Sprig Molded Decoration
In vessels decorated with sprig molding, low-relief decorative elements are molded or stamped separately from the ceramic vessel and applied with a clay slip. Known as sprig molding, (ftn1) this form of decoration was used on German stoneware as well as a variety of English wares. This essay, as part of the postcolonial ceramic series, will be concerned primarily with nineteenth-century wares decorated with sprigged embellishments.
The molded reliefs used for sprigged decoration were created by pressing clay into small molds made of plaster, fired clay or brass (Figure 1). Sprigged decoration was applied to unfired “leather hard” vessels using a slip of liquid clay; a process known as sprigging (Hildyard 2005:229, Savage and Newman 1985:271). Once fired, the sprigged design became permanently attached to the vessel, providing dimensionality with minimal effort. Robert Copeland’s Manufacturing Processes of Tableware during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (2009:104) has really nice photographs showing the process of sprigging and Leese (1984:76-77) has a detailed description of the process.
Typical sprig decorations include baskets of flowers, clusters of grapes, acanthus leaves, urns, playing children, birds in flight, animals, hunting scenes, cherubs, chariots and classical style human figures. Molds used to create sprigs were often used for decades and over time, the relief molded designs lost clarity and detail (Hughes 1960:52).
White clays seem to have been used most often for sprigged ornaments. This treatment was particularly effective on dipped earthenware, with the white clay relief molded decorations standing out in high contrast to the slipped color surface of the vessel. Figure 2 shows a dipped and sprigged white earthenware sherd in cross section. The thin blue line in the center of the sherd is the blue slip to which the sprigged design was mounted. Sometimes the white clay was stained light blue or purplish with powdered cobalt before being pressed into the sprig molds. These colorful sprigs were generally used against the white surfaces of bone china and whitewares.
Sprig molding as a form of ceramic ornamentation was used as early as the first half of the fifteenth century on German stoneware (Gaimster 1997:37). Commonly encountered archaeological examples of sprig molding are the GR and AR medallions on Westerwald stoneware. Stoke-on-Trent Museum’s “Key Dates in the English Pottery Industry” places the first use of sprigging in Britain to 1693-1699, by the Elers Brothers (Stoke-on-Trent 2012). The process was used extensively in the Staffordshire potteries on a variety of stonewares and earthenwares. British potters in the first half of the eighteenth century used sprig molding on dry-bodied stoneware in an attempt to emulate embossed ornaments on silver teapots (Hughes1960:69, 70). Sprigged stoneware (black basalt, jasperware, dry-bodied red stoneware, etc.) began British production in the late eighteenth century, with sprigged ornaments often depicting classical, hunting or Egyptian motifs (Woolliscroft 2012). Wedgwood, Spode and other British potteries produced sprigged stonewares into the early nineteenth century (Woolliscroft 2012). The molds used to create these sprigged designs were created by talented modelers and are finely crafted and detailed. Perhaps the most famous example of sprig molding in British ceramic history is Wedgwood’s late eighteenth-century replica of the first century AD Roman glass Portland Vase.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century, some British manufacturers began producing sprigged and slip dipped lead glazed earthenware in imitation of expensive sprigged stonewares, particularly blue Jasper stoneware (Hildyard 2005:175). Sprigging usually occurred on blue or light brown backgrounds and included classical style human figures, cherubs and animals. Production of these inexpensive imitations of Jasperware continued until around the middle of the nineteenth century (Hildyard 2005:175). A more costly imitation of Jasperwares were created in unglazed porcellaneous stoneware between circa 1800 and 1815; these wares were characterized by crisp, unglazed sprigging on blue or brown backgrounds (Hildyard 2005:142).
Some examples of dipped and mocha decorated refined white earthenware tankards were embellished with sprig molded seals bearing crowns or other imperial emblems. These sprig molded pads, which served as verification marks of tankard capacity, can sometimes be used to identify the vessel manufacturer (Hildyard 2005:174). Their use postdates the start of Queen Victoria’s reign beginning in 1837 (Lewis 1999:187); three Welsh tankards with verification marks pictured in Lewis (1999:187) were assigned dates ranging between 1840 and 1855. (ftn2)
During the circa 1890 to 1910 period and again from the late 1920s to around 1938, Spode (then known as W. T. Copeland), resumed production of sprigged stonewares (Woolliscroft 2012). Unlike the earlier dry-bodied sprigged stoneware, these later stonewares were often glazed.
Bone china and other white bodied tea and tablewares embellished with small blue or lavender tinted sprigs are a common find in nineteenth-century archaeological contexts. A sugar dish in the collections of the Belair Mansion in Bowie, Maryland bearing the manufacturer’s mark of John Wedge Wood (1841-1860) indicate that use of these small blue stained floral sprigs began at least as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Production of similarly embellished pottery continued into at least the second half of the twentieth century; a blue sprigged cup and creamer in the Blue Chelsea pattern recently offered for sale on Ebay each bore the post-1962 printed mark of the Adderleys Ltd., a Staffordshire firm (Godden 1964:25) and an ashtray in the collections of the National Park Service, National Capitol Region bears a mark that indicates it was made by the Wedgwood firm in 1965 (Godden 1964:659).
Since sprig molds often moved between pottery manufacturers through resale, specific molded designs cannot be used to attribute unmarked vessels to specific makers. Although a subjective conclusion based on looking at numerous sprigged vessels, sprigged elements became smaller over the course of the nineteenth century and were more likely to be floral or plant-based designs in stained clays. Sprig molded vessels dating to the first half of the nineteenth century were more likely to have larger sprigged elements that were human figures or scenes in white on dipped backgrounds.
Sprig molding has been used as a decorative technique on numerous ceramics, including black basalt, dry-bodied red stoneware, Jasperware, cane-colored stoneware, white felspathic stoneware, drab colored salt glazed stoneware, white salt glazed stoneware, brown salt glazed stoneware, Rhenish stoneware, Astbury, bone china, and refined white earthenwares like creamware and pearlware.
Standard lead glazes on earthenwares, salt glaze on salt glazed stoneware, dry-bodied stonewares like black basalt, Jasperware and white felspathic stoneware, were unglazed or smear glazed.
Sprigged ornaments could be painted; chrome colors and luster separately or in combination were used. Hildyard (2005:176) dates vessels embellished with chrome color sprigs against dipped backgrounds to circa 1835 to 1840. Luster, which was sometime dabbed on blue sprigged ornaments, was often quite crudely done.
Hollow forms were particularly suited to this form of decoration, since the flexible molded clay embellishments could be molded easily to curved surfaces. Hollow forms with sprig molding include (but are not limited to) jugs, tankards, teapots, mugs, sugar dishes and creamers. Plates and saucers, particularly in bone china and white bodied wares, were often decorated with small floral sprigs along the rim.
1 This molded technique should not be confused with sprigging, where small floral designs are painted onto a plain background (Majewski and O’Brien 1987:157).
2 A larger capacity Imperial Standard was introduced in England in 1824 and many of the sprig molded verification marks included the words “Imperial Pint” or “Imperial” (Hildyard 2005:174).