A very important A-marked Porcelain snuff box, circa 1744-46
Lot 168
A very important A-marked Porcelain snuff box, circa 1744-46

Lot Details
A very important A-marked Porcelain snuff box, circa 1744-46 A very important A-marked Porcelain snuff box, circa 1744-46 A very important A-marked Porcelain snuff box, circa 1744-46
A very important A-marked Porcelain snuff box, circa 1744-46
Attributed to Bow in Middlesex, a product of Frye and Heylyn's 'First Patent', of circular, bombé-shape, the domed lid painted with two merchants beside a tent with some of their cargo, the sides painted with a continuous harbour scene, set in a copper-gilt mount, 6.2cm wide (some wear to enamels on base)


  • Provenance: Collezione Procida Mirabelli di Lauro, Naples, no.67, acquired from Lukacs-Donath in 1966. Illustrated by Beaucamp-Markowsky (1985), cat.no. 476 (as Doccia).

    The question of who made A-marked porcelain has finally been answered thanks to scientific research, although not in a conventional way for this enigmatic porcelain has been shown to match a theoretical chemical composition. Instead of any actual analysis carried out on a sample of porcelain, the key piece of evidence is the presumed composition based on a formula, deduced from the manufacturing process recorded in an application for a patent. If porcelain was made following the recipe listed in the patent, it would match the results of modern analysis of specimens of A-marked porcelain.

    What is generally known as the 'First Bow Patent', was taken out on December 6th 1744 by 'Edward Heylyn, in the Parish of Bow, in the County of Middlesex, Merchant and Thomas Frye, of the Parish of Westham, in the County of Essex, Painter.' The patent application lists in detail the manufacture of a material using as the principle ingredient 'an earth, the produce of the Chirokee nation in America, called by the natives unaker...' The porcelain body and the glaze are described in detail, showing that the material was mixture of American 'unaker' clay and a glass frit. The description given of unaker leaves little doubt that this was a form of kaolin, or what is today known as china clay.

    In May 1745 William Cookworthy wrote that he had been visited by 'the person who hath discovered the china-earth'. Cookworthy added that this visitor 'had several examples of the china-ware of their making with him, which were, I think, equal to the Asiatic.' According to Cookworthy's letter, this person had discovered 'both the petunse and kaulin' while searching for mines 'in the back of Virginia' and that this kaolin is ...'the essential thing towards the success of the manufacture'.

    Cookworthy's visitor seemed to be referring to a porcelain body using china clay and glass frit, having being manufactured in England prior to May 1745. English china clay was not available for use at this date and so the makers of A-marked porcelain had to obtain their kaolin from elsewhere. There is no evidence of German kaolin being shipped to Britain in the 18th century, and so the most likely source will be 'unaker' from America. 20 tons of 'Earth material', valued at £5, was imported into London from Carolina in 1743/44 (Charleston and Mallet, ECC Trans, Vol 8, pt. 1, p.94).

    In 1996 Ian Freestone gave a paper to the ECC, A-marked Porcelain: Some recent Scientific Work, Vol 16, pt. 1, pp. 76-84. Freestone presented strong scientific evidence that there was close similarity between A-marked porcelain and that described in the First Bow Patent. In 2002 Ross Ramsay and Anton Gabszewicz expanded on this research in a further, important paper to the ECC (The Chemistry of A-marked Porcelain and its relation to the Heylyn and Frye Patent of 1744, Trans Vol 18, pt.2, pp.264-283). Dr Ramsay had carried out further analysis of A-marked specimens and contrasted these with theoretical recipes of the paste and glaze based on the wording of Heylyn and Frye's First Patent. The authors were able to show that the composition of the body of A-marked porcelain differs from all other early English porcelains. In addition the glaze on A-marked wares can be distinguished from that used by all other factories (aside from later hard paste productions at Plymouth and Bristol).

    The snuff box offered here is of the same distinctive shape as the A-marked example in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, the palette is the same and the mounts, also are closely similar. The Cardiff box is marked inside with an incised letter A. This box was first published by Arthur lane in 1958 and is acknowledged as a key piece from this short-lived manufactory. The National Museum of Wales kindly provided Bonhams with full access to their box and allowed scientists at Cranfield University to carry out tests on the two snuff boxes. These boxes were analysed at the same time as two saucers from a 'high-style' service of A-marked porcelain, kindly loaned for the purpose by a collector. To complete the latest research, specimens of Doccia porcelain were also tested and, as expected, these proved to be of totally different composition. An Italian attribution for the present snuff box can now be firmly discounted.

    The tests carried out at Cranfield University in November 2011 looked at the composition of the glaze and the components of the various enamels used. The glazes on the two snuff boxes match very closely. Minor variations were noted in the quantities of lead and calcium in the glazes and these are variations which are only to be expected. All other elements are very consistent. Comparisons with the two A-marked saucers reveal slightly more variations in composition, but these differences are still relatively minor and overall these are very close matches. Given that previous research has shown A-marked glaze to be different from all other contemporary English factories, the tests confirm that these two snuff boxes originated from the same short-lived London manufactory.

    Maps of the enamel colours were produced as part of further testing and once again these show close matches between both of the snuff boxes and the saucers. No anachronisms were noted and the palettes used are also remarkably close.

    At present roughly forty specimens of A-mark porcelain are recorded. Authors have divided these into two principal classes, 'high-style' and 'stock patterns'. The former comprises finely-painted decoration, mostly figure subjects derived from print sources, combined with rococo scroll ornament. The main inspiration appears to be Meissen porcelain of the 1720s and 30s. The stock patterns are also probably inspired by Meissen, in particular the indianische Blumen which was itself copied from both China and Japan. In recent research into the enamelled decoration, Errol Manners has shown clear links between flower and insect painting on A-marked wares and on Chelsea porcelain of the early triangle period (ECC Trans, Vol 19, pt.3 (2006), pp. 471-5). This confirms that both groups date from the middle 1740s and have a London origin. In his 2002 ECC paper, Anton Gabszewicz showed links between A-marked formal flower painting and the 'drab' group of early Bow porcelain. This drab porcelain is now believed to be the earliest production at the new factory, or 'New Canton', on the Essex side of Bow Bridge.

    George Arnold and Edward Heylyn are known to have acquired a property in Bow, Middlesex in the latter part of 1744, and it is here they would have carried out experimental firings of the First Bow Patent from December 1744. The factory was short-lived and production had probably ceased well before Frye and Heylyn commenced production of their Second Patent, at new premises on the Essex side of Bow Bridge. The A-marked porcelain is therefore datable to 1744-1745 or possibly 1746. This arguably pre-dates Chelsea and is therefore the first commercially-viable, high-quality British porcelain. This new snuff box, only the second A-marked example recorded, is therefore a most important discovery.
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  1. John Sandon
    Specialist - British Ceramics
    Montpelier Street
    London, United Kingdom SW7 1HH
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