A story in 100 objects

11: Cookworthy Jars

On display inside the drawing room of Mount Edgcumbe House are two fine examples of early English porcelain. The two ornate hexagonal shaped jars are examples of decorative work from the Plymouth Porcelain Factory established by William Cookworthy, the inventor of English porcelain.

Cookworthy (1705 – 1780) was born in Kingsbridge into a Quaker family. When his father died in 1718 the young William was offered a free apprenticeship with the Bevan brothers, two Quaker apothecaries in London. Once he completed his apprenticeship Cookworthy was taken into the partnership.

Cookworthy moved to Plymouth and set up a Bevan and Cookworthy pharmacy which was so successful that he was soon able to bring his two brothers into the business and buy out Bevan. Cookworthy also became one of the leading Quakers in Devon and was elected an elder.

Cookworthy had many interests including chemistry. He read with interest the writings of a Jesuit missionary about the Chinese manufacture of fine translucent porcelain which was increasingly popular in Europe, but the process was a closely guarded secret. While travelling through Cornwall Cookworthy saw china clay and began experimenting with its use in the production of fine china.

In 1768 Cookworthy founded a factory in Plymouth to produce Plymouth Porcelain, similar to Chinese porcelain but using local materials. He also took out a patent for the use of Cornish china clay. Records show that the factory had 2 kilns located near Sutton Harbour and employed 40 – 60 people. Pieces of Plymouth porcelain would have been ‘must have’ items for the local aristocracy. It is likely that the pieces on display at Mount Edgcumbe date from the time of the 3rd Baron, George, who subsequently became the 1st Earl of Mount Edgcumbe.

In 1770 Cookworthy moved his factory to Bristol. He sold his patent to Richard Chapman, a merchant, in 1773. Chapman was unable to renew the patent as his application was opposed by Wedgwood and other pottery manufacturers but he was granted rights for 14 years to use Cornish china clay for the manufacture of translucent porcelain.

Many early pieces of Plymouth porcelain were unmarked but later pieces were marked with the alchemical sign for tin. Pieces from the Bristol factory were often marked with the letter B. Cookworthy pieces include items for domestic use and decorative wares, including figures and animals.

“In 1768 Cookworthy founded a factory in Plymouth to produce Plymouth Porcelain, similar to Chinese porcelain but using local materials.”

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