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Chasing the Rainbow

At the end of the 19th century, several British potters were inspired to “chase the rainbow.” One of the most successful was the Pilkington factory in Lancashire, which was established in 1891 to make tiles and later art pottery. Their talented glaze chemists developed lustrous glaze effects which were called Lancastrian after the county.

The vogue for iridescent luster pottery was pioneered in Britain by William de Morgan in the 1870s. After much experimentation, he revived the art of luster painting which originated in Persia in the 8th century and had been lost since Renaissance times. During the firing process, oxygen was excluded from the kiln in a reducing atmosphere and mixtures of silver, copper and other metals deposited light reflecting metallic layers on the surface of the ware. De Morgan’s Hispano-Moresque designs were used on vases and tiles which decorated Victorian smoking rooms and Turkish baths.

Influenced by De Morgan and the ancient Persian and Chinese potters, William Burton began experimenting with lustrous glaze effects at Pilkington’s new tile works and was responsible for creating Lancastrian’s art pottery department in the late 1890s. Burton was a brilliant scientist, with experience as a chemist at Wedgwood, and was ably assisted at Pilkington’s by his brother Joseph. The Burton brothers were both authorities on the history of ceramics and focused on reviving a wide variety of crystalline, opalescent and transmutation glazes. William Burton was an enlightened pottery manager paying for his decorators to attend art school and taking them on inspirational trips to see current trends at exhibitions. Several visited the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 where Pilkington exhibited tile mural designs commissioned from leading artists of the period, such as Walter Crane and Alphonse Mucha.

Walter Crane was one of the most influential book illustrators of the 19th century and a founder member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Like William Morris he wanted to bring art into the daily life of all classes and devoted much of his energies to designing ceramics, textiles and wallpapers. Crane’s ubiquitous dancing nymphs featured on several Lancastrian luster vases and his iconic images of St. George fighting the dragon were adapted for prestigious chargers.  One of the most striking designs, known as the Sea Maiden, features a swan boat gliding through the waves and can be seen in several different iridescent luster glazes at WMODA. Popular designs by Crane and other artists were repeated by different painters in the Pilkington studio using the pouncing technique. This involved dusting the outline through tracing paper with tiny holes pierced into the design.

Gordon Mitchell Forsyth became Pilkington’s Art Director in 1905 following a brief period in the same capacity at the Minton Hollins tileworks. Forsyth was born in Scotland and trained in Aberdeen, followed by the Royal College of Art where he won a traveling scholarship in 1902. Later, Forsyth became superintendent of art instruction at Stoke-on-Trent schools of art in 1920 and was acknowledged as the most important designer, educator and advisor in the British ceramic industry. While at Pilkington’s, Forsyth favored designs featuring legends and myths, medieval knights and heraldic devices, including lions rampant and fleur de lis motifs. Forsyth’s work can be identified by his hand-painted rebus, incorporating four scythes on the base of his vases. Each year, he devised a hand-painted pictorial code which aids dating of his pieces. These marks, together with the other artists’ monograms and date marks, can be referenced in the classic book Pilkington’s Royal Lancastrian Pottery and Tiles by A. J. Cross.

Forsyth also introduced calligraphic motifs which encircled Pilkington’s heraldic vases and chargers. One monumental vase at WMODA features a Latin inscription in ornate gothic lettering ‘Non nobis Domine’ which is the motto of the Knights Templar. It was painted by William Salter Mycock who worked at the Pilkington art pottery for nearly 40 years and produced a prodigious range of designs. Many examples of his heraldic and foliate luster patterns are in the WMODA collection. The Pilkington designers were very versatile although they each had their specialties. Richard Joyce specialized in animal designs for over thirty years and his work ranged from hand-painted luster vases to relief modeled and carved designs for the egg-shell glazes of the post-war period.

The Pilkington factory first exhibited their art pottery in 1904 followed by the 1906 Arts & Crafts exhibition in London. Their designs were sold internationally by Liberty’s of London and Tiffany’s of New York and they participated in all the international expositions of the period, including Milan in 1904, Franco-British in 1908, Brussels in 1910 and Turin 1911. They were awarded the Royal Warrant in 1913 by King George V and Queen Mary after which the art pottery was known as Pilkington’s Royal Lancastrian.

Pilkington luster wares were fired in a reducing atmosphere in a muffle kiln and production was very costly with high losses and wastage from the challenging manufacturing process. Economically speaking, their art pottery was prestigious rather than profitable. Production was curtailed during the First World War when many artists including Forsyth left for war service and William Burton retired. In the post-war period, the iridescent glazes were replaced by cheaper eggshell glazes, often decorated with modeled or carved motifs by Richard Joyce. In 1931 Joyce died and the demolition of the old luster kiln marked the end of an era. The art pottery department closed in 1937 although there were a couple of brief revivals. In 1964 a merger with Carter & Company's Poole Pottery heralded a short-lived revival in the fortunes of both factories.

Today, Pilkington’s Royal Lancastrian pottery is collected avidly by enthusiasts of the Arts & Crafts movement and there is a society devoted to the study of the pottery with an extensive database of information www.pilkingtons-lancastrian.co.uk. Plans are in progress for the dazzling WMODA collection to be featured in their newsletter.