A closer look at Cairo transferware pottery

Collector-researcher Kelly Keating explores the details of Cairo transferware: a tool of imperialism and an expression and product of the British Empire.
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By Kelly T. Keating, The Antique Flâneur

Cairo is a multi-motif light chocolate brown (it also appears in blue and I recently saw an example in red on eBay) transferware pattern by the Staffordshire manufacturer William T. Copeland and Sons. The design was introduced in 1881 and continued in production for about 10 years. There were 15 different designs; 13 of those designs are discussed in this essay.

As a pattern, Cairo is a strange mixture of Japanese elements and Egyptian motifs. The Far East component of the pattern links Cairo to the wider Aesthetic Movement in which Japanese art became a major influence on the decorative arts of the West in the 1870s and 1880s.

Japanese influence on Western art

In 1854 diplomatic relations were established between Japan and the United States, and in 1858 trade began between the two countries, allowing a large number of Japanese goods to enter the United States. The craze for “things Japanese” by the American public, however, did not really begin until the opening of the spectacular Japanese exhibition at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia.

Figure 1: 13” Cairo platter. Courtesy of Kelly Keating

Figure 1: 13” Cairo platter. Courtesy of Kelly Keating

The opening of Japan by the United States allowed other nations such as England to enter Japan and be influenced by Japanese culture objects as well. In 1872, the term Japonisme — art influenced by Japan — was first used by Jules Claretie in his book L’Art Francais, and also by Phillipe Burty in his Japonisme III La Renaissance Literaire et Artistique. However, the term Anglo-Japanese was being used in England as early as 1851. It seems that the Japanese influence on the arts began in England significantly earlier than in other countries.

Further support for this conclusion is the 1862 International Exhibition in London, where there was an official Japanese section. The Japanese Court was organized by Sir Rutherford Alcock. He had been the British Minister in Edo from 1858-1864. The Japanese area of the exhibition also included, for public viewing, Alcock’s own extensive collection of Japanese objects; from these objects, designers could gain inspiration.

Another factor in the prevailing influence of Japanese art in England earlier than elsewhere was the collection owned by James McNeil Whistler, who moved to Great Britain in 1859. A final factor is the tradition of “oriental” influence on English design, particularly in ceramics, which allowed for an easy acceptance of Japanese objects and style. Therefore, the Cairo pattern by Copeland introduced in 1881 was developed within a rich visual tradition of Eastern motifs.

The adding of Egyptian elements to the pattern strengthened this visual dynamic.

Arabesques, Fans & Scrolls

Although a multi-motif pattern, Cairo does possess some common elements among its various incarnations. The border of the pattern is an arabesque, which is a form of decoration made up of rhythmic linear patterns of scrolling and interlacing leaves and tendrils. The arabesque is a common feature of Islamic art, and its presence in the Copeland pattern nicely connects with the Egyptian motifs of obelisks, pyramids, domed mosques and minarets. Furthermore, the 15 different motifs can be categorized into motifs with fans and motifs with scrolls.

On a 13” platter (figure 1), an Egyptian obelisk is seen from across a river (the Nile, it is assumed). It is pictured in a fan cartouche layered on top of a ground of bamboo. A smaller round cartouche overlaps the fan and depicts three small birds in flight. This layering of elements with insets with their own images, along with the fan, the bamboo and the three flying birds, is very reminiscent of Japanese art. This layering design creates a sense of space and dynamism on the flat surface of the pottery.

On a 10” platter (figure 2), the design on the bottom of the dish exhibits the same layered elements as the platter in figure 1. Instead of a fan cartouche, there is an unfurled scroll that pictures a domed mosque and minaret seen from across a river. Beyond the horizontal scroll is another unfurled vertical scroll with some type of flower. The ground of the dish is decorated with a fruit tree (prunus) with a flowering branch. The scroll and the flowering branch suggest Japanese motifs, as does the layering design.

On a small 8” tray or stand (figure 3), the same flowering branch found on the vegetable dish and small plate appears again. The piece features two cartouches: the larger one depicting what looks like a Chinese junk. Not surprisingly, Europeans often confused and conflated Japanese and Chinese elements. The boat cartouche overlaps a patterned cartouche which is reminiscent of a Japanese mon or heraldic device and may also be influenced by Japanese textiles.

On a small 6 1/2” plate (figure 4), the same flowering branch ground as found on the 10” platter is featured. It is overlaid with two fan cartouches. One depicts a heron or stork and the other pictures two minarets on a river with boats.

On a 7 1/2” plate (figure 5), a ground of irises is featured with a large bird in flight. Two interlocked and overlapping fans act as cartouches. One shows three birds in flight above a landscape and the other depicts a large building seen across the river (The Nile again?) with two palm trees in the foreground.

On an 8 3/4” dessert plate (figure 6) there is an unfurling scroll that reveals a landscape with a prominent minaret and a river in the background. Overlapped by the scroll are two round mons with intricate patterns, which could relate to Japanese textiles. A large iris is portrayed on the ground of the plate.

On a 10” cake or biscuit plate (figure 7), the ground consists of a flowering branch and three birds in flight. The next layer features two mons with elaborate patterns, the upper one with a Greek key pattern. The top layer is another unfurling scroll cartouche portraying two men walking and a third man riding a camel. This design is also found on 10” dinner plates.

On a 9 3/4” soup bowl (figure 8), there is a background of a flowering prunus branch on which are perched two charming birds on the bottom left. Also, on the ground of the bowl are two insects: a butterfly and a fly. The scroll cartouche features a river scene with bamboo in the foreground and a boat which perhaps reminds one of the type of vessels that sailed on the Nile.

On a smaller 8 1/2” soup bowl (figure 9), there is a ground of flowers and foliage. One mon is placed on the lower right partially behind the scroll. The forward element is another unfurling Japanese scroll that depicts a view of two of the great pyramids of Giza seen in the distance across a river with a large tree and plants in the foreground. The pyramid, of course, symbolizes Egypt.

The pickle dish (figure 10) has only three elements to its design. There is a flowering prunus branch on the left, as seen in almost all other Cairo examples depicted here, and there are two cartouches: one is a mon, and the other depicts an Egyptian obelisk with figures amongst trees. This motif is the same on found in the large 13” platter, just reversed.

All of the above motifs are taken from items in my own collection. The following three motifs are found in the book Spode/Copeland Transfer-Printed Patterns by Lynne Sussman. The first motif (figure 11) from the Sussman book is unusual in that it features a gourd as the prominent motif. Inside the top of the gourd are three flying birds as seen in other Cairo motifs, and in the bottom half of the gourd is a pair of ducks nesting next to an iris. Behind the gourd is a pair of rolled up scrolls, and the whole is set on a floral and foliage ground.

The next design (figure 12) is set against a bamboo ground overlaid with a skinny vertical scroll and a wider horizontal scroll. The skinny scroll features some foliage. The front scroll displays a pair of nesting ducks on the water’s edge surrounded by foliage.

Another scroll based motif displays a European style building (figure 13) within the field. At the top and partially behind the scroll is an intricate mon with a Greek key design. The ground of this design is a prunus branch. A bird in flight is on the lower left at the corner of the scroll and on the corner of the scroll.

Imperialism and Cairo

In the 19th century, the United Kingdom was the greatest European imperial power: The sun never sets on the British Empire. Cairo was first introduced in 1881, and the British occupation of Egypt began in 1882. The proximity of these events does not strike me as a coincidence. Cairo becomes a tool of imperialism and an expression and product of the British Empire. It is not simply a cultural artifact, a piece of pottery, an example of Aesthetic design: it is embedded in a historical and political moment, and for that reason, it is all the more appealing to me as a collector. 

Reprinted with permission from the Transferware Collector Club Bulletin, www.transcollectorsclub.org. The thrice-yearly Bulletin, which is printed in full color, is just one of the many benefits of joining the Transferware Collectors Club. A $50 membership (which includes two users per household) entitles members full access to the TCC Bulletin archives, as well as full access to the pattern and source print database, which contains thousands of patterns and hundreds of source prints.

Kelly T. Keating, The Antique Flâneur, www.theantiqueflaneur.com, is an accredited appraiser of fine silver based in New York City and an avid collector of 19th century American silver and 18th and 19th century English ceramics.