Dr. Peter Bell has a collection of rare Portneuf pottery (shown below) that he displays in his kitchen. It features a fine selection of plates, bowls, mugs and cups – export wares that were produced primarily in Scotland for domestic use by our early settlers.
Canadian collectors often refer to spongeware pottery as Portneuf pottery. An official definition of spongeware from the The Encyclopedia of Pottery & Porcelain 1800-1900 could easily describe Portneuf pottery as well:
Inexpensive domestic earthenware brightly decorated in one or more shades of blue, pink, green, brown, purple and yellow applied with a firm sponge over the glaze in patterns of blotches, whirls, or bands, and used alone or with hand painting, often flowers, fruit, birds, cottages, or rarely transfer printing. Sponged patterns were normally used on white granite or earthenware mainly for export to North America in the mid- 19th century. Makers include many English and Scottish potters, who seldom marked this class of ware. (*1)
Portneuf Name & Patterns
It was originally thought that Portneuf pottery was made in Quebec but this has proven incorrect. Apparently, as the story goes, Marius Barbeau, the French Canadian ethnologist, discovered a number of pine armoires in the small town of Portneuf, along the St. Lawrence. They were filled with bowls, plates, and pitchers in this colourful pottery, and so, it became known as Portneuf pottery. In his book “Portneuf Pottery and Other Wares“, R.W. Finlayson confirmed that some of the marked Portneuf pieces were made by David Methven’s Kirkcaldy Pottery in Scotland. (*2)
In fact, three of the famous patterns produced by Kirkcaldy were exported to North America, and have been found primarily in Canada: Rosette, Maple Leaf and Peony.
This area of Portneuf pottery is varied and unmarked. There are some wares that have been identified by Henry E. Kelly in his book “Spongeware 1835-1935“, a must read for Portneuf and spongeware collectors. (*3) Animals on Scottish wares include: cows, cats, horses, tigers, lizards, pigs and elephants. The most commonly found in Canada are deers and cows.
Birds, Butterflies and Roosters
Butterfly pieces were made by Clyde Pottery in Greenock, by Llanelly Pottery in Llanelly (Wales) and by various French potters, and others.
Birds were used universally. Cockerels were popular in France but hand painted cockerel plates became a standard product of Llanelly (Wales).
Floral and Foliage Motifs
Floral and foliage motifs are also universal themes, many of which were unmarked and cannot be easily attributed to one country, although the Portneuf versions seen here are probably from either Scotland, Wales or England.
Early Portneuf pieces like the ones you see here are difficult to find today and often command large sums if they are in good condition and display vivid colours and sharp images. The sought after wares have animal motifs. Their charm is in their naïve folk art appeal. They make a wonderful display in an early Canadian cupboard and give us a glimpse into how some of our early settlers dined and decorated their homes.
Spongeware was made in Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Japan and the USA. It has also been found in India, Sri Lanka and South Africa where the manufacturers can be traced back to the British and Dutch empires. (*3)
The examples you see in the cupboard above are from Croydon House Antiques. They were made in Great Britain for the domestic market, and for export markets in North America and Southeast Asia. It’s a broad subject covered in detail by scholars. We’re including only a few of note:
- Punch Bowl – Unmarked, probably from England
- Rabbitware – Unmarked. Combines transfer prints of rabbits and frogs with printed and painted floral motifs, exact origin unknown
- Toilet Set – Unmarked, possibly from England
- Asian Exports Bowl – Unmarked, made in Great Britain
- Butter Pats – Unmarked
- Carpet Balls – Unmarked, made in Scotland and Northern England
Spongeware pottery is varied, vibrant and eclectic. You can find a unique item that will fit almost any decor. So if you see a colourful piece in your travels pick it up and enjoy its enduring charm and appeal. It will bring you pleasure and joy for years to come.
- Encyclopeadia of Pottery & Porcelain 1800-1960, by Elisabeth Cameron, published by Cameron Books, London, UK, 1986
- Portneuf Pottery and Other Early Wares, By R.W. Finlayson, published by Longman Canada Limited, Don Mills, ON, 1972
- Spongeware 1835-1935, by Henry E. Kelly, published by Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, 2001
Rogues’ Hollow Antiques would like to thank Dr. Peter Bell and David Field from Croydon House Antiques for graciously sharing their Portneuf and spongeware collections with our readers.