Sunday 24 March 2019

Eleanor Flegg: A history of Belleek china and the offshoots that sprang out of it

Ireland's Fine Arts, antiques and collectables column

Bundoran China
Bundoran China

Eleanor Flegg

A Parian ware model of "two ballet dancers after Degas" sold at Adam's for €9,500 in November 2006. It was a superb piece, 60cm high, full of movement and delicately modelled in the uncoloured Parian china associated with Ireland's Belleek. The piece was designed by Cyril Arnold, manager of Belleek Pottery Company, but never went into production. The design was considered too intricate even for Belleek.

The Arnold family had its own mini-dynasty in County Fermanagh. They came to Ireland in 1933, when Harry Arnold, who had previously worked for Copeland Spode, became general manager of Belleek. His son, Eric Arnold, became pottery manager in 1940. Eric's brother Cyril also worked for Belleek and went on to become general manager and production manager of the factory.

"My interest in the family started when I realised that they produced three CEOs of Belleek" says Matt McNulty, former chairman of Design Ireland. Cyril, in particular, was a very talented designer and his ideas were hugely influential on Belleek. Parian china is generally white, and resembles marble, but Cyril introduced some pieces in pastel colours. The Belleek 1949 catalogue boasted that: "A number of our clients may prefer Belleek China without the painting, as of old, but the remarkable increased demand for the new designs proves that they are irresistible to many."

On his retirement from Belleek in the 1970s, Cyril Arnold started his own pottery in the popular holiday resort of Bundoran. "The vast majority of the stuff that he made would have been for the holiday-makers, but he also made more serious artwork," McNulty says. Rare, and potentially of interest to collectors, Bundoran Pottery the kind of thing that might lurk undetected at the back of the china cabinet. Pieces are marked on the base as "Bundoran China" or sometimes "Donegal China".

Bundoran China was one of several offshoots from Belleek. "A lot of good came out of these factories," McNulty says. "Almost everyone in the locality would have worked there at some stage, even if it was just a holiday job." Belleek created a lot of skill and many of its former employees found work in the smaller potteries that sprouted up on the other side of the Border. Among them was Donegal Parian China, made with Irish rose and trailing shamrock designs in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, from the mid-1980s until 2005, when it was taken over by Belleek. Celtic Weave China also had a factory in Ballyshannon between 1985 and 2018.

"When Sybil Connolly was asked to design an Easter Egg for Tiffany & Co, she came to Donegal looking for someone who had the skill to make it," says McNulty. He introduced her to Tom Daly of Celtic Weave China, who went on to make Connolly's Tiffany Weave range in bone china. The egg-shaped trinket boxes can sell for up to €120. They can be identified by the mark on the base: "Designed by Sybil Connolly for Tiffany & Co. Made in Ireland. CWC." Other pieces from Donegal Parian China are still very accessible price-wise and will probably become more collectible in time.

Cyril Arnold's Bundoran China was more adventurous and modern. Adam's At Home sale, which took place on February 24, included ten lots from the Cyril Arnold Studio, where McNulty, a native of South Donegal, purchased them from Mrs Arnold after her husband's death. The pieces sold within their modest estimates, indicating that collectors are interested but that, at the moment, it's a buyer's market.

Some of the pieces were clearly experimental. An interesting Belleek-meets-Bauhaus flavour to a plain white "Donegal China" modernist vase, 17cm high, showed a "circular tapering baluster form, the body applied with variously shaped panels with textured surfaces." (Lot 282: est. €200 to €300; sold for €280)

Another modernist vase had a flowing rim and a wavy band of white against a black body. It was offered with a green and yellow octagonal vase, painted with a motif of leaves coming from a central stem that look like a precursor to Orla Kiely's signature pattern. (Lot 277: est. €200 to €300; sold for €200).

Other pieces were less obviously modernist. A trio of Bundoran China plates (Lot 279: est. €200 to €300; sold for €300) included two hand-painted with stylised starfish on yellow ground.

Adam's auction also included a pair of Bundoran China figurines (pictured). These tall elegant ladies in long dresses and wide-brimmed hats (Lot 375: €70 to €100; sold for €100). "From talking to his wife, I understand that he was trying to create a series of wedding figurines," says McNulty.

At its best, Arnold's work is exquisite (if not particularly fashionable). McNulty's favourite piece is a small group of three winged figures, reading a book beneath a blossomed branch. It's entitled "Fairy Tales - modelled and hand painted by Cyril Arnold, Bundoran China Ireland" and McNulty feels that it may have been inspired by illustrations by George Russell (AE). Arnold's fairy groups have come up at auction but rarely and not that recently. "It's not the kind of thing that you'd want to sell," he says.

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