Cobles in Art & Antiques

Celebrating the Northumbrian coble and Yorkshire cobble in popular culture

Polychrome Pearlware Cobles

References to the production of souvenir pottery cobles are hard to come by, nothwithstanding the fact that Sunderland Museum displays an unusual (but damaged) example in a swirling 'marbled brown' glaze and Whitby Museum displays another in a white glaze.

The Sunderland example is very rare indeed as this is the only one I've seen with a finish like this - think Ozzy the Owl from the Antiques Roadshow. The decoration was achieved using 'slip' or liquid clay which was trailed and then mixed together to give the 'marbled' effect. My thanks to the Museum for the photo. 

A brief mention of pottery cobles (together with an illustration) is made in the book 'Yorkshire Potteries, Pots and Potters' by Oxley Graham (Keeper of York Museum), published in 1916 by Coultas & Volans Ltd, York.

The short extract reads,  'Some fine cobles, in pottery, were made at Stockton. These are representations of the Yorkshire fishing and pleasure boats known as cobles.'

The book illustrates an example (see left) belonging to Mr A Hurst and shows (whilst being in black and white) the individual strakes (or planks) being glazed in different colours, although seriously flaked.

The book also states that, of wares produced by the Stockton potteries (specifically, chargers or dishes produced by the Clarence Pottery), colours were put on top of the glaze ('on-glaze') and not underneath, where they would be better protected.

Such on-glazing (as opposed to 'under-glazing') produced the brightly coloured cobles seen here. To get them so colourful, the potter had to fire them in the kiln three times - the first to produce a 'biscuit firing' of the earthenware, the second to produce a 'white glaze' or 'glost firing' and the third, to 'burn' or 'enamel' the colours painted on top  - hence the term, 'enamelled' colours.

Colours were painted on top of the white glaze as, at the time, very few could withstand the tremendous heat of the initial 'biscuit' firing. And bright hues were needed as a means of accurately portraying coble colours  - perhaps critical in getting the finished articles sold.  

The Whitby Museum example has thus missed out on the on-glaze painting and would have only been fired twice.

The colours on these pottery cobles are referred to as polychrome -simply a nod to many colours being used as agin one, ie monochrome.

The pottery cobles are also referred to as being 'Pearlware,' which is another term for the overall white ground (glaze) - achieved by adding a small amount of 'cobalt oxide' to the standard lead glaze as opposed to adding the then common 'iron oxide' which was used to produce a creamy ground or 'Creamware.'  Needless to say, Pearlware was cheaper to produce than Creamware.

You may also come across the term 'Prattware.' This is no more (as far as I can ascertain) than Pearlware which is either embossed or otherwise relief moulded and transfer printed.

 Painting on top of the white glaze could explain why there is flaking to the colours on Mr Hurst's coble and on others illustrated. Presumably, the final burning or enamelling of the colours was done at a much lower temperature in the kiln, resulting in some instability or incompatability in the top glaze, in turn, leading to flaking - mostly blues in my experience.

The examples illustrated here, are all, more or less (allowing for small variations in shrinkage during the firings), the same size and appear to come from the same mould(s). Dimensions are: 16 ins long x 4 ins wide x 3.75 ins high or 41 x 10 x 19.5 cms. They also all carry holes in exactly the same postion(s) - one at the top of the bow, one in the first thoft or seat behind the bow and one above the scut seat in the stern.

I can only surmise that the holes either helped in the firing or were designed to tie in a paper, card or wood (?) bowsprit (short front mast projecting out over water), main mast (which carries the brown square lug or sail) and tiller (handle which controls the rudder)  to 'finish them off' (in tandem with the colours) and hence aid their marketability. Unfortunately, if true, none of these 'accessories' have survived the last 200 years - at least as far as I know!

There are no pottery marks of any description on the cobles illustrated - so it is only conjecture that the Sunderland potteries were also involved in their production.

Of added interest is also the dangerous nature of their production. The Stockton potteries, operating from the early 1800s onwards, on both sides of the Tees, produced goods using the natural clay of the district  (then County Durham and Yorkshire) and incredibly toxic lead glazes. The lead gives a greenish hue to the glaze which is easily discernable in the inner wells and crevices of some these beauties. In others, there can be a mid-blue smearing inside the hull which I take to be concentrations of cobalt oxide.

The above musings may only be of arcane interest but surely these precious (there are only a few about!) polychrome pearlware pottery models represent the very zenith of any 'coble collection.'

Note1: the illustration (right) showing 27WY is an after add-on, presumably by a Whitby coble owner in the distant past, and is not part of any original firing.

Note 2: I have just see what I take to be a creamware coble. The base glaze is distinctly cream as agin the milky white (with a bluish tinge) of the pearlware examples.

I can only presume that this piece is one of the very first pottery cobles to have been manufactured as creamware was very much the stable ware of potters before they introduced cheaper pearlware. Same dimensions as the others but the blue on one of the planks has almost disappeared.

Note 3:  John Howard, one of the country's leading authorities on English Pottery, has kindly supplied the photograph below showing a pair (?) of cobles that have previously passed through his hands.

They are particularly fine examples (in what appear to be mint condition) and currently reside with an ardent collector in Nantucket, Maine, USA who it is rumoured to have six others! John has confirmed that he is unaware of any source that would specifically indicate which pottery manufactured these and the other cobles illustrated above. Visit his website at

If anyone has any additional information relating to these pottery cobles, or otherwise wishes to correct a wrong -  I'd be delighted to publish their contribution.