Wedgewood, Meissen, Delft – all are world famous names in the world of pottery.
But 250 years ago it was Bow pottery that was drawing the eyes of the world, and all thanks to a young Irish painter who settled in the East End.
Thomas Frye had been born in Dublin in 1710 and, having won acclaim in his native Ireland as a painter,came to London in 1734.
One of his first coups as a portraitist was his commission to paint the Prince of Wales, for the Saddlers’ Company. Among the other specialities of the multi-talented artist were miniature painting, mezzotint, engraving and enamel work.
But Frye was also a keen inventor and his love of art and love of discovery came together when he devised a method of producing porcelain, the beautiful translucent china pottery as popular in the eighteenth century as it is today.
Porcelain may have been popular at the time but there were two big problems. First it was very fragile and second, with all the pieces coming from abroad, it was very expensive.
Frye had a solution. As a result of his experiments with china clay he discovered a method of making porcelain out of bone ash. This not only produced a porcelain of brilliant whiteness and luminescence but one of extraordinary durability.
The second solution was obvious – he would set up a factory in London to manufacture his new china.
In 1744, Frye and his partner, Edward Heylen took out a patent for the production of artificial soft-paste porcelain. The inventors and manufacturers of porcelain in England called their product “New Canton”, a nod to the pottery from the Far East with which they hoped to compete.
The next step was to set up a factory. Frye had attracted the interest of the rich and powerful Peers family. They owned huge tracts of land across Bromley, Bow and Stratford. They were also directors of the all-powerful East India Company, mainstay of Britain’s overseas trade at the time, and whose great ships unloaded their imported wares on the Isle of Dogs, near the mouth of Bow Creek.
The Court Book of 1744 shows that Edward Heylen acquired a property on the London side of the River Lea, at Bow. On 7 July 1749, an insurance policy was taken out for the new works.
And, with the backing of the Peers family, the china factory was set up near Bow Bridge in 1749, with Fry running the operation. The Bow Porcelain Manufactory of New Canton was ready to start work.
Business was good. By 1750, Frye and Heylen were in partnership with John Wetherby and John Crowther, who owned a wholesale pottery business at St Katherine by the Tower.
Frye’s work was down to earth from the word go, concentrating on “the more ordinary sorts of ware for common use”. That didn’t please the purists. One expert has described Bow porcelain as “a peasant art which appeals to an unacademic sense of beauty rather than taste.”
Still, what do experts know. Very soon the demand was so great that another factory was opened, this time on the Stratford side of the River Lea.
But despite his success Frye was still toiling long hours in the factory furnaces as well as designing new lines. Eventually the long hours and gruelling work took their toll. Frye died in 1762, at the age of just 52, and is buried in Hornsey Churchyard.
The work went on, but without his driving force and energy, quality slipped. Their was another 13 years of production at Bow, but towards the end products were underfired and lacked their earlier translucence and in 1776 the works closed.
Frye’s legacy remains. His processes changed pottery forever and one of his daughters went on to work for Wedgewood.
And the fact you will still find Bow porcelain today – tough enough to last 250 years – is testament to Frye’s vision.
Further reading: Bow Porcelain, Adams and Redstone (Faber and Faber.)