UWE helps save 'integral part of English ceramic history' by combining late 19th century and digital print techniques

Issue date: 15 November 2012

Underglaze Ceramic Printing

UWE Bristol's Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR) is helping retain traditional English pottery decorating skills by finding ways of combining them with digital print techniques.

Professor Steve Hoskins, director of the CFPR, and Mr Dave Huson are collaborating with Burleigh Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, the last remaining company to produce ceramic tableware decorated using the traditional printed underglaze tissue method. The pottery was saved from the threat of closure by the Princes' Regeneration Trust in June 2011.

The CFPR has just been awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant worth

£119,970 for a 12 month project called 'Combining Digital Print Technologies with 18th Century Underglaze Ceramic Printing to Retain an Industrial Heritage Process'.

Underglaze tissue ceramic transfer printing was first developed in the mid-18th century and involved the use of engraved or etched metal plates, from which the tissue was printed with a cobalt blue colour- the famous 'Willow Pattern' being a well-known example. Underglaze tissue has a very distinctive, subtle quality – it is an integral part of English ceramic history, andcannot be replicated by any other means.

When the Princes' Regeneration Trust became involved, this saved 50 jobs, maintaining the traditional manufacturing skills unique to the Burleigh Pottery at Middleport, and preserving the historic buildings, collection of moulds and machinery for the next 25 years.

Steve said, “There is a long-term issue with both the maintenance and production of printing rollers and plates, which in the past have been hand-engraved. This project aims to address that issue by introducing the potential of printing traditional potter's underglaze tissue and applying it in the same way as the late 18th Century process, but creating the plate from a digital file. This means reducing the time from one month needed to engrave a roller to less than a day to create a digital equivalent, whilst retaining the integrity of the final product.”

This project builds upon previous AHRC funded research in 2000 in which Steve researched the combination of the digital capabilities of flexographic printing technology and the earliest printing processes first developed for the ceramic industry in the 1780s.

Underglaze transfer printing continued to be used in the UK ceramics industry up until the 1980s. However from the 1950s it began to be supplemented, first by screen printing, because it was relatively slow and required skilled artisans to apply the transfers. However because screen-printed transfers are on top of the glaze the image will wear and fade in a dishwasher and has none of the subtleties, delicate qualities and permanence of underglaze.

Sarah Heaton of Burleigh says, “Burleigh is now the last company left in the UK to use these time-honoured methods. This project offers the potential to retain important skills within the pottery industry and make sure that an extant and working Victorian Pottery remains a viable part of the community and the nation's industrial heritage.”

Steve continued, “We aim to collaborate with Burleigh to consolidate a commercial future and retain the unique skill-base for this historic, very English, process whose development is part of a uniquely English form and thus of our cultural heritage.

“The aesthetic qualities of underglaze tissue transfer are not reproducible by other methods and it offers numerous artistic as well as commercial possibilities. Once the image is printed it can then be transferred in the traditional way to unglazed biscuit-fired ceramic ware. The resultant print is then fired, bonding the image permanently to the ceramic surface, and a clear glaze applied which both protects the printed image and enhances the colour of the pigments.”


Editor's notes

Previous research:

Reappraising the creative potential of underglaze ceramic transfer printing in the light of new technology.


For more information on the Prince's Regeneration Trust project at Middleport see


The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. For further information on the AHRC, please go to: www.ahrc.ac.uk

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