In the 1880s Royal Worcester enjoyed a great boom in production. They manufactured porcelain in a vast range of different styles, inspired by designs from across the globe. In the show rooms, Indian, Persian, Renaissance, German, Classical, Japanese and Chinese style objects offered a wealth of choice for the customer. The financial success also allowed the company to expand and experiment with many different new materials and forms of decoration.
The Chicago World fair of 1893 provided the perfect showcase for Royal Worcester to demonstrate their position in the ceramics world and every effort went into the production of some amazing exhibits to wow the public. It did however mark the turning point in the fortunes of the company.
The exhibition itself failed to create the business Royal Worcester had hoped for. Overall they broke even, but changes in American import duties and a general slow-down in the British market meant that they had to re-think their high-end business.
In the early 1890s, under the guidance of Art Director, Richard William Binns, Royal Worcester started to concentrate on the manufacture of smaller, more affordable wares, to be sold through new fashionable department stores that opened in response to ever increasing demand from the middle classes. Glazed parian, with organic shapes and decorated with printed and hand coloured ‘Art Sprays’ (known today as Blush Ivory) was to become one of the company’s most successful lines. But Royal Worcester had always explored new developments in design and must also have been inspired by the success of the Art Potteries of Bernard Moore and Doulton of Lambeth.
The idea that every pot produced was unique and that the final appearance of a piece could not be predicted would have been a totally alien concept to the Royal Worcester factory, which strove to achieve consistency and precision in every object. However the Art Director’s third son, William Moore Binns had for some years been experimenting with glazes in imitation of Japanese porcelain. He firmly believed in the Ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the aim for individuality and that the manufacturer had a responsibility to produce ‘good design’ even in everyday objects. It is perhaps not so surprising then that in September 1894 William Moore Binns (by then promoted to Art Superintendent) and Potter’s Chemist George Hancock patented Worcester’s answer to Art Pottery – Sabrina ware.
The production method for Sabrina ware was relatively straight forward, but the results unpredictable. At first existing moulds were used, such as the square Japanese vase to experiment with, but later a number of more simple, restrained shapes designed by Frederick Thorpe were introduced to allow the colours to dominate.
Royal Worcester Sabrina ware was made of parian clay with its high feldspar composition. Objects were first fired at low temperature to allow them to be handled, but remain porous. Some pieces were then painted with flowers, birds, fish or trees using a black (bitumen) resist which would prevent absorption of the salts to parts of the surface. Each object was then carefully and artistically saturated with a solution of metallic salts, consisting of cobalt, copper green, chrome green, sulphuric acid and water, and dried in a hot cupboard.
During the biscuit firing the salts were found to crystallise producing random effects and luminous clouding. The final result being affected by the condition of the clay, density of atmosphere and temperature in the kiln and gases generated during the firing. Every piece of Sabrina ware was unique and it was impossible to duplicate effects.
Some of the most unusual and quite stunning pieces of Sabrina were decorated only by salts and finished with a clear glaze. Other examples had stencilled resist decoration and largely after the First World War some Sabrina ware was hand painted by Royal Worcester’s talented artists. Signed examples of the work of Walter Powell, Walter Sedgley, WH Austin and Albert Shuck are known.
Sabrina ware with its flowing blues and greens was named after Sabrina the Goddess of the River Severn. No records survive to tell us how successful production was, but it appears to have enjoyed some popularity around 1900–1910. William Moore Binns left Royal Worcester in 1904, but manufacture of Sabrina ware was not discontinued until 1930.
Royal Worcester never again ventured into the very different world of studio or Art pottery. Royal Worcester Sabrina ware was an interesting attempt by William Moore Binns to satisfy this market and it is somewhat ironic that his older brother Charles Fergus Binns was to establish his own reputation on the other side of the world, as the Father of American Studio ceramics. The prestigious Binns medal for high achievement in Ceramic Art is still awarded every year at Alfred University, New York State.