Chintz in bloom The English earthenware made in the early 1900s and decorated with blossoms and garden flowers is enjoying renewed popularity -- and prices are climbing.

November 09, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Forget majolica. Forget Chinese export and blue willow and Fiesta and every other highly collectible dishware of the decade. In the last year or so chintz ware has become "the rising star of collectibles," as Barbara Jacksier, editor of Country Collectibles and Country Victorian magazines, puts it.

This English pottery decorated with garden flowers like cabbage roses, daisies, sweet peas and violets was mass produced mostly in the first half of the century. It isn't hard to spot. It looks exactly like the flowery fabric of the same name.

For the first time this year, chintz china was included in the authoritative "Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price List." (In the last five years, prices for chintz have increased dramatically, with cups and saucers easily fetching $100 and teapots going for as much as $600.)

Christie's held its first major sale of chintz ware this August in London. It was so successful that the auction house is already planning an even bigger sale next summer.

And sitting pretty among tea sets, cake plates, toast racks and creamers is Jo Anne Welsh, a ninth-generation Marylander whose book "Chintz Ceramics," published last year by Schiffer, has become a definitive resource for lovers of the blossom-covered earthenware.

Welsh lives with her husband Tom and Portia, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, outside of College Park. Four years ago, when ++ the last of her two children headed off for college, she started collecting chintz in earnest. Now, she freely admits, it's become an obsession.

"My husband thinks I'm a little over the top about this," she confides, looking around at a house filled with hundreds of pieces of chintz. Her chintz ware is set off by chintz-patterned wallpaper, chairs and pillows covered in chintz, a chintz needlepoint rug, chintz draperies.

It all started in the early '80s when Welsh discovered a box of Royal Winton "Old Cottage" chintz in the back of an antique shop -- six plates, six cups and saucers and several other pieces. She liked the flowery china, bought the box for $50 and took it home. (Nowadays one dinner plate in the "Old Cottage" pattern might command as much as $200.)

"I knew nothing about chintz," she says. "I just liked the pattern and wanted to find out more about it. But after awhile I was on a mission."

The dinnerware she had fallen in love with, Welsh found, was inspired by a printed cotton fabric originally made in India. Around the turn of the century, chintz fabric was enormously popular in England; and ceramics manufacturers hastened to make use of the all-over patterns of flowers and leaves on their dishware.

The earliest china with chintz-like decoration dates back to the 18th century. But interestingly enough, these hand-painted antiques aren't today's most sought-after collectibles. Even more in demand is the chintz earthenware produced for the middle class by a number of different British pottery manufacturers from the 1920s to the 1960s.

That's because the mass-produced dishware is so easy to collect, says Michael Jeffrey, a ceramics specialist who rTC cataloged Christie's chintz sale this summer. "It's so well-marked with the factory name and patent name on the back," he says. "And there's a quantity of it out there."

The most popular chintz was produced in Stoke-on-Trent, England, where the necessary raw materials -- clay and coal -- were abundant. The leading manufacturer of the time was Royal Winton, which introduced its first mass-produced chintz in 1928, the enormously successful "Marguerite" pattern. Some 50 other chintz patterns followed until the line was finally discontinued in the 1960s. (Other manufacturers of note were James Kent, Lord Nelson, Shelley, Crown Ducal and Empire.)

So why has English chintz ware made a comeback some 30 years later? The reasons are as varied as the types of flowers that decorate chintz's jam pots and egg cups.

"Most people are buying it to use," says antiques expert Terry Kovel. "It's not like some collectibles that sit on a shelf. Chintz is very usable, and it's very 'in' to have dishes with lots of design on them right now."

These are dishes that epitomize cozy nostalgia -- a welcome antidote, collectors say, for the stress of modern living. They have what Jo Anne Welsh calls "the feel of a slower time." But the flower-filled patterns also reflect today's interest in gardening and nature, so they blend well with current design motifs.

Chintz is a natural progression from America's fascination with country in home design, as Welsh herself found. "We built our house in 1980 when I was very much into country," she says, "But I've moved away from that to soft florals." The chintz look is still cozy and comfortable, but a bit more polished.

And, of course, chintz ware fits in with the current popularity of Victoriana. Florals and soft colors are hallmarks of the romantic style. "Chintz is a natural with the white-wicker look," says magazine editor Barbara Jacksier.

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