Thursday, 26 July 2007

Rich pickings on a plate

We have two plates in our collection, commissioned for us by family friends and presented to my wife following the birth of each of our children. They are treasured possessions and because each is marked with their names and times and dates of their respective deliveries, they are of value only to us.

Of course, if I was to go on to become one of the country’s richest individuals, and if my children were to marry into the upper classes, joining families whose power is second only to royalty, then things might be different.

Then, perhaps, a few of hundred years from now, my two plates might turn up in an auction where they sell for so much money, pictures of them appear in the newspapers.

My great-great-grandchildren, if I ever have any, should not hold their breath. None of the above is likely to happen, and anyway, my plates came from an advertisement in a magazine!

The plate pictured here, is the exact opposite of my own. So well known it has its own name, the “Three Graces” plate is fully documented and the names of the three girls and the even the painter who decorated it are known.

Which goes some way to explaining why, when it was offered recently by Worcestershire auctioneer Philip Serrell (of TV antiques programmes fame) it sold for a record £29,900.

More importantly though, the plate was made at William Billingsley’s short-lived porcelain factory near Cardiff and today, because such prized pieces rarely come to the market, collectors will pay until it hurts.

Billingsley’s factory was founded on the site of an old Swansea copper works but production lasted for just 62 years, from 1764 to 1826, before the business crashed into bankruptcy and its stock in trade auctioned off to pay creditors.

In the process, it produced some of the most beautiful and technically finest porcelain ever made.

The Swansea story starts in 1764 when William Coles, of Neath, built a pottery producing cheap, utilitarian wares from local clay. The factory was built on the site of an old copper works between the River Tawe and where Swansea High Street station now stands.

Coles died in 1778 and the factory was taken over by his sons. In 1790, George Haynes became a partner in the company, acting as factory manager. He set about expanding the premises and employing skilled workmen, changing its name to the Cambrian Pottery.

Ware decorated in underglaze blue was the mainstay of production at this time, sometimes (although not always reliably) identifiable by small marks such as stars, crosses, hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs impressed into the base of the pieces.

In 1802, William Dillwyn bought a controlling interest in the factory and set up his son, 24-year-old Lewis Weston Dillwyn as proprietor. Haynes stayed on and the firm was called Haynes, Dillwyn and Co.

Haynes left in 1810 to start up the rival Glamorgan Pottery and Dillwyn went into partnership with his manager, Timothy Bevington, and his son, John.

New investment doubled the firm's capacity under the name Dillwyn and Co., Swansea, the impressed mark appearing in a straight line, as a broken circle or as a horseshoe.

In a separate development, wealthy entrepreneur William Weston Young persuaded the gifted ceramic artist William Billingsley to leave his native Derby and set up a porcelain factory about 40 miles away from Dillwyn's venture at Nantgarw, near Cardiff.

Billingsley, together with master potter Samuel Walker, set his sights high and attempted to emulate the products of European manufacturers of fine porcelain.

Unfortunately, however, the “glassy” nature of the body required such high temperatures to cause it to vitrify that losses in the kilns grew to unacceptable levels and the venture resulted in near financial ruin.

In 1815, however, Dillwyn invited the near bankrupt Billingsley and Walker, to join him at Swansea so that the former could add porcelain to the earthenware he was already producing.

The venture achieved some success, but in 1817, Dillwyn temporarily withdrew from the partnership to manage his late father's massive estate. In the meantime, the factory was leased to the Bevingtons.

It was a disastrous move. Billingsley and Walker returned to Nantgarw, leaving the father and son to founder. Only small quantities of porcelain were produced at this time and little more earthenware.

Business picked up on Dillwyn's return in 1824. Large quantities of earthenware were made, much of it decorated in blue and white transfer printed patterns, the most famous of which is the so-called “Ladies of Llangollen” design.

Inspired by the story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby who went to live at Plas Newydd in North Wales in 1776, the pattern shows the two women riding horses through a landscape with the houses and church of the town in the background, the medieval bridge over the River Dee and Castell Dinas Bran in the foreground.

In 1837, Dillwyn bought the lease of the rival Glamorgan Pottery and closed it down two years later. However, there followed a general decline in quality and attractiveness of Dillwyn Swansea to the point, in 1870, when the factory was closed.

Increasing mechanisation and overwhelming competition from the Staffordshire Potteries produced the sort of price war in which there could be only one winner: the pot banks of Arnold Bennett's Five Towns.

Billingsley and Walker, meanwhile, lasted at Nantgarw only until 1820, when the partners moved to work for Coalport in Shropshire.

However, they left today's collectors a legacy of Welsh porcelain of sometimes quite outstanding beauty. Its particular appeal is its soft white translucent body which provides a perfect “canvas” for highly detailed and colourful botanical and landscape painting.

In addition, it is also prized for the elegance of shapes developed by modeller Isaac Wood. Many of the leading ceramic artists were employed, including one who is recorded as having moved there from the Sevres factory.

For a new collector the scope is bewildering by its very anonymity. Best advice is to visit museums where Swansea pottery and porcelain is on show (notably the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London),

Potential buyers should also visit auction salerooms where examples have been catalogued by specialists with the necessary knowledge to identify the good from the indifferent. The advantage of the latter is that pieces can be handled and inspected closely.

Then read as much as you can on the subject, particularly The Pottery and Porcelain of Swansea and Nantgarw by E Morton Nance, a scholarly tome to be found in good reference libraries.

There is much to learn ... and not many clues for the newcomer. The blue and white earthenware, the stoneware and soft paste porcelain produced by the Swansea factories is often unmarked.

That means buying examples presuming they came from South Wales potteries is something of a gamble. But it also means many collectors pass them by when pieces come for sale in the auction room or antique shop.

Learn to recognise patterns and styles of the various factories and you could find rich rewards.

Picture shows: A fine plate from William Billingsley’s short-lived factory near Cardiff, painted by Thomas Baxter and traditionally known as the “Three Graces”. It depicts three beautiful young ladies in Regency dress - the daughters of Thomas Coutts, banker to George III. The three girls, Susanna, Francis, and Sophia, grew up to become highly prized brides. One went on to marry the Earl of Guildford, one the Marquis of Bute, and the other Sir Francis Burdett. The plate was first sold at the Burdett Coutts auction in 1922 and in 1938, it became the property of a Welsh porcelain collector F.E. Andrews. The plate will stay in Wales - it was bought last month by an anonymous Welsh collector for £29,900. Photo: Philip Sorrell Auctioneers

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Anonymous Peter Davies said...


Interesting to read about the Swansea pottery and the various connections. I was idly digging around looking for anything on Francis Thomas Baxter Burdett to see what connection he might have with my cousin Francis William Chavasse Burdett. I have no interest in pottery myself, but my wife comes from a Potteries family (Amison) and is quite keen on Moorcroft. Was it Sophia Coutts who married Sir Francis? Any idea where I can get more info on the Burdetts?

8 January 2008 at 02:03  

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