Eric Knowles Eric Knowles, Antiquarian

Perfectly Pilkington

Pilkington Pottery may have been brought to the surface during the Industrial Revolution, but the quality of their designs soon propelled them to the forefront. Eric Knowles charts the history of one of the most influential art pottery's of the early-20th century.

Many of the dark satanic mills are now long gone, but back in the 19th century the northwest of England was subjected to the ceaseless steely blast generated by the onslaught of the machine-age and with it, the Industrial Revolution.

Although Queen Victoria may well have tentatively counted upon the often questionable loyalty of her working masses, she had no option but to share these sentiments with two other all-powerful monarchs who ruled in the guise of 'King Cotton' and 'King Coal'.

It was in the search for coal that was to indirectly lead to the establishment of a pottery that is today feted as being Lancashire's single most important contribution to early-20th century decorative arts.

The epicentre of the pottery industry at that time was, and still is, located in Stoke-on- Trent, but it should be remembered that during the 18th and early-19th century the port of Liverpool could claim several pottery and porcelain manufacturers of great merit. However, by the end of the 19th century, the focal point of ceramic production had switched to the opposite bank of the river Mersey and the Birkenhead art pottery of Della Robbia - more of that in a later article.

Anyway back to the search for coal. In 1888 the Clifton and Kearsley Coal Company decided to sink two exploratory mine shafts and although both were to prove unviable, the mining engineers chanced upon a red clay or marl that was thought suitable for brick making. However, further research suggested that the clay was more refined and ideal for the production of tiles. The coal company was owned by the Pilkington family who decided to reap the benefits of this unexpected but welcome discovery and as a result they formed The Pilkington Tile and Pottery Company.

From tiles to pots

The factory was up and running by 1893 and was ideally situated close to the canal system and rail network, the choice of Clifton Junction was near to the Bolton to Manchester line.

To compliment the ideal location, the company had the good fortune to employ the perfect candidate for the all-important role of works manager. William Burton had spent the previous five years as a chemist in the employment of Josiah Wedgwood and Sons at Etruria. Despite not having actually reached his third decade, he had an acute understanding of the ceramicsÂ’ industry and possessed a great knowledge of ancient and antique pots.

He was joined by his brother Joseph, an equally able chemist, and together they were to forge a working partnership that was to lead to the pottery's success at both a national and international level. The initial production was limited to tiles but eventually small pots began to emerge that featured the fascinating glaze efforts achieved by the Burton brothers' pursuit of the marriage of art and science. The earliest pots were bought in by the factory in an unglazed state from Firths of Kirby, Lonsdale, but eventually the Burton brothers set about designing and making pots at Clifton Junction. Their choice of shapes were carefully selected to compliment their ever-growing catalogue of new and exciting glazes.

William Burton proved himself to be well connected in the world of design and consequently was able to call upon the talents of such celebrated artists and designers as Walter Crane, C. F. A. Voysey and Lewis F. Day. The latter is credited with designing the company trademark that featured a large letter 'P' incorporating a pair of bees thought to have been emblematic of the two industrious Burton brothers.

William's choice of chief designer was the talented John Chambers, whose 'Persian' inspired tiles found great favour not only in buildings, but also the new breed of ocean liner, including incidentally the ill-fated Titanic.

By 1900, the output from the pottery department was of such a standard that it was able to be shown at the highly important international exhibition held in Paris that same year and where the acclaim was to result in gold and silver medals.

Over the next few years the pottery continued to exhibit and grow in stature, but it was their display in 1906 at the 8th Arts and Crafts exhibition, held in London, that was to seal the company's success as the country's premier art pottery. It was here that William Burton unleashed a range of lustre painted pots of breathtaking appearance that were to set the benchmark in a standard of design that no other pottery before or since has ever achieved.

The chief artist was Gordon Forsyth who had recently joined Pilkington's from the Stoke-on-Trent firm of Minton and Hollins. The Burton's were also able to secure the talents of E. T. Radford, the celebrated thrower and his initials occasionally appear on the underside of pots.

Forsyth headed a team of equally talented artists that included Richard Joyce, William Salter Mycock, Charles Cundall and Gladys Rogers.

Modern designs

The company's highest acclaim came in 1913 when King George V granted his royal warrant and henceforth the firm traded as Royal Lancastrian Pottery. The change in status also resulted in a change of trademark in the form of a stylised 'Lancashire' rose.

The advent of WW1 is considered by many to have signalled the end of the pottery's 'Golden Age' with so many workers departing for war service and William Burton taking retirement in 1915. After the cessation of hostilities, the company embarked upon full-scale production, but the post-war years never came close in comparison with what had gone before.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the younger element of the buying public sought out the 'modern' designs influenced by the geometrics of the Art Deco years and personified in the offerings of Clarice Cliff. Royal Lancastrian's response came in the introduction of their Lapisware unveiled at the British Industries Fair in 1929.

The innovative ware allowed the surface painted detail to fuse with the underlying glaze and the technique was mastered by Gladys Rogers, W. S. Mycock and Richard Joyce.

Despite the early interest in the Lapis range, it was really a case of too little too late and by the time the war clouds began to gather over Europe once again the decision was made to cease production of art pottery. Efforts were made after the war to revive the pottery department and in 1948, the studio potter, William Barnes, was approached to head the design team and was joined by Eric Bridges and John Brannan. The company's most contemporary efforts, however, were the asymmetrical dishes decorated in mirror black with boldly coloured interiors supplied by the American designer, Mitzi Cunliffe. Unfortunately the post-war venture simply couldn't pay its way and in 1957 the decision was made to close the art pottery department.

Attempts to once again breathe new life into the Lancastrian Pottery took place between 1972 and 1975 when the pottery was relocated to Blackpool, but the economic climate proved unfavourable.

On a more positive note, the Pilkington Tile works continue to prosper at Clifton Junction and is proud of its legacy whilst endeavouring to maintain that all-important element that William Burton once described as quality with a capital Q.

Originally published in Collect it!


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