-made lines which connected it.
A jug in Elers' ware, ornamented with a floral design and supported on three feet
In the Victoria and Albert Museum
The small tea-pot of our second illustration is one which the writer considers to be a genuine piece of Elers' ware; the queer little spout and the handle have evidently been moulded by hand. The decoration consists of sprays of prunus-blossom (or hawthorn) in Chinese style, and Feng-huang bird with long tail.
Tea-pot of dark brown earthenware, decorated with applied vine-stems in low relief and with oil gilding. Staffordshire : middle of eighteenth century. The bird with outspread wings which surmounts the tea-pot and the three feet which support it are characteristic of early Staffordshire tea-ware
This little piece is finely modelled, is thin and light of texture, and has a smooth and even surface. It was bought recently at a sale where it was exposed to view with a lot of rubbish. It cost its present owner sixpence. Collectors, however, must not expect to find Elers' ware upon rubbish heaps. It has always been expensive, and its history makes it to-day a very desirable possession.
Those people who have taken the trouble to learn about such things are sometimes able even now to pick up treasures which are overlooked and undervalued by the ignorant. It is quite possible in these days to buy the old Chinese red ware tea-pots which served as copies for the Elers. These are darker in colour and much heavier than the copies made in Staffordshire; and the cover, instead of being surmounted by a knob, is generally crowned by some Chinese animal of curious and fantastic shape.
The only mark used by the Elers appears to have been an imitation Chinese seal, but the majority of pieces are unmarked; and the seal was also used by early imitators of this ware.
In addition to red ware these brothers made a black ware, probably the forerunner of Wedgwood's "Basaltes." They also made salt-glazed ware, and are credited with the introduction into Staffordshire of the lathe, of metal stamps, and of alabaster moulds.
The only marks used on Elers' ware are imitation Chinese seals