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Collecting Shelley China

Shelley china emerged with a collector’s delight of multifarious fine china in diverse shapes and colours



From a complex history, Shelley china emerged with a collector’s delight of multifarious fine china in diverse shapes, colours and always of the finest quality, writes Bob Ditessa in this interview with collector Helen Douglas.

Shelley fine china has a long and exciting history reaching back to the factory of Elkin Knight & Co that was operating as early as 1822 in what is now Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire in England. The region at the time and subsequently was a significant hub of china and earthenware manufacturing.

Before the Shelley family came into the business it was known as Wileman, and for a time its brand marking was Late Foley. From this complex history emerged a collector’s delight of multifarious fine china artefacts in diverse shapes, colours and always of the finest quality.

Helen Douglas, who is the President of the Australasian Shelley Collectors Club, tells A2V that people love the fineness of Shelley china for its translucence, the way you can see the light shine through the bone china. Its decorative styles range from the 19th century aesthetic movement, Art Nouveau, Arts & Crafts and Art Deco up to mid-20th century modern. As well, there is souvenir ware and nursery ware, vases, breweriana, kitchenalia… all sorts of areas for collecting. And it doesn’t hurt that Shelley cups are pleasingly comfortable to use.

Some collectors are attracted by the very pretty teaware, others by the rare and unusual, and others by the technical qualities. Helen herself initially was attracted by Shelley’s aesthetic qualities but, like many collectors, over time she has developed a nuanced appreciation. In her case, that developed into an interest in the rarer and more unusual shapes and designs.

Wileman and Shelley used bone china for their smaller items such as trios, pin dishes and crested miniatures, whilst larger items such as dinner plates, serving dishes, trays, jugs, vases, jelly moulds and some tea and coffee pots were made in semi-porcelain, a light-coloured earthenware that was white glazed and then fired.

A common starting point for Shelley collectors is trios (sets of cup, saucer and plate), after which they tend to specialise, perhaps focusing on a particular pattern, say Primrose, or a type of pattern, for example, chintzes or Imari. Between 1872 when Wileman & Co was established and the closure of Shelley Potteries in 1966, more than 125 different cup shapes were produced and some collectors focus on this, for example collecting the Queen Anne shape or a style such as Art Deco. Dainty was the longest in production, from 1896 to 1966. Others concentrate on a category such as crested miniature souvenir ware. Helen explains, “Some collectors, like me, have a lot of sub-collections in particular areas. So although I have a big collection of the numbered crested miniatures, an early souvenir ware, I also have most of the chintz patterns available on Ripon shape cups and saucers, and I have a big collection of vases, jardinieres, soap dishes and candlesticks. A lot of people in our club have at least as diverse a collection, and some a much finer one. We have a member with an almost complete Jenolan Caves souvenir ware collection, another with a fabulous display of lustreware designed by art director Walter Slater, and another with a comprehensive nursery ware collection. So there are fabulous collections out there.”

Mid-century tea set trios are the most common Shelley collectables because they’re sold as separate items, often after a breakage. Vases are less common, but not rare. Least common are special pieces such as the advertising figurine known as ‘The Shelley Girl’ from the 1930s, some of the early earthenware pieces, and a few rare patterns. Helen adds that while some Shelley earthenware does not appeal to everyone as much as the china, she’s keen to develop the early art pottery style earthenware section of her Shelley corpus.

Sixteen years ago, Helen read a brochure from the Australasian Shelley Collectors Club. Something in it resonated with her and prompted her to join, and later attend a regional meeting one Saturday at a member’s house. The heartening experience saw her become a regular, then the secretary, and three years ago the President.

That personal connection and resonance is a common theme to the stories of how people become collectors and Club members, as reminiscences in the Club’s newsletters attest. Sometimes the connection is the bequeath of a treasured Shelley set or item bestowed from a special person, or the search for a replacement piece to complete a set, and sometimes it’s just someone else’s passion that catches on. The pieces that members have from their mothers and grandmothers are usually the mid-century pieces. The older pieces, Helen continues, they acquire in the marketplace.

“I started with a Shelley trio from my grandmother, and also began noticing when my mum used her special Shelley china trios. Then when I was first married I found a couple of trios in antique shops and became a collector in a small way, using my sets for afternoon teas with visitors.” Returning to collecting after raising her children, she discovered the advantages of internet searching and seeing the variety of Shelley artefacts in members’ collections. After acquiring some unusual Art Deco pieces and earthenware, Helen can now lay claim to a very eclectic collection. It contains teaware from early Wileman aesthetic pieces to post-war modern that includes Imari and Art Deco, as well as earthenware from the Arts & Crafts movement.

Some members have earlier pieces dating back from about the 1840s. “There’s always something elusive to hunt down to complete some part of the collection,” Helen enthuses. She once stumbled on an exquisite rare Wileman jug listed only as ‘old jug’ and was lucky enough to acquire it. Many people inherit china and pottery that they don’t appreciate. They sell it at car boot sales, donate it to charity shops or list it on auction sites. Rare tragedies such as bushfires and earthquakes have wiped out or badly impacted collections, notes Helen. As members often know what other members are searching for, they alert one another about finds.

Shelley is also used to refer to its predecessor brands. As Helen Douglas explains:
“Wileman and Shelley were family names of the factory owners. They were family owned businesses. Joseph Shelley went into partnership with James Wileman in the 1870s, and his son Percy (not the poet) took over when Wileman retired in the 1880s, but the firm continued to trade under the Wileman name until 1910. Then for a few years the backstamp included ‘Late Foley’ with the new Shelley mark, referring to the previous use of ‘The Foley’ brand by Wileman & Co. From around 1916 you will just find ‘Shelley’ on the back stamp, and four generations of the Shelley family ran the business until it closed in 1966.”

“There are fakes and imitations out there, and we stumble across them occasionally,” says Helen. “One sort of fake will have a Shelley backstamp added to something made by someone else, and these can sometimes be detected as having been added over the glaze.”

Helen says eBay is a viable marketplace where what may have seemed rare turns out to be comparatively available, and thus affordable. Collectors have to get selective. Pointing out the importance of keeping in touch with fellow club members and visiting with them, she says, “I see lots of things in other club members’ collections that I haven’t seen before. It’s a great way to learn. The Club’s annual fairs are a great way to see special pieces on display too, and to find some elusive pieces on the sales tables.”

The Club’s quarterly newsletter, edited by Robyn and Barry Cox for the past twenty years, is a significant conduit of communication and information about Shelley china. Members have researched and written useful articles including some about very well-known children’s artists commissioned by Shelley to create designs for their wares in the 1920s and 1930s. Hilda Cowham pieces, for example, are always signed on the illustration and Mabel Lucie Attwell pieces are very recognisable. Linda Edgerton was another renowned artist commissioned around that time.

While Shelley collectors aspire to exhibit their collections in the best display housing, many also like to use Shelley artefacts for the functions for which they were manufactured, especially the teaware and sometimes the vases, although admittedly not for everyday use. Helen explains, “I had a lovely Shelley Regent shape cup and saucer with bluebells that I used every day for tea at work, and it improved my mood every time I used it. I’m retired now, and I bring out Shelley trios for my book club to choose from for their tea or coffee. I also use them for visitors occasionally, including of course when the Shelley Club regional gathering is at my place! Although it tends to be the replaceable pieces that get used. I know some members have full dinner services and use them for special occasions. A table set with a Shelley service does look wonderful.”

The Club that Helen heads was the first Shelley collectors’ club in the world, and today it has sister Clubs in the UK and the USA. With the world health emergency, and the need to operate online, the Clubs have become a little closer, says Helen. Groups in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Far North Queensland meet quarterly. An annual Fair in October rotates between Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. These gatherings are also successful social events, and a chance to swap wares and stories.

The Shelley business was sold and the production of Shelley ceased in 1966. Helen quips, “Stock is limited and gradually diminishing, mostly through normal breakages. Sometimes it feels like Shelley is still manufacturing, as things turn up that we haven’t seen before. It’s a great pity there is no Shelley post-1966, but on the brighter side it does help to put some limit on our collection!”

You can find out more on the history, backstamps and fakes on the Club’s website (www.shelleyclub.com) and in reference books. “Our Club does not offer appraisals or recommend appraisers,” says Helen. “If you need a formal appraisal, you should seek out a professional.” All images courtesy Helen Douglas, President of the Australasian Shelley Collectors Club. “I should add that these photos only give a small taste of the huge variety of wares out there,” Helen notes.

Bob Ditessa is a regular contributor to Antiques to Vintage magazine

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Helen Douglas
COLLECTOR