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

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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


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