The first ceramics intended to replicate Chinese porcelain were first made in this East coast herring fishery during the early part of the 18th century. There were established thriving trade routes in to The Hague, Rotterdam, Haarlem and Antwerp and the first accomplished potters in East Anglia were of Dutch origin.
The first factory founded by Hewlin Luson used local clay but soon failed. In 1757 a consortium of local worthies – Obed Aldred, James Richmond, Robert Browne, Philip Walker and Robert Williams started a manufactory in the centre of Lowestoft, under what is now the carpark of the First & Last pub on Dove Street.
The first actions of Walker & Co, as they were to be named, was to do away with use of Luson’s Gunton clay, and use kaolin brought up from the west country on fishing vessels owned by Obed and Philip Walker, which were already a regular sight on the route down the English Channel to the Isle of Wight, Newlyn and back.
Very early examples of Lowestoft porcelain – sometimes credited to Luson’s works, were overworked and insubstantial, had glaze applied in varying thicknesses and generally had a pinkish hue, which is attributed to the inclusion of the local tile-clay. By the time production had become established in the town – and kaolin was being brought in from farther afield – an underglaze blue was being used, derived from a cobalt oxide wash; although the substrate was now greatly improved, decoration was not at that time a Lowestoft forte, black-blue designs seem to have been “finished” with the use of a pen to add detail and outline.
By the mid 1760’s decorating skills improved, and the range of products expanded to include more unusual pieces such as spoon trays, eye baths, cruet sets, vinaigrettes and mustard pots alongside the more standard selection of cups, saucers, plates, pitchers and jugs. The finishing glaze was made clearer and harder and the introduction of coloured enamelling gave the manufactory a full repertoire of well-executed production and finishing techniques.
Robert Allen was one of the first employees of Walker & Co, joining the payroll in 1758 whilst in his early teens and was placed at the painting tables where an innate artistic ability soon became apparent. Working his way assiduously up the hierarchy within the company, Robert was made factory foreman, and ultimately “manager of all the works” at which point he was in sole charge of pretty much everything that went on, from the composition of the substrate to the formulation of paints and glazes.
Allen extended his own decorative output by buying in blanks that he acquired from the Rockingham works in Yorkshire. He used this “homework” to experiment with the process of applying gilt decoration, working alongside the resident Lowestoft expert James Mottershead – all gilded examples of the company’s outturn will have been embellished by one of these two gentlemen.
Allen was also responsible for the vast majority of Lowestoft’s sought after “trifles” – small scale, almost miniature pieces which would bear the legend “a trifle from Lowestoft”, or from Bungay, or Beccles or any other local settlement from where a storekeeper or hotelier would commission what amounted to early souvenirs of their locale. Robert remained an employee of Walker & Co until the closure of the business in 1803.
One of the projects in which Allen will have taken an active part would have been the introduction of the use of transfer printing in around 1770. The better painters were encouraged to concentrate on traditional hand painting and enamelling, to underwrite the development costs. It was this decade which saw the unnamed “tulip painter” come to prominence, with several outstanding examples of work bearing this particular flower being produced – these are now some of the most highly collectable Lowestoft artefacts.
A similarly unidentified French artist – purported to have fled his homeland to escape the tumult of revolution specialised and excelled in the depiction of roses. Signing his works with a tiny depiction of the same, he was said to be “able at times to produce depictions of such exquisite detail as to give the appearance of those fashioned in the Midlands by Mr Billingsley” – a comparison with the itinerant genius William being just about the highest praise imaginable.
It is these last two decades of the 18th century that saw the production of Lowestoft’s most collectable wares – other than the tulip and rose ranges - and the company seemed to be on the verge of establishing themselves as one of the leading players in England’s burgeoning porcelain trade, but the self-same trade with the Netherlands that played a part in the factory’s inception was to lead indirectly to its downfall.
Competition from other UK facilities was placing an increasing burden on the business, as the great Staffordshire factories rose to prominence, and the difficulty of having to import coal and clay from remote sources was beginning to take its toll. Lowestoft’s leading London agency went bankrupt due to mismanagement by its local officers, cutting off the immediate route to that most lucrative of markets, but it was the French who dealt the fatal blow.
Great quantities of Lowestoft porcelain had for years been exported to Holland, and warehoused in Rotterdam before being sold on across the near continent. When Napoleons army sacked Rotterdam they made a point of seeking out British interests for special treatment. The Lowestoft stores were duly razed to the ground, and tens of thousands of pounds worth of porcelain pieces were smashed and, obviously, rendered unsellable. The company was unable to bear this combination of grave losses, and closed shortly afterwards, in 1803.
Lowestoft porcelain was for some years somewhat under-appreciated, if not overlooked – with the exception of the specific floral ranges mentioned above which were highly regarded only for the quality of their decoration. This 19th century misconception that “Common Pasture” was primarily a site almost entirely devoted to the decoration of imported blanks and presumed to have been of oriental origin given the high quality of the china itself.
The supposition was that Lowestoft’s production never really gathered momentum after the subterfuge and sabotage instigated by its competitors at Bow which bought Hewlin Luson’s first undertaking to its knees. However, in the early years of the 20th century, extensive building work was undertaken on a malting which then occupied the site of Walker & Co’s earlier factory – the pub car park - and excavations uncovered vast numbers of wastage-pieces broken during manufacture and moulds evidence of industrial scale production with locally-produced material that was the product of a talented and capable group of ceramicists too – Walker & Co should rightly be considered as more than a provincial curiosity