Belleek China


Belleek China

When I mentioned to a friend that I was writing a feature on Belleek, her response was: "Oh yes, don't they produce those pretty white baskets?"

I was slightly annoyed by this comment, not because my companion was wrong, but because her drastically abbreviated summary of the Belleek output failed to include the vases, jugs, ornamental mirrors, photo frames, dinner, dessert and tea sets, figures and busts, all of which have helped the Irish factory build an enviable reputation as manufacturers of superior quality Parian china for over 150 years.

Belleek China
To dismiss them as 'basket-makers' is a little unfair and fails to account for why Belleek is still in production today, and why its diverse output is sought-after by collectors all over the world. Yes, there's certainly a lot more to Belleek than their baskets.

Lakeland legacy

The name Belleek derives from the Gaelic beal leice, which translates as 'Flagstone Ford', indicating the location of the village of Belleek on the banks of the River Erne, on the border between Fermanagh and Donegal.
Ireland's oldest and most respected pottery was founded by John Caldwell Bloomfield (born 1823), who inherited his father's estate outside Belleek in the Fermanagh Lakelands. Here Bloomfield discovered rich deposits of fine kaolin, flint, kale, shale and feldspar, which, as luck would have it, together comprised the necessary ingredients for the manufacture of porcelain.

Belleek China

On discovering this local geological heritage, Bloomfield set out to establish a porcelain factory that would not only promote Ireland as a leader in the manufacture of ceramics but which would simultaneously bring much-needed employment to the area.

He partnered up with Robert Williams Armstrong, an architect and civil engineer whom he had met while working for the Worcester Porcelain Company, and David McBirney, a wealthy Dublin merchant. Bloomfield had found two men who could help turn his dreams into reality. Before long, the famous Belleek Pottery was born.

Early endeavours

Although the Belleek factory was not completed until June 1860, wares were being produced as early as 1857. This initial output was focused on high quality domestic eartproduce good quality Parian ware - the unglazed or biscuit body developed in England in the 1840s. Early attempts failed, however, and it was not until 1863
that successful Parian was produced.

Belleek China

The earliest pieces of Belleek porcelain were creamy in colour with a pearl-like ' lustre. All items were hand-painted, often with shamrock designs.
The shamrock was also used on the first official Belleek china backstamp, decided upon in 1863, which showed a castle tower flanked by a harp and a wolfhound seated upon a bed of shamrocks. This stamp continued to be | used on Belleek china well into the 20th century.

Quality control

Today, Belleek is renowned the 
Belleek China

world over for the egg-shell thin porcelain which has become its trademark product. This was achieved by pouring the piece from the mould very quickly, before sculpting it into elaborate flowing designs. Quality, even in the 1850s, was paramount and remains so today, with only pieces of the very highest quality ever put on sale. In 1857, founder John Caldwell Bloomfield declared that any piece with even the slightest flaw would be destroyed - reassuring words for collectors!

With Bloomfield's words in mind, it is no surprise to learn that by 1865 the company had developed a first-class reputation throughout the world. Its products were in demand not only throughout Ireland and the UK, but in Canada, the US and Australia. Orders were also being placed by influential figures such as Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and members of the nobility.

Joanne Cooper, specialist in the European Ceramics and Glass department at Sotheby's Olympia, says the firm's success is due in large part to the unique ceramic body. "It is the delicate nature and intricacy of the porcelain that makes Belleek something to admire and collect."

Belleek China
Belleek soon became so famous that the name was used by other china companies such as Lenox, which aimed to capitalise on the popularity of the original. However, genuine Belleek china continued to produce its famous lines of basket weaves, seashell designs and marine themes well into the 20th century.

Belleek china is still being produced today by the Belleek Group, which now also embraces Galway Crystal, Aynsley China and Donegal Parian China, and it continues to thrive, thanks to a loyal and growing community of collectors.

Bounteous baskets

Belleek China

Notwithstanding the great range of its products, it is perhaps true that Belleek is today most famous for its beautiful baskets, first introduced to the factory by William Henshall from Staffordshire.

The earliest examples were constructed from flat-sectioned rods and were unflowered, but later a range in round-section rods was introduced, such as the Hawthorn Basket, the Henshall Basket (named after William Henshall) and the Rathmore Basket. These were extremely popular and so the variety and production increased.

The manufacture of Belleek china baskets was complex and the modeling a painstaking process, but the results were spectacular.  "large covered baskets can command high prices as these are the most recognisable and widely collected items".

Belleek China

It is not always the baskets that demand the very top prices for Belleek at auction, however, as one of Sotheby's Irish sales demonstrated. On that occasion, in May 1999, a rare Belleek 'bronzed' figure of The Crouching Venus sold for a staggering hammer price of £15,000.

It's "those items with a different glaze effect or unusual decoration are rarities and therefore command the highest prices". Other rare pieces are Parian figures busts and belleek chinese tea wares, so expect a high price tag for these items.

If your budget does not quite stretch to the rare works costing thousands of pounds, there are plenty of pieces available to buy for a few hundred pounds or less. Belleek items from the factory's earlier periods of production can still be bought for a reasonable price at auction, particularly those of more common decoration, such as the shamrock or shell mould. So get searching! 


Belleek China
If your piece of Belleek is genuine it should definitely bear the traditional factory mark - an Irish Wolfhound with its head turned back to face a Round Tower.

To the right of the Tower is an Irish harp. Below, two sprigs of shamrock border the ends of the banner displaying the word 'BELLEEK'. Variations of this mark have been used over the years and are distinguished by different periods.

It is worth remembering that Belleek tended to mark all of the parian ware and earthenware which it produced and considered to be of 'suitable quality'.

Most pieces are marked in one of two ways: either impressed or by use of a transfer/decal backstamp. Visit the website www. ladymarion .co. uk/book/marks for more information on Belleek marks

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