Bow porcelain factory was an English soft-paste porcelain factory in Stratford-le-Bow, Essex, founded by Thomas Frye, a talented Irish engraver alongside his partner, Edward Heylyn. The factory was active from about 1747 to 1776.
The Bow porcelain factory rivalled the Chelsea porcelain factory, the two of which were the first in England. By 1749, the factory which was first located in Bow, (now known as the London Borough of Tower Hamlets), had relocated to “New Canton”, situated at the London Borough of Newham. Bone ash or calcined bones were considerably used in moulding Bow porcelain from 1750.
Their designs imitated imported Chinese blue-and-white and Japanese polychrome porcelain being produced at Chelsea, with variation in quality and appearance. Instead of the slipcasting used at Chelsea, Bow figures were made by pressing the paste into moulds.
Following the Bow factory’s rapid expansion, they had become the largest English factory of its time. It, however, knew decline with the introduction of new English factories from around 1760, coupled with the dependence on models produced by Chelsea factory. Even as production on the other side decreased, there was an influx of workers at Chelsea.
While Chelsea concentrated on luxury goods, Bow made some quality cheaper sprigged tableware in white. An imitation of Chinese wares, the tableware came in blue and white porcelain with floral underglaze decoration. Just like at Chelsea and other factories around the globe, the Kakiemon style of the Japanese export porcelain was trending at Bow.
Thomas Frye and his partner Edward Heylyn applied for patents in December 1744 which was enrolled in 1745, as well as a different patent of November 1 1748 (enrolled in 1749), which were intended to cover the uses of kaolin. Although Thomas Frye claimed to have been the inventor and first manufacturer of porcelain in England through his published epitaph, the patents had not resulted in any manufacture until about 1749.
A writer noted in 1911 that Frye and his partner Heylyn, while not having their own factory, went ahead with their experiments at an already existing factory at Bow after acquiring the services of a proficient workman who may have been the actual inventor of English porcelain.
Although production scale hardly means a successful commercial venture, scientific analysis of various pieces that do not fit the traditional narrative of the earliest days of English porcelain have, in recent years, suggested to a couple of researchers that in addition to an earlier production of porcelain, there was a formula that produced the earliest hard-paste porcelain made in England, about 20 years before Plymouth porcelain.
Soft-paste Bow porcelains made from bone ash, forming a phosphatic body preceded bone china. By 1750, the business relocated from Bow to New Canton, situated on the Essex side of the River Lea, close to Bow Bridge. West of Stratford High street, the factory was located beside Bow Back River. Evidence of this move was inkstands at the British Museum as well as at the Museum of Royal Worcester which bore the year 1750 with the inscription “Made at New Canton”. There is also the illustration of Toronto in the Gardiner Museum.
By 1750, the Bow Factory had new owners, John Crowther and Weatherby. Frye was serving as Manager at this period. In 1753, they began advertising for painters and a modeller in Birmingham. Lady Charlotte Guest gathered sources for the early history of the Bow factory in diaries, memoranda and notebooks, as well as the account books and other papers of John Bowcocke who was an employee and worked as a commercial manager and traveller.
1758 was the period that marked the manufactory’s exploits; a period when 300 persons were employed, painters counting about 90, who all stayed under one roof. An account over a period of 5 years revealed cash receipts from the business at £6,573 (1751) which was on a steady rise year after year. It reached £11,229 in 1755. Sales in 1754 totalled an amount of £18,115. Bow factory had a warehouse at St. Katharine’s near the tower, as well as a retail shop in Cornhill. However, a shop at West End that was opened in 1757 in Terrace in St. James’s Street closed down the following year. Co-owner Weatherby died in 1762 while his partner Crowther was listed bankrupt the following year. Crowther managed to continue the small business but eventually sold off for a sum what was left of the Bow factory in 1776 to William Duesbury. All the implements and moulds were transferred to Derby.
History has it that decoration like the overglaze enamelling may have been done outside the factory.
George Michel Moser, the chaser and enamellist, a founder of the Royal Academy, and a key figure in the English Rococo modelled for Bow.
While some Bow figures imitated Chelsea models, many more imitated Meissen. Some of them bear the date 1750, which were the earliest dates on the Bow porcelain. William Duesbury enamelled some of them. The earliest full-length portrait figures in English porcelain were a pair of Bow figures of Kitty Clive as “the Fine Lady” and Henry Woodward as “the Fine Gentleman” in David Garrick’s “Lethe” (1750-1752). The figures of General James Wolfe (1759) and the Marquess of Granby (1760-62) were the largest, so as to celebrate their victories in the Seven Years’ War.
Bow porcelain embraced Battersea enamels’ new invention of transfer printing later in the 1750s, although it never became an established mode of decoration. Rather than enamelling, some figures were simply painted, which caused the paint on these figures to become damaged over the years, until what left was scraped off to produce a plain white glazed figure.
William Duesbury in his account books differentiates “painted” from “enamelled” figures.