Antique Ceramics: Cleaning & Care

 The majority of ceramics, especially those from the nineteenth century, were made to be used and, while we might not want now to subject antique wares to the rigors of every-day twenty-first century life, gentle and careful cleaning does no harm and helps protect the often delicate surfaces from deterioration caused by the accumulation of harmful dust particles. Even in the most houseproud environments, or in enclosed display cabinets, atmospheric particles can settle into the crevices of intricately molded pieces and this microscopic detritus should be removed at least once a year.


There are a few elementary and mostly common-sense precautions to keep in mind:


  • The first and most important to note is that dishwashers are absolutely, unequivocally banned – the detergents used are too harsh, the high temperatures can cause thermal shock, from complete fracture to overall fine crazing, and a single cycle through a dishwasher can result in loss of gilding and irretrievable compromise to onglaze enamels.


  • Never, but never, use household bleach. It might be tempting to apply a dab of bleach to a stained dirt or rust spot on that otherwise perfect plate - and the immediate result might appear effective. But sodium hypochlorite bleach is corrosive and will permeate the glaze and body, which will discolor overtime to a dingy, tell-tale and permanent yellow which no amount of further treatment will remove. The bleach can also crystallize under the glaze and lift it.


  • For obvious reasons, scouring pads, wire wool and pot scrapers of any type should never be used in an attempt to shift stubborn dirt. If a piece is very dirty, soaking will usually soften the deposit sufficiently for it to be gently teased away with the tip of a cocktail stick wrapped in cotton wool. If necessary, for heavy encrustations, re-soak and repeat the procedure.


  • Cleaning badly stained pieces, repair and restoration will be the topic of a later article.


Antique and vintage ceramics can safely be washed with soft soap or gentle detergent and warm water. Preparation is key to avoiding unhappy accidents and escalation from a simple task to an urgent need for repair: a large plastic bowl or bucket with a towel in the base to cushion the pieces, which should be washed one at a time. Even with small items, they are all too easily knocked one against the other underwater. If the tap does not swivel out of the way, moving the bowl away from the sink will avoid accidentally knocking the item against the spout.


Water temperature should never be more than can comfortably be tolerated by the hand; the baby-bottle test is a reliable guide: if the temperature is barely detected against the inside of the wrist, this will be sufficient to assist the cleansing action of the detergent without risk of shock to the ceramic. The advice might appear overly-cautious but be warned, many bodies, such as some of the early C19th soft-pastes and a few of the mid-C19th bone chinas, have built-in time bombs, a result of problems encountered during manufacture. The first you may know is hearing that heart-sinking 'ping' as a once perfect cup or plate succumbs, not uncommonly with a concentric crack right around the footrim.


If there is only a yearly refresh underway, a brief dip in the soapy water, helped along by a wipe with a soft cloth, and followed by a rinse in clean tepid water is all that will be required. Leave the item to air dry on a thick towel, in preference, or gently complete the drying with another clean towel. For fully glazed items with no damaged areas, such as small chips or crazing to the glaze, the job is done. Water can seep into the body of items where the glaze cover is breached, or where there may originally have been unglazed areas such as on some earlier underbases or footrims, and these will need to left to fully dry for at least twenty-four hours to be sure all moisture is driven out. Forty-eight hours is even better.


The most practical method for cleaning figurines is to stand them on a folded towel and gently work into the crevices with a small soft brush dampened with soapy water, having first dislodged surface dust with a dry sable brush. Remove the soap with a separate brush, frequently rinsed out in clean tepid water and leave to dry. A hairdryer fitted with a diffuser, held at least 12 inches from the surface and on the coolest setting can speed up the drying process.


Large vases fitted with a joining rod should first be disassembled to avoid the formation of rust which can stain the ceramic and, in the worst scenario, can fatally crack the pot. Where the rod has 'fused' with age and can no longer safely be removed without risk of stress damage to the ceramic, care should be taken to keep water away from the base to avoid contact between the metal and moisture.


It is inadvisable to immerse figure and vases in water, which will thus come into contact with the unglazed interiors through blow holes or from the bases of slip and press molded wares. Not only will water continue to seep out of the piece for weeks, it can be as many weeks before the item is reliably dry again. One further caveat: know your collection and be aware of the extent of any restoration. Over zealous soaking can soften old glued repairs and lift areas of overpsray like peeled film; an apparently good condition figure might emerge from its bath in kit form!


Elaborate porcelain trompe l'oeil confections such as bowls of flowers or dishes of fruit, popular in the C19th, look stunning displayed on a polished table but are difficult to keep in pristine condition, since handling offers up fresh opportunities for damage. It is not surprising that few of these pieces have survived without at least a few small chips. Fortunately, the 'busy' nature of these items also makes the losses less obvious but, over time, the increasing damage becomes more apparent if care is not taken to avoid further additions. A periodic light tickle and tease with a soft shaving brush to remove surface dust is best advised.


Biscuit porcelain, in the white, retains a high degree of porosity and these pieces are more suited to display behind glass-fronted cabinets. Regular annual cleaning with a dampened cotton bud, avoiding over-whetting, will successfully remove surface dirt before it sits long enough to penetrate the body, when it will be almost impossible to remove. Statuary porcelain, parian, is more forgiving but, again, gently and often is preferable to probably unsuccessful attempts to restore a badly stained piece.


For all the cautionary tales and dire-sounding warnings, cleaning a collection should be considered a pleasure, not a chore. It is a time to handle the items and note any damage which may need attention and, above all, to become reacquainted with favorite pieces.


Prevention is better than cure


Dinner services may be lavishly enameled and gilded to the rims and borders but most services which were designed for regular use were without decoration to the central areas, most vulnerable to damage from the scrape of cutlery against gilding or onglaze decoration. Except in the grandest of establishments, few of us now would wish to expose elaborately and sumptuously decorated services to regular risks of the dinner table but, if and when used for a special occasion, all plates should be rinsed after clearing and then washed as soon as possible.


The flatware associated with the desert course is less challenging to the ceramic and these services may often be richly hand painted and gilded across the entire surface. However, for the dinner guest who will persist in an over-enthusiastic scraping with the edge of the spoon, chasing after the very last traces of that sweet tasty sauce, improvised diversionary tactics may be called for. A timely and surprising comment by the host perhaps, while the empty plate is quietly retrieved from the offender's blind side, can save the day, the dish and a friendship.


Antique dessert services are best avoided for the serving of fruit, the citrus family especially, since the natural acids can damage the glaze and degrade enamels, as can the oils from butter and cheese. If diary products are served in vintage dishes, these should be emptied and washed immediately after use and not left to stand overnight or the oil can permeate and permanently stain.


Storage and Display


Clean dinner, tea and dessert services which are not on display should be in dry storage where extremes of temperature can be minimized, if not completely avoided. Plates, bowls and center dishes can be stacked, but no more than six matching pieces deep (for plates), with felt separators between each piece to prevent surface abrasions and scuffing. An elaborate service, in full or part, can form a dazzling display but commercial plate hangers which adhere to the back of the plate, or unwrapped wire hangers, are to be avoided at all costs The ideal is a cabinet or dresser with grooved shelves designed for the purpose. Clear plastic stands, available in a variety of sizes, offer an affordable and acceptable alternative which hold the piece securely and are unobtrusive.


Smaller figurines were made to be displayed, often as table decorations to delight and amuse diners. If your guests are of a polite and unrowdy nature, using these charming figures in a contemporary table setting can be a fun talking point and there is no reason why we should not continue to used them to play this part – their original owners did!


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