The extraordinary legacy of William Billingsley and his unparalleled porcelain decoration

Any casual conversation regarding the foremost figures in the history of
British porcelain manufacturing will inevitably involve a relatively short list
of well-known names: the two Josiahs, Wedgewood and Spode will almost
definitely get a mention, Flight and Barr(s) for their work at Worcester,
perhaps Gouyn and Sprimont for those cognisant of the history behind the renowned
Chelsea name and William Duesbury, should the Derby works come to mind. Coles,
Dillwyn and Haynes will quite rightly get a mention if discussion should take
in the production facilities of South Wales, but there is another name –
perhaps less likely to be brought up – which is that of a man whose influence
was more wide-ranging than that of any of the above. A somewhat forgotten
figure who – unusually for his time – moved up and down the length and breadth
of the country leading a rather nomadic existence, and whose influence really
cannot be understated. Ladies and gentlemen, may I cordially introduce you to
one of the most accomplished artists ever to have taken a porcelain blank and
illuminated it with his deft brush strokes and inspirational creativity – Mr
William Billingsley.

William was one of six children born to William Billingsley (senior) and
Mary, in the parish of St Alkmund in Derby, arriving on 12 October 1758. At the
age of sixteen he was bound to a five year apprenticeship at Duerden’s Derby
China Works in the role of “painter and enameller of porcelain wares”, accruing
five shillings per week for his trouble. A naturally talented artist (taking
after his father who was also a ceramicist), he was initially apprenticed to
one Edward Withers, and his skills then further honed under the instruction of
Zachariah Boreman who had been the foremost decorator at Chelsea, before
decamping north when Duerden undertook the relocation of his interests from the
capital. William (junior) became a yet more accomplished painter under the
tutelage of these two men – particularly when it came to the execution of
floral borders, employing a three-stage technique which saw an initially thick
application of pigment then thinned and refined with dry brushwork, which gave
his work an almost textured, fine-veined quality. He would then complete his
pieces by taking a wetted brush and using it to add highlights, fine detail and
to feather the already-blushed edges of petals, given them a translucent
quality which ideally suited the increasingly fine nature of the substrate
which he was decorating. Ultimately, he was to become so accomplished as to
produce what became known as the Prentice Plate – which was presented in years
to come as an example of the exacting standard which Duerden expected other
employees to replicate.

William was to become an increasingly important mainstay of the Derby
factory, and he put down his own initially stable roots by marrying Sarah
Rigley in November of 1780. The couple proceeded to produce three children, and
William was appointed Decorator in Chief to the Derby factory a decade after
his marriage. He was by now being commissioned to undertake the decoration of
suites of tableware produced for the factory’s most illustrious clients, taking
over from his former mentors Withers and Boreman. It was around this time that
William and Sarah took over the ownership of the Nottingham Arms public house
in Derby, seemly settling himself yet more permanently in the area, but he had
always harboured an ambition to produce his own form of china, finer still than
that with which he had worked to date, and had been experimenting to this end
in cahoots with Zach Boreman, who was by now a firm friend.

In his increasingly senior management role at Derby (now earning him the
princely sum of two pounds a week – eight times his starting salary), William
was often party to Mr Duerden’s correspondence, and he had become aware of
submissions made by a Mr John Coke for the provision to the Derby factory of a very
fine clay which he was able to source near the small village of Pinxton, just a
few miles to the north. Billingsley constantly exhorted his employers to
improve the quality of the china he was expected to embellish, but time and
time again this fell on deaf ears, and ultimately, in 1796, William turned his
back on the place of work where he had been for twenty two years, and accepted
Coke’s invitation to join the new venture at Pinxton, specifically designed to
take the fullest possible advantage of the high quality raw materials nearby.
Perhaps it was the death of Duerden in 1795 which gave William the impetus to
strike out in a new direction, and the acquisition of the pub had given him an
additional income stream with a mind to jumping ship. That notwithstanding, he
was a pains to leave Derby with as little acrimony as possible, ensuring that
he met all his outstanding obligations in full. Other movers and shakers in the
porcelain trade wrote to Duerden’s son, now in charge of his late father’s
concern, imploring him to move heaven and earth to retain the Billingsley’s
service, saying that for him to go would be “as great a loss (to the company)
as to lose a hand”, but the die was cast, and Pinxton was soon a going concern,
based at premises to the south west of the village, where the present day
Alexander Terrace crosses the railway and near the basin which marked the
beginning of the Cromford Canal at Pinxton Wharf.

Here Billingsley exercised his great practical skill as a potter, and he was
able to produce a signature soft-bodied porcelain which was said to have “the
appearance of fine loaf-sugar…of extreme beauty”. Needless to say, his ability
as an artist did not diminish, and he produced some pieces of startling beauty,
notable for bearing only feature enameled-images, borderless and generally
without any gilding. Coke, for his part, had spent his formative years in
Dresden and had developed an astute appreciation of the fine porcelain wares of
the region with which he had become familiar; he had lofty aspirations for his
new venture. Unfortunately, the partnership never really garnered any great
success – Billingsley became too involved in the day to day management of the
works to be able spend any great amount of time further developing his artistic
talents, and having ultimately become somewhat disaffected with this state of
affairs, he resolved to move on once again in April 1799. Unfortunately for
Cole, Billingsley had been assiduous in protecting the exact secrets of his
porcelain making techniques, and the Pinxton works was not able to replicate
the fine wares in his absence. Even when it was in production, the fine
loaf-sugar porcelain resulted in a great deal of waste due to its inherent
instability, and the financial state of affairs was parlous at the time of
Billingsley’s departure. Cole soldiered on for another half a dozen years or so
before selling his interest in the manufactory in 1806.

Billingsley determined to make better use of his god-given talents, and
repaired to a new site at Belvedere Street in Mansfield where he concentrated
solely on decorating pre-made blanks which he sourced from various sources
across Staffordshire (Whitehead’s at Hanley and Coalport to name but two) and,
it should be said, from Cole at Pinxton, so clearly his former partner was able
to produce material of sufficient quality to deserve William’s finishing
touches. However, this new undertaking remained viable for just three years
(1799 to June 1802), but yet again its proprietor proved to be less than
capable with regard to running a business, and mounting debt forced Billingsley
and his daughters to move on again to pastures new, while his wife Sarah
relocated back to the Nottingham Arms in order to better manage that side of
the family affairs and maintain some sort of regular incoming.

He was next to set up shop near the twin villages of Torksey & Brampton
in Lincolnshire. The site was already served by a canal, railway and a modest
quarrying operation, so William chose to initiate a small scale manufactory
there in 1803, taking advantage of this existing infrastructure. He managed to
replicate the production of the very fine, vitreous material that he had
perfected at Pinxton, and decorated the resulting wares with the help of his
daughters, as well as buying in blanks from other nearby sources for
embelishment and resale. However, his girls lacked the decorative talents of
their father, and – with one or two notable exceptions – the Torksey-Brampton
material was not considered to be of the highest standard (William spent most
of time “hands on” in the kilns rather than exercising his undoubted skills at
the painting benches). It had been an expensive venture to set up, requiring a
significant mortgage to be taken out on the premises, and with sales remaining
largely unprofitable, debts began to mount and the Billingsley family – in
simple terms – did a runner, as debtors could be summarily imprisoned if they
were found to be guilty of defaulting on loans. Contemporary commentators
either took the view that William was too good an artist to be expected to be
encumbered with the day to day drudgery of maintaining a tight rein on his
finances and could, therefore, partly be excused for “chasing his dreams” in a
rather profligate manner, or that he was a scurrilous and fraudulent individual
“without conscience or morals” – I am guessing that the opinions were in direct
correlation as to whether or not the observer was one of those who happened to
be owed money by our somewhat diffident hero or otherwise !
Anyway, regardless of the monetary rights or wrongs, Billingsley was on the
move again, and reappeared in 1808 at Wirksworth in Derbyshire (by this time,
as an aside, he seems to have become estranged from his wife). There had been a
pottery here at Holland Manor House during the third quarter of the 18th
century, run by Mr Gill (or Gell), making the best of local deposits of
feldspar and very fine, white clay from nearby Brassington. Although this was
to initially fall out of use, with its moulds and materials dispersed between
the Derby and Caughley manufactories, the kilns remained in situ and
Billingsley was able to resurrect production fairly readily with the support of
the English & Welsh Mineral Company who mined lead and the other materials
in the area. Yet again, he was soon producing a true soft-paste porcelain with
“a beautiful eggshell surface” and with a glaze that is noted as being
“faultless”, but for whatever reason financial mismanagement proved to be the
undoing of this short-lived exercise, and it was closed down after just a couple
of years. It’s not known how much of a role Billingsley took in the painting of
his Wirksworth wares, but it seems likely that he had brought in artists from
farther afield, as the products are often said to be in the style of earlier
Lowestoft wares, with a preponderance of roses, bluebells, pinks, scattered
sprays, and bows of ribbon, pink cartouches along borders and the use of
gilding in isolation to highlight otherwise unpainted items, designed to make a
particular feature of the fineness of the porcelain itself.

This third failure to maintain a viable business seems to have gone a long
way towards convincing Billingsley that managing his own concern was perhaps
not the best way to proceed, and in 1811 we find him having actively sought
engagement by Messrs Flight and Barr at the Worcester China Works. By now
accompanied by George Walker, who had married one of his daughters, William was
employed as an artist but also provided a degree of consultancy, dispensing his
undoubted wisdom to the Worcester potters. Walker also proved a boon to the
factory on the banks of the Severn, implementing several startlingly innovative
technical advances with regard to the construction of kilns. However,
Billingsley was left feeling somewhat aggrieved as Flight & Barr refused to
take on board the use of his proprietary china formulation which experience had
shown him to be vastly superior to that which they were already using, and in
fairly short order he determined to strike out on his own again one more time.

The family headed west, in to South Wales, to embark on their travails at
Nantgarw and Swansea which we have already documented in a separate article
(see link below). Suffice to say that yet again money troubles assailed
William’s best efforts, but he was able to secure independent investment and,
having finally established some degree of stability after his abortive
co-operation with Lewis Dillwyn at the Cambrian Pottery, he was at last in a
position to go about producing his own wares, to his own exacting standards,
which were lauded far and wide to the extent that the Prince of Wales could be
numbered amongst Nantgarw’s list of exalted clientele. Eventually, such was the
reputation of Billingsley and his work that John Rose of the Coalport China
Works in Coalbrookdale effectively bought William’s entire concern, including
his stock blanks and the rights to use all his moulds and patterns. William,
George and family moved to Shropshire in the Spring of 1820 to work for Rose,
living in a cottage close to the Coalport works.
Having at last found himself installed in an outwardly secure position
William was to able “enjoy” the fruits of his labours for eight years up to his
death in 1828, approaching 70 years of age, but even then it is noted that “he
passed away…in much greater poverty than his talents deserved”, so fiscal woes
seems to have assailed him to the last and he is, in fact, buried in an
unmarked pauper’s grave. However, he has left probably the richest canon of
work specifically attributable to one man with regard to the beauty of the
decoration and the sheer quality of some of the china itself in the long
history of British porcelain, and is rightly said to have been nothing short of
“an artistic genius” in his chosen medium, which seems an appropriate epitaph
for a man whose story turns out to be ultimately rather sad, for all his
undoubted talents…

Link below to our other post about the potteries of South Wales, including
details of the goings on at Nantgarw, and also to all the Billingsley-related
material on our website. As ever, there are full details and a complete gallery
of pictures for each indexed item.

Nantgarw/Swansea porcelain

site search results

The images below run in (approximate) date order from top to bottom – early
period Derby wares, later Derby, Pinxton (with a view of the works) and then
Mansfield (with the two teapots being Cole’s Pinxton pieces decorated by
Billingsley at Belvedere Street).
Second picture set: Torksey material at the top (with one possible Mansfield
piece), then Wirksworth with a picture of Holland Manor House, then Worcester
and Coalport.

for more blog entires about British porcelain, check the links below:

Bow (London) Porcelain

Lowestoft Porcelain

Derby Porcelain

Welsh Porcelain (Nantgarw, Swansea etc)

Chelsea Porcelain

British Porcelain – overview