Today, well over a century later, practically no antique dealer in the German section of Pennsylvania is without a reasonable assortment, when possible, of what the trade and collectors, for want of a better name, know as "Gaudy Dutch."
With freehand decoration executed in cobalt blue, apple green, rust red, and lemon yellow on a typically Staffordshire white bisque (the blue an under glaze colour, and the others over glaze), the designs of this ware are so robust that they should not be ignored. Nevertheless, books on English potteries, and particularly on the products of Staffordshire, are mute regarding them. Yet, the ware shown in such museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Pennsylvania Museum of Art in Philadelphia, as part of their displays of the folk arts of this racial group, clearly certifies that Gaudy Dutch is a recognized variety of the earthenware made for the American market. And lack of information about it in the standard books on the general subject is in itself a lure.
Because practically all the pieces that one finds of this ware are unmarked, the only way to identify it is by comparison with other types of known origin. This is easy, for all pieces of Gaudy Dutch feel and weigh, when held in the hand, precisely like clearly marked specimens of the Staffordshire transfer wares of the early years. They are like the delicate, light pieces characteristic of the years when the best blue was being produced rather than the heavy, clumsy ones of the period after ironstone ware was introduced. The glaze also proclaims Gaudy Dutch as a Staffordshire product, as do the shape and modelling of the handleless cups, the deep, almost bowlike saucers, the teapots, and other pieces.
A maker's name is found once in about a hundred pieces, and that name is Riley, impressed into the bisque before firing. A copy of the map reproduced in Wedgwood's Staffordshire Pottery and Its History shows that John and Richard Riley had a pottery on Nile Street, Burslem, in 1800. From this meager bit of information, we pass to other books of English potters' marks and find that the partnership continued as late as 1827 and that toward the dose, its wares were marked either Riley's Semi-China (enclosed in a belt and buckle) or just Riley's Semi-Stone China.
Since Gaudy Dutch, when marked, bears only the impressed word "Riley," it is obvious that it was made in the early days of the partnership, before they had begun to qualify what they made either as semi-china or semi-stone china. This would place Gaudy Dutch production about 1785 to 1815. Those were years when Americans were not overanxious to buy English products and may possibly explain why so much of it was not marked at all, save with the meaningless marks of individual workmen.
If Americans preferred not to buy things marked to indicate that they came from England, the potters of Staffordshire and elsewhere were ready to oblige. It made small difference to them whether they sold marked or unmarked goods so long as they sold them. Therefore, large quantities of English dishes were made distinctly for the American trade but tactfully unmarred by any name that might give patriotic offence.
Study of representative collections of Gaudy Dutch reveals that ten distinct designs were followed. These are known as the carnation, the oyster, the butterfly, the dove, the war bonnet, the single rose, the sunflower, the grape, the vase, and a floral pattern with a predominance of green foliage called "no name" by common consent among dealers and collectors.
They all have certain characteristics in common; viewed as a whole, one is prone to think that it was extremely clever of the Rileys and their competitors in Staffordshire to evolve such a decorative pattern for those color-loving Germans of Pennsylvania. But they did not originate it. They merely adapted a Chinese conceit of the seventeenth century that was first copied on eighteenth century fine Chinas, such as Worcester and Derby. Gold was used on these expensive pieces, but on the less pretentious earthenware plates, made for shipment across the Atlantic, a strong yellow was substituted.
In following the basic pattern of Gaudy Dutch back to its origin, one finds that in China, during the K'ang Hsi period (1666- 1722), the potters brought forth a somewhat conventionalised floral design for dishes made of a white bisque. This escaped to Japan and was very popular, taking the design name Imari from the place where it was chiefly produced. Late in the eighteenth century, when Americans began to import Oriental Lowestoft direct from Canton, the Chinese revived their pattern. But the name Imari stuck, in the Western world at least, and all pieces decorated in this manner were known and are still known to English china producers and collectors as Japanese patterns. These the English potters copied, first on their bone-china wares and later on the Gaudy Dutch.
In doing this, certain changes took place. They may have been intentional or accidental. The latter would seem reasonable. The Chinese K'ang Hsi Imari decoration had the typically Celestial lotus blossom. In the Gaudy Dutch and other English wares, this Oriental flower became a Tudor rose or some other blossom that the decorators knew by firsthand observation. But compare a Chinese original with a piece of Gaudy Dutch, or a good example of Worcester or Derby, decorated with the so-called Japanese pattern, and you have the story. The decorative pattern is basically Chinese and the variations are only those that occurred through the ignorance of the Anglo-Saxon decorators who were copying and trying to produce what they thought was an Oriental design.
This line of descent is sometimes strikingly evident in the larger Gaudy Dutch bowls. On these pieces one finds the usual decoration on the outside of the bowl, but inside either typically Chinese figures or buildings; not Shinto temple gates but good, straightforward Chinese pagodas.
Thus, through over a century and by travelling two-thirds of the way around the world, was the pattern known as Gaudy Dutch evolved and brought to America. Why was it not marketed elsewhere than among the Germans of Pennsylvania? That is a question so far without an answer. Coming through Philadelphia, dishes of this special pattern made their way directly to the farm-houses of Lancaster, Berks, Lehigh, Bucks, and Dauphin counties. There they remained unregarded and unsought until about fifty years ago when Pennsylvania Dutch with a fondness for the antique began collecting them.