Johnson and Derby Porcelain

Image: The Four Quarters (Continents), c.1775.  These items date from the time of Samuel Johnson’s visit to Derby Porcelain in 1777.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Derbyshire was famous for its industry as well as its natural resources of metals, minerals and water power. Since the mid-1750s Derby Porcelain had been manufactured at William Duesbury’s china works. In 1773 Duesbury acquired the right to use the royal crown to mark his ware and by the time of his death in 1786 it was one of the foremost producers of ceramics in Britain.

When Boswell and Johnson arrived in on 20 September 1777, they went to see “the manufactory of china there” together with the local physician Dr Butter.  Boswell admired the ingenuity of the artisans, their delicate art and the way in which they “fashioned clay into a cup, a saucer, or a tea-pot, while a boy turned round a wheel to give the mass rotundity”. He thought the china beautiful but agreed with the observation of Dr Johnson that it was too dear – an opinion Johnson was to confirm in a letter to Mrs Thrale:

I took Boswell yesterday to see Keddleston, and the silk mills, and china work

at Derby, he was pleased with all. The Derby China is very pretty, but I think

the gilding is all superficial, and finer pieces so dear, that perhaps silver vessels

of the same capacity may be sometimes bought at the same price. (Letters, i: 70).

In The Dictionary Johnson defines china or porcelain as “dimly transparent, partaking of the qualities of earth and glass” and he elaborates on the process of its manufacture whereby “by mingling two kinds of earth, of which one easily vitrifies; the other resists a very strong heat: when the vitrifiable earth is melted with glass, they are completely burnt”. Johnson owned a number of pieces of ceramic ware. The British Museum has a Chinese famille rose porcelain teapot datable to about 1775. At Pembroke College, Oxford, there is a Worcester blue and white mug of about 1775-80, said to have been used by Johnson to drink gruel when he visited the Master of Kettle Hall and a large blue and white Worcester tea-pot (or punch pot) of about 1765-70.  His Diary records a visit to Worcester in 1774: “We went to the China Ware-House and thereon to the Cathedral, its chapter house and cloister”, but no mention is made of any purchase of porcelain.


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4215-0The occurrences of common life: Samuel Johnson, Practical Science and Industry in the Midlands 3537-0Johnson: Observation and Enquiry 3715-0Johnson and Science 2875-0Johnson, the Natural World and Industry 545-0Johnson, Bridges and John Gwynn 3755-0Johnson and Practical Improvement: Iron 2877-0Johnson and the Midlands Landscape 4217-0Johnson and Derby Porcelain 2878-0Johnson and Silk Production in Derby 4059-0Johnson in Birmingham 3661-0Johnson, John Wyatt and Lewis Paul: Improvements to Cotton Spinning 4219-0Johnson, the Society of Arts and the Transformation of the Cotton Industry 946-0Johnson and John Baskerville 2145-0Johnson, John Taylor and Henry Clay 4218-0Johnson and Matthew Boulton 4064-0Johnson: “a longer stay”