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From a North American Perspective by a Canadian Collector

Fundamentally a piece of china can be decorated in 3 ways: by surface modifications, by painting, or by transfer printing. Surface modifications, under glaze decoration and transfer printing are generally speaking beyond the scope of this type of collectible. The only type of decoration consistently used by artists and amateurs alike in a studio setting is the painting on the glaze with the so-called enamels. A large variety of enamel colours were perfected at an early period and most of them are made from metallic oxides, such as iron, copper, and manganese. Enamel colours require a second firing to make them permanent on a piece of porcelain.

The blanks on which the painting is applied, the shape of the piece of porcelain, come in all forms and sizes: decorative pieces such as chargers and plaques, dinnerware, chocolate, coffee and teapots, jardinières and planters, lamps, punch bowls, cider pitchers and goblets, mugs and all kind of vases. These blanks came in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century mainly from France, Germany and England and later from Japan and in the last half century also from China. Once in North America, the blanks were sold to one of the professional decorating factories in the United States, to china painting schools, or to a department store in the States or Canada for the many amateur artists of the era to purchase and hand paint.

This is an art which was perfected early in the great porcelain manufactures of Europe, where many artists were employed, mostly specializing in a particular genre, flowers, garlands, animals, landscapes or figures. It wasn’t rare that good artists sign or initialise their work. Then other workers applied the gilding separately.

Women became skilled “Paintresses” working for the china manufacturers in Europe. A London’s Female School of Design was established in 1842, preceded by a French Female School of Design in Paris, France in 1815.

The English Minton porcelain manufacturers were in a sense visionaries and precursors of the Arts and Crafts Movement, because, after a glorious tradition of hiring the best professional sculptors for the forms and painters for the decoration, in 1870, the Minton Art Pottery Studio was established in Kensington. The Studio was put under the direction of W.S. Coleman, an English designer, illustrator and water colourist, in order to encourage professional as well as amateur artists to decorate china for Minton. In the 1860s Coleman began experiments in pottery decoration for W.T. Copeland and from 1869 as a freelance decorator at Minton he painted bowls, plaques and slabs for fireplaces, and from 1870 to 1873, directed the Kensington studio. Although the Studio was very popular and influential, it wasn’t rebuilt when it burnt down in 1875.

The Arts and Crafts Movement born in the late 19th century England is associated with the works and activity of William Morris who asked for a return to pre-industrialized standards of craft and design. In ceramics the movement’s ideals were expressed mostly in the works of artist potters in studio conditions and is the inspiring movement for the spreading of the amateur hand painted china in North America.

In the United States an important pioneer in introducing hand painted porcelain was Edward Lycett who became a prominent instructor of the art in St Louis and Cincinnati from 1877 on. Many of Lycett students formed a majority of amateur American china painters. These students were mostly those women who were allowed creative occupations, and those who considered it a hobby. Thus, women played a significant role in the birth of the china-painting movement in America. (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 - An early example of American amateurish endeavour, Morning glory plate, unsigned, dated 1882.

As described by Debby DuBay in the article "Hand Painted Porcelain -Women Played a Major Role” published in The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles, Sturbridge Massachusetts,in February 2003: "By 1877, there had been several books published in Europe as guides to painting on china for amateurs, but it was a Cincinnati student of Karl Lagenbeck called Mary Louise McLaughlin who published the first book in America – China Painting - A Practical Manual for the Use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain. Mrs. McLaughlin’s enthusiasm for this art form spread throughout the United States. She is credited with educating the general public who could not attend classes on the art of china painting. Her book included information for tracing on china, china painting techniques and directions for gilding, firing, etc. In 1879, McLaughlin formed the Woman’s Pottery Club, and by 1881, there were major china painting studios in Boston, Cincinnati, Philadelphia New York and Chicago". (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 - Decorative plate marked White’s Art Company, which operated at the beginning of the 20th century  in Chicago.

There is one noticeable difference between the United States and Canada. By the turn of the 20th century, painting on porcelain in the States had become a cottage industry for more than 25,000 talented artists. Most of these were women who were not allowed to achieve professional status otherwise. In Canada, with a smaller talent base, the art of china painting was limited mostly to private studios and cultural association, and never integrated into a huge industrial concern like the American Pickard firm.

In Canada the brothers John and James Griffiths were largely instrumental in spreading this “professional” hobby as detailed in Mrs. Elizabeth Collard work: Nineteenth-Century Pottery and Porcelain in Canada. Their activity, mostly in London, Ontario is well documented and many of their hand painted objects are actually in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.

In her authoritative voice, Elizabeth Collard commented that: "By the end of the century in Canada, every properly educated young lady knew how to paint on china. She had studied at an art school or with a private instructor, or had at least learned the rudiments in a young ladies' seminary. Some amateurs became very good, their work as good as that of professional china decorators".

Consequently these artists took the first step in 1886 towards establishing a Women's Art Association and in 1892 the Women's Art Association of Canada, and there were soon branches in many parts of Canada.

The quality of the amateur china painting in Canada was amply demonstrated in the dinner service presented to the Countess of Aberdeen in 1898. Members of the Canadian Senate and House of Commons made this dinner service, painted by amateurs, their farewell gift to Lady Aberdeen the wife of the Governor-General Lord Aberdeen and a very energetic promoter of women’s rights.

The service was displayed in a special exhibition at the Museum Of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec in 1998. For a comprehensive documentation and rich illustrations, see: http://www.civilisations.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/cadeau/caint02e.shtml

From among the artists who participated in the creation of the Cabot Commemorative Service a complete desert set was painted in 1909 by Alice Mary Hagen of Halifax. She also painted 12 of the 24 game plates for the Historical Service. (Fig. 3 & 4).

Fig 3 - Desert service painted by Alice Mary Hagen including 2 footed compotes, 1 sloppy jar, creamer and sugar, 12 luncheon plates and 12 cups and saucers.

Fig 4 - The 42 pieces dessert service was commissioned by a Mrs. Donohue in Halifax Nova Scotia in 1909.

Alice Mary (Egan) Hagen, maybe the best known Canadian woman china painter and potter, was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1872. The daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas J. Egan and Margaret (Kelley) Egan, she was educated at Mount St. Vincent Academy and the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax. She studied under Adelaide Alsop Robineau in New York in 1897.

In the same article, "Hand painted porcelain - Women played a major role", Debby DuBay wrote: "The biggest influence on porcelain art in America during the early 1900s was Adelaide Alsop Robineau (1865-1929). Wanting to be independent at a time when independence and individualism for women was unacceptable, Robineau was a role model for women of the early 20th century. Teaching herself the art of painting on porcelain, she soon became known as a decorator. In order to expand her skills, Robineau studied watercolours with the American master, William Merritt Chase. In May 1899, Robineau and her husband published the Keramic Studio. Her goal was to meet the needs of china painters who were "…struggling in their efforts to reach high ideals…" Her publications spurred on the interest in china painting and coincided with the large shipments of blank Limoges porcelain arriving from France”.

After such a prestigious apprenticeship, Alice Mary Egan returned to Halifax, and leased a studio, where she taught china painting between 1898 and 1899. In 1901, she married John C. Hagen, and lived with him in Jamaica, Halifax and Mahone Bay. Between 1930 and 1931, she travelled to Britain and France, where she visited a pottery that employed war veterans. She became interested in pottery making and on return to Nova Scotia, studied under Charles Prescott, the owner of a small industrial pottery in Fairview. She set up a studio and kiln in her home in Mahone Bay, producing pottery and teaching summer school for the Department of Education until about 1950. She died in Mahone Bay in 1972 . Her work is now in the collections of the Nova Scotia Museum and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence in Ottawa, Ontario. Alice Mary Hagen was a commercial artist. She was a breadwinner who worked under commission.

At about the same period, in the first decade of the 20th century, in southern Ontario, in the village of Shakespeare a very talented physician wife, a Mrs. M.M. Faill was practicing her china painter abilities as an amateur. She left an impressive body of work, some 500 pieces which were sold by the estate and dispersed recently. From the few pieces available we conclude that she probably used mostly Limoges blanks, which were the most common and least expensive at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th in Canada. (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5 - Small plate, signed M.M.F. in red. Woody shore lake landscape, elaborate border in raised paste, Ontario, ca. 1910.

Dated at about the same time, a Limoges jardinière or fruit bowl was painted and signed by another amateur, a lady named Myrtle Zoe Thomas who was living probably in Galt, Ontario as testified by the inscription in black on the bottom that reads "Myrtle Zoe Thomas/ Started in Brampton/ Finished in Galt". (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6 - Jardinière or fruit bowl signed Myrtle Zoe Thomas from Galt, in black on a Limoges blank. Painted in a vaguely Art Nouveau style, Ontario, ca. 1903, as attested by the Parotaud Frères mark.

We can speculate that Ada B. Sparks was an amateur china painter, probably from Ottawa . Her 1920 tall, 12 inches vase, is decorated with a geometrical lustered pattern, recalling the emergent Art Deco style and the stylistic tendencies of the period when these amateur painters produced their pieces. (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 - Ada Sparks' vase, Ottawa, Ontario 1920.

Teaching privately china painting was a vocation with Gwladys Williams Menzies. She was born in Carleton Place in 1891. At the turn of the century the family moved to Ottawa. Gwladys's artistic talent found expression in china painting at a relatively early age, and after only a few lessons she set up her own studio. The first pieces she signed are dated 1912, when she was 21. Gwladys soon became the foremost teacher of china painting in the Ottawa area. She produced many complete lunch, tea and dinner sets for her family, but did not accept commissions. Gwladys favoured fine china blanks - usually Limoges, although occasionally she used Beleek or English factories. On completion she signed, dated and numbered each piece chronologically on the back over the glaze. Her first two finished pieces were plates, dated 1912. Her work combines an amazingly skilful technique with originality of design. She painted entirely freehand and loved to paint flowers and butterflies, both true to nature and stylised. But she also produced fine geometric designs showing the influence of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Gwladys maintained her studio until about 1930 - her last pieces are dated 1933. Gwladys Williams Menzies died in Ottawa in 1977, at the age of 86. (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8 - Similar cups and saucers with butterflies, one signed M.S.C. / 1936 – Ottawa in front of a photograph of a Gwladys Williams Menzies creation from the same period.

Young female students were given instruction in many cases in convent school, as is the case with a Limoges tea set seen by the author, where the inscription on base read: “This set was done in the month of May of the year 1919 at St. Mary’s Academy, Winnipeg, Man., with Sister Michfield’s assistance. Irene La Berge”. After learning the technique of china painting in school or in a studio with a private teacher, the students were given blanks to produce a piece in accordance with their ability. (Fig. 9 & 10).

Fig. 9 - Example of uninspired china painting, illustrated by a gilded celery tray painted in Ottawa, dated 26 March 1914, decorated with roses on a blank Limoges, by a young student, E.M. Fraser, inscribed “For Uncle Bobo and Mrs. Bobo”.

Fig. 10 - Students’ samples of china painting, British Columbia? 1929. Two of the four students, Anna and Frances Jordan, were probably sisters.

To avoid the dilemma of provenance for this kind of collectables, Dorothy Kamm, in her book Antique Trader’s Comprehensive Guide to American Painted Porcelain with Values , published in 1999, concentrated solely on the functionality of china painted pieces. The same type of classification is embraced by Debby DuBay in three of her more recent publications.

Decorative pieces (portrait or decorative chargers and plates; vases, decorative bowls, etc.) (Fig. 11 & 12).

Fig. 11 - Decorative plates from Ontario and Alberta, 1st half of 20th century.

Fig. 12 - Small vases originating from the Maritime Provinces and Ontario, 1890s to 1950s.

Utilitarian pieces (table, luncheon or tea sets, celery trays, mustard and comfiture sets and salts and peppers, etc.) (Fig 13 & 14).

Fig. 13 - Breakfast set of creamer, sugar, comfiture pot and dish acquired in Ottawa, Ontario, 1920s?

Fig. 14 - Mustard, and two salt and pepper sets from the 1920s (right) and 1930s (left), Ottawa and Christies, Ontario.

According to the Kamm classification, the objects could also be considered by their use in the household, as pieces appropriate for the different rooms of the house (card treys for the front hall, dresser sets or pin dishes for the bedroom, tobacco jars for the library, lemonade sets and bonbon dishes for the parlour, breakfast sets for the small dinning room, etc.), thus covering a great variety of objects, from the majestic illustration of historical events on museum size platters to the humble hair receivers or hatpin holders . (Fig. 15 & 16).

Fig. 15 - For the parlour, popular shape of cider or lemonade pitcher signed F.H. 1907, Ontario.

Fig. 16 - For the boudoir, Limoges dresser set from Toronto, Ontario, signed Marie Clifford, c. 1914.

Sometimes these objects find their resting place in the house of relatives. This is the case of Louise Mahala Smith, born in 1870 to Joseph Henry Smith and Elizabeth Markle near Dundas, Ontario. She was an aunt to Sherry, who keeps preciously  the creations of her aunt. Louise Smith was a professional artist who worked in oils, watercolours and pastels. Her subjects were preferably flowers and sometimes landscapes and sailboats, as she lived for a while in Boston, Massachusetts. She also painted china, mostly on Limoges blanks and she worked mainly in the Hamilton area. Louise Smith died in 1947. (Fig. 17).

Fig. 17 - Large platter decorated with grapes on vine by Louise Mahala Smith, Ontario, 1930s?

Museums can host collections dedicated to a specific artist, as is the case with some of Alice Mary Hagen china paintings and pottery production found in the Nova Scotia Museum, or the Museum of Civilization and their complete Griffiths collection . Born in England, the Griffiths brothers learn the craft of china painting in the Minton factory, in Stoke-on-Trent. John Howard Griffiths, the better known of the two brothers for china painting, credited James for establishing in Canada critical standards for judging the quality of painted decoration on china. It was also James Griffiths who induced provincial exhibition committees to include china painting as a category in prize lists. John Howard Griffiths had come to Canada as an investor and, though a reluctant farmer, possessed his own farm. He made his mark as the china painter and teacher of china painting who prepared many women to earn a livelihood by decorating china in the later years of the century. Roses of all varieties were his preferred subjects, and it was in the treatment of flowers that John Griffiths reached the peak of his skills on porcelain. He also painted figures and bird themes, as well as arrangements of fruits and various flowers besides roses. The prizes he took at exhibitions, both in Ontario and beyond provincial borders, established John Griffiths as one of the best-known china painters in Canada. In 1887, he painted a tea set that was one of Canada's official gifts to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee. Before it went off to London, England, this set was displayed in London, Canada.

The same is true for the Jennie Carson Hele artefacts hosted in the Dufferin County Museum and Archives in the Mulmur Township, Ontario. Krista Taylor tells her story in an article published in the Antique Showcase magazine. Jennie Carson Hele was born in Newbridge, Ontario, in 1865. Jennie studied china painting in New York. In 1883, at the age of 18, Jennie Carson married William Hele of Elora, settling in Wingham. Jennie began to use her talent as a means of support, selling her paintings locally for extra money for her-self, her husband and her two children. In 1900 Jennie Hele left her husband, and moved to Toronto. Here, Jennie began to support herself and her two chil¬dren by painting china. Jennie's training in New York paid off. After her arrival in Toronto, she first worked for an un¬known ceramics painter, and then opened up her first stu¬dio on Yonge Street. She moved to 15 Bloor Street circa 1905. Her Bloor Street studio had a large bay win¬dow facing the street, perfect for displaying her work. Jennie Carson Hele's work, cre-ated in her Bloor Street studio, was characteristic of the Art Nouveau era. Jennie's talents were not restricted to ceramic painting. She was proficient in watercolours, pastels and oils. However, china painting remained her main source of income. Jennie Carson Hele died unexpectedly on May 31, 1933.

China painting almost disappeared in Canada and the United States as an art form during the Second World War, due not only to historic hardship, but also to the disappearance of cheap imported blanks.

From the 1940s to the 1970s sporadic hand painted china was produced by amateurs, as is evident by the scarcity of pieces of that period. At the end of the 1970s trade was resumed with China, and blank pieces of porcelain once again became readily available to the china painter. Amateur china painters became active again in all Canadian provinces as testified by a tea set of an amateur china painter from British Columbia. She used Chinese and Spanish blanks with some defects on the rim of the creamer and sugar, covering the chips and cracks with gilding and decorating the set with pink rosehip flowers. The tea set was evidently painted for family use. (Fig 18).

Fig. 18 - Ann Skuse tea set, Victoria, British Columbia, 1979.

In the United States it is due to Nettie Pillet who began publishing The China Decorator magazine in 1956, that the fine art of china painting was not lost.

Currently, there are two major organizations that promote the art of painting on porcelain: The International Porcelain Artists and Teachers Inc., widely known as IPAT Inc., and the World Organization of China Painters (WOCP). These organizations publish "Porcelain Artist", and "The China Painter", respectively, and along with "The China Decorator" newsletter are the major sources for information for the china painter today.

Individual professional artists, to name only a few, like Amy Boyer and Steven Crouse of Fredericton in New Brunswick, Sol Lobos Brian and Betty Grothe of Montreal, Louise Savard of Beausejour, Aline Crête of Magog in Quebec, Sundus Abraham and Maria de Lourdes Barradas of Toronto, Patricia Burt of Mississauga, Evelyn Piriano of Dundas and Barbara Gibson-Dutton of Merrickville in Ontario, Betty-Anne Binstead of Chilliwack, Anne Millar of Victoria and Mary Jane Phillips of Surrey, British Columbia, continue in Canada this noble tradition of china painting as well as teaching, as much an art as it is a specialized craft. (Fig. 19)

Fig. 19 - Red Iris decorative tile created by professional china painting artist and teacher Maria de Lourdes Barradas from Toronto, 2008.

Stylistically speaking, there is an evolution of taste and motifs in china decoration over the decades, and it sometimes helps with dating unmarked pieces. Also the manufacturer’s mark can give an indication of the period when a piece was created. But all too often the lack of background for this kind of artefact makes impossible any speculation as to the artist, place or time of creation. As these pieces are inscribed in the best of cases only with the name and the year of the creation, one of the greatest difficulties on identifying the place where a hand painted item was created is its anonymity. Hence in most of cases only the place of acquisition can give some geographical background to the collectible and the only type of classification is by functionality. The intrinsic beauty of the piece is often the only motivation for the hardened collector.

This article is based on the author’s collection of hand painted china.


§  Louise Ade Boger: The Dictionary of World Pottery and Porcelain, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1971. p. 228.

§  Elizabeth Collard: Nineteenth Century Pottery and Porcelain in Canada, Second Edition, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Kingston and Montreal, 1984.

§  Gail Crawford: Studio Ceramics in Canada, Goose Lane Editions, Toronto, 2005.

§  Debby DuBay: Living with Limoges, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen PA, 2001.

§  Debby DuBay: Antique Limoges at Home, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen PA, 2002.

§  Debby DuBay: “Hand Painted Porcelain: Women Played a Major Role” in The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles, Sturbridge Massachusetts, February 2003.

§  Debby DuBay: Collecting Hand Painted Limoges Porcelain: Boxes to Vases, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen PA, 2004.

§  Stanley W. Fisher: Fine Porcelain and Pottery, Octopus Books Ltd, London 1974, p. 24-90.

§  Mary Frank Gaston: The Collector's Encyclopaedia of Limoges Porcelain, Collector Books, 2000.

§  Paula Gornescu Vachon: "Collecting Canadian Hand Painted Porcelain from the 1880's Onward" in Muzeul National, Vol. XX, Bucharest, 2008, p. 249-260 & 6 p. illustrations.

  § Dorothy Kamm: Antique Trader’s Comprehensive Guide to American Painted Porcelain with Values, Antique Trader Books, Dubuque, 1999.              

§  Colin S. MacDonald: A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Vol. 2, Canadian Paperbacks, Ottawa, 1968, p. 335-337.

§  Keith A. McLeod: “This Splendid Gift” in Antique Showcase, April 1998, p. 46-50.

§  Harold Osborne, Editor: An Illustrated Companion to the Decorative Arts, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, Ware, Hertfordshire, 1989, p. 49-50.

§  Dr Ilya Sandra Perlingieri: “Paintresses Victorian Women China Painters and Potters” in New England Antiques Journal, March 2007: http://www.antiquesjournal.com/Pages04/Monthly_pages/march07/paintresses.html

§  Alan B. Reed: Collector's Encyclopedia of Pickard China with Additional Selections Other Chicago China Studios: Identification & Values, Collector Books, Paducah KY, 1995.

§  Dr. Paul Robertson: China Painting - The Art of Master Painter Gwladys Williams Menzies (exhibition pamphlet), Ottawa, 1999.