[Editor's note: This article has been updated for style and content accuracy.]
Shelley teacups are among some of the most collectable types of china. Beautiful, surprisingly thin and yet strong translucent bone china, Shelley tea cups come in a huge variety of shapes and patterns including chintz, floral, and art deco. The most famous shape is the “Dainty shape” shown below.
You can find Shelley teacups on eBay, as well as specialized china auction websites, and of course, in antique stores. To become a Shelley teacup collector, understanding the history of the Shelley potteries is the first step to becoming a savvy collector. It’s also helpful to understand the different markings on Shelley china and to be familiar with common mistakes, so that you don’t end up purchasing something that is worthless.
History of Shelley China:
In the 1860’s, the Wileman family were the owners of a large pottery known as the Foley Works located in Staffordshire, England. James B Shelley joined the Wilemans, became the head of the earthenware works and eventually ended up running the china works. In 1881 James then took his son Percy into partnership and after James’ death, Percy took over the china works.
Percy employed the best artists and developed a world renowned bone china along with the well known Dainty shape (shown below). But in 1910, there was concern about using the name Foley, as Foley was actually a pottery region. By 1925, Percy had officially renamed his bone china Shelley. In the 1930’s Shelley also became well known for their Art Deco creations. They were even allowed to continue producing china throughout World War 2, unlike many other British potteries.
Understanding the Shelley Teacup Backstamps:
Backstamps identify a piece of china. Shelley’s backstamps changed throughout the years. Some of the earliest Wileman/Shelley china has the Wileman stamp which may look like one of these. Notice that both of the Wileman stamps use the word “Foley”. The W in the middle of the second one identifies it as a Wileman.
For a time, Shelley included the term “Late Foley” because they still wanted recognition of being related to the famous Wileman china.
However, be careful to remember that Foley was a pottery region and many pieces, especially tea cups, are sold as a Shelley because they say “Foley” on the back, but they are not. At left is an example of a Foley backstamp that was mistakenly listed on eBay as a Shelley teacup. These teacups are pretty, but they are not the fine, thin, translucent bone china we expect in a Shelley and they are not nearly as valuable. The EBV (between the “Foley” and “China”) is the identifying fact that it is not Shelley, along with the lack of any Shelley or Wileman stamp.
It is also important to remember that a Shelley teacup backstamp is always green. Backstamps from 1910-1966 could look like any of these shown at right:
You may, on a rare occasion, find a piece of china with both a Shelley stamp and another pottery stamp. During the war years and later, Shelley occasionally cooperated with a few other potteries, allowing them to add their own decoration to their famous bone china.
There is at least one stamp that has been identified as an unco-operated connection. Little is known about this potter (Peacock China Pottery), but it is clear that they attempted to cover the green Shelley mark with their peacock mark.
I own one of these rare teacups! Here is a picture of the back and if you look carefully, you can see the green Shelley stamp! Most likely, this teacup was produced as a white teacup and then was pirated and redecorated. I enjoy owning this particular teacup because of it’s unusual history.
Many back-stamps include a pattern number, either stamped or handwritten. One important thing to note is that any pattern number that begins with a 2 identifies the teacup as a second. Many sellers do not realize this. Seconds started in 1919 and represent china that did not meet normal quality standards. However, several patterns arose that are only found on seconds which can be fun to collect. And often, it’s very difficult to impossible to find the reason it was considered a second.
Famous Shelley Teacup Shapes and Patterns:
Shelley teacups come in a wide variety of styles and patterns. Dainty is the most coveted Shelley shape (and probably the most fun to drink tea from!)
Here are some samples of the most popular shapes:
Some of the most popular patterns include:
Prices are most often determined by how popular the style is. If you find a Shelley in an antique store and it’s priced less than $20 you are getting a good deal. But they can venture up to $100 or more, especially if it is a Wileman/Shelley.
As soon as you own your first piece of Shelley china, you will be hooked! I occasionally drink from my Shelley teacups and I feel like a queen! (Many collectors would never drink from their Shelley teacups – but what is the use of a lovely teacup collection if you can’t enjoy your favorite tea in them?) Owning Shelley china is an affordable luxury and every tea enthusiast should own at least one Shelley teacup.
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