THOMAS BOTTS – SPADE-MAKER, PAINTER* AND BRUSH LICKER (*BY APPOINTMENT TO HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN VICTORIA)
Time for one of our occasional looks at the individual characters who made a significant contribution to the reputation of British porcelain, not by way of founding a particular manufactory or making a breakthrough in the development of the production process, but simply through the application of their artistic talents.
William Billingsley is one such ceramicist who we have already feted, and the subject of today’s piece may well have gone on to become at least as highly regarded as Derby’s finest had his chosen trade not lead to his premature and untimely death. Thomas Bott is our person of interest - artist, painter, enameller, favourite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and one of the foremost decorators ever to have worked for the illustrious Worcester Royal Porcelain Company.
Thomas was born at The Hyde near Upton on Severn, Worcestershire in 1828, barely ten miles to the south of Worcester and on the fringes of England’s Black Country – an industrial heartland which sustained some of the most significant advances of the age as Britain purposefully embraced the development of mechanised production and manufacturing in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Born to Thomas (snr) and Mary Bott, our erstwhile artisan began his working life in considerably less exalted circumstances, initially joining the payroll of the family’s spade handle manufacturing company. However, it became clear that Thomas possessed considerable artistic talent and the early 1840’s he undertook an apprenticeship at William Haden Richardson’s White House Glassworks at Wordsley, near Stourbridge. Under the tutelage of John Northwood, Joseph Locke and Alphonse Lechevrel, accomplished artists in their own right who were drafted into make the most of Richardson’s own patent techniques for acid etching on flint glass, Thomas flourished. The company itself, however, began to founder, and was eventually declared insolvent in 1852. Having jumped ship some time before the closure, the young artist first sought freelance work in Birmingham producing portraits and decorating japan-ware pottery from a variety of sources, but after a couple of years or so of this somewhat itinerant lifestyle he determined to seek full time employment . It was Messrs Kerr & Binns – eager to improve their incarnation of the Worcester porcelain factory – who were to offer him an opportunity. He was one of the workers taken on to assist in the rebirth of the company after a fire in the Severn Street works which had spelled the end for the Chamberlain stewardship of the mark.
Thomas’ initial efforts at decorating Kerr & Binns’ porcelain left considerable room for improvement as he grappled to get to grips with new materials and technique, but his latent skills shone through, and by the start of 1853 he had been appointed as part of team responsible for decorating what was known as the Shakespeare Dessert Service which was produced to advertise the company’s wares at the six-month long Exhibition of Art & Industry at Leinster Park in Dublin. The exhibition was to be graced by royal patronage, with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visiting in late August. The Bott-decorated service was designed by accomplished sculptor William Kirk, and used fine bone china for the vessels along with a new material called parian for the associated figures (this was a type of porcelain intended to approximate marble); the decorations in which Thomas had a hand were based on scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From Kerr & Binns’ perspective, the exhibition was a resounding success; parian proved inordinately popular with prospective buyers, the display service was inordinately well received with the royal guests remarking on its high quality, and the future looked decidedly rosy for all concerned.
Thomas was by now, quite literally, a student of fine art; the Worcester works required that he and many other decorators on their books received instruction in local educational establishments about many different genres of painting in order to provide sources of inspiration as well as guidance with regard to techniques and styles. Thomas was particularly taken by the school of Limoges enamelling, in which finely-chased copper vessels were augmented with very finely-detailed painting and gilding; this, in turn, was inspired by Italian maiolica-ware. The French speciality endured in popularity for the best part of 300 years to the late 17th century, and just as it was staring to lose its lustre, it gained new momentum when the Limoges porcelain works began to replicate the intricate raised decorative style on its newly-perfected ceramic wares. Bott resolved to first re-create and then improve upon this type of decoration, and thus embarked on the project which would go on properly make his name – and also lead to his untimely death.
The mechanics of decorating porcelain in relief were relatively straightforward, particularly when working in the company of skilled designers with the backing of Richard Binns, but it was Bott’s exquisitely-detailed decoration which set the newly developed range of Worcester Enamels apart. Already known to Victoria and Albert as a result of his endeavours in Dublin, Thomas’s work was submitted to the Prince Consort in 1854 for his consideration. Albert declared it to be “deserving of my most unqualified approval”, and it was to receive further accolades when exhibited in Paris the following year. Bott showed due deference to the original Italian maiolica artists by using the works of Rafael and Correggio as the basis for many of his pieces, and he drew on these same sources when he was then required to produce his most prestigious work. In 1859, rather than being presented with endless unsolicited examples from different sources as was the more usual procedure – most of which probably ended up at the back of cupboards or passed on to servants - Queen Victoria approached the Worcester factory and commissioned a dessert service for her personal use – the highest possible mark of esteem in the days where the status of one’s customers was the benchmark by which any producers were judged.
Worcester’s leading creative designer, Thomas Reeve was appointed to draft the suite of pieces and came up with an entirely new form which was to become known as “The Queen’s Shape”; the background plaques for Bott’s work were to be especially formulated turquoise grounds, and many pieces included intricate piercings to add to the general air of exclusivity; Thomas turned to Rafael’s frescos which lined the loggie of The Vatican in Rome for his inspiration, reproducing the large-scale originals in his signature extraordinarily-detailed style, consulting directly with the Prince Regent with regard to the composition of the designs. The final flourishes were applied by Josiah Davis who added infinitely delicate gilding to complete the project, which was finally displayed in all its splendour at the Great London Exposition of 1862 in South Kensington. It firmly re-established the Worcester factory at the very pinnacle of English fine china manufacture, although Albert was unable to garner any great enjoyment from it, as he died in the same year.
Bott had now been firmly ensconced in the role of “porcelain designer to the great and good”, and worked for the remainder of the 1860’s on dining services for presentation at the weddings of Georgina, Countess of Dudley (married to Earl William in 1865), Mary, Countess Beauchamp (Earl Frederick, 1868), Alexandra, Princess of Wales (Albert Edward, 1863). and Victoria, The Princess Royal (Frederick III, Emperor of Germany, 1858) as well as numerous individual commissions for less exalted members of the English peerage. Many of these pieces featured the same Wedgewood Enamel panels which were so highly regarded by Victoria and Albert, and Thomas must have spent hour upon hour hunched over his workbench, applying the myriad minute brushstrokes which made up his meticulous images; each piece would require the same endlessly repetitive process; dip the brush lightly in the pot of enamel, execute the stroke, quickly suck the brush hairs to an tapering point to ensure that they traced as fine a line as possible – and so on, again and again and again, building up layers of texture, crosshatching, detail, shade, highlight….
However, by the latter part of 1869, Thomas began to notice that the brush-strokes he executed whilst painting were not quite as deft or precise as had always been the case. There was no problem with his eyesight, which – initially - remained as acute as ever, but a progressive paralysis began to afflict him which worsened to such an extent that he was unable to work at all much after the onset of spring in the following year. He then endured a continual, quickening deterioration until his death – at the age of just 41 – on 13th December 1870. It’s often postulated that Thomas died of chronic arsenic poisoning, contracted after years of repeatedly sucking his paint brushes, but – in the first instance – arsenic poisoning does not precipitate paralysis and, secondly, arsenic in the form of cupric arsenite or orpiment was a pigment used to produce green or yellow paints, neither of which featured on Thomas’s pallete to any significant degree. It seems far more likely that he was a victim of lead poisoning, with opaque white lead paint far more prevalent in his works than any other colour. It seems particularly unfortunate that the execution of the very skill that made his name lead (no pun intended) directly to his premature demise but, as we have noted elsewhere, the lot of the 19th century artisan craftsman was to be assailed by potentially fatal contaminants from any number of directions – it really was an occupational hazard !
As a brief footnote Thomas’s son, Thomas junior, went on to work at the Worcester factory after his father’s death, producing similarly-painted pieces right up to the early 1900’s – simply check the dates attributed to any Thomas Botts items to determine whether they were decorated by father or son.
The pictures that go with this article show:
A self-portrait from around 1860
A Kerr & Binns “business card” from 1853
Photograph of three Worcester artists from around 1860 – Thomas standing at the back
Detail of one of Thomas’s painted pieces
The Queen’s Service mark, showing Thomas’s TB monogram
Four further examples of his work
The K & B factory in the late 1850’s – note the gateway which appears on the business card
and finally, a link to all our Worcester-related material: