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Louise’s Doulton Story

Forty years ago this summer, The Doulton Story exhibition opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and launched my career in the world of ceramics. I have been taking a trip down memory lane and tracing many of the original objects on display at this ground-breaking exhibition in 1979.

On completion of my post-graduate museum studies at Manchester University, I was interviewed by Paul Atterbury, widely known today for his regular appearances on the British Antiques Roadshow. The lure of London and a Royal Doulton research post at the V & A appealed to me and many of my fellow students. In preparation for the interview I sat up most of the night reading Sir Henry Doulton’s biography. Thankfully, my newfound enthusiasm for the Victorian entrepreneur impressed Paul and I secured the job. I spent the next two years researching the history of the Royal Doulton company for the retrospective exhibition at the V & A.

One of the joys of my research was traveling around the country meeting avid collectors of Royal Doulton who graciously loaned their treasured pieces to the V & A exhibit. Many firm friendships developed as collectors shared their knowledge and discoveries. Sadly, many of these generous friends are no longer with us but their legacy lives on through the incredible Royal Doulton collections that they created – for example the late Derek Billings, Allen Harriman, Edward Judd, John Jenkins, Stephen Nunn, Jocelyn Lukins, Ian and Rita Smythe.

Some of the objects on show in The Doulton Story came from the V & A’s own collection first formed in the 19th century after the Great Exhibition of 1851. The V & A pieces can still be seen in their ceramics study collection, a pioneer in the visible storage museum concept. Many other objects were on loan from the Royal Doulton company collection, which was dispersed at auction between 1999 and 2005. The pieces acquired by Arthur Wiener can now be seen at WMODA.

The Doulton Story exhibition was designed by Trickett & Webb and featured room sets with evocative graphics by well-known illustrators, such as Edward Ardizonne, Ian Beck and Glynn Boyde Hart. These witty, stylized settings included a British pub, a nursery, a garden, two china shops, and a bathroom. Together they symbolized Doulton’s involvement in many different types of ceramic manufacturing from drainpipes and toilets to Victorian vases and Art Deco figurines. It has been said that Doulton’s contribution to ceramics ranged from ‘Sewage to Sung’ and this was certainly true of the Doulton Story told at the V & A.

Lifesize graphic images of artists at work in the Lambeth and Burslem studios provided the backdrop for their creative talents. Choice pieces of Lambeth stonewares and Faience from the Victorian era contrasted with exotic Sung and Chang wares from the 1920s. In the center of the exhibition was a playing fountain by George Tinworth, which was discovered derelict in a suburban garden back in 1977 and acquired by Richard Dennis. After some research, I discovered that the fountain was made originally for the Paris Exhibition of 1878, so it was very apt that it was once again on public exhibition a century later. Local youths had been shooting the little figures with air-guns and it was painstakingly restored in time for the V & A exhibition.

The towering fountain portrays bible stories associated with water and on The Doulton Story opening night, water streamed down through rivers from the summit and poured through water jars held by the biblical characters. Unfortunately, the fountain sprang a leak and never worked again. Richard Dennis loaned the fountain to the Royal Doulton exhibition in Australia the following year and on its return, it stood in his Somerset garden in England where it was visited occasionally by Doulton fans. It was sold at a Bonhams auction in 2008 and is now in a private collection in Ohio.

One of the aspects of Doulton’s rich history, which had not been researched previously, was their architectural and monumental work and a section of The Doulton Story catalog was devoted to their international commissions for terracotta and tiles.  These ranged from public lavatories in Scotland to garden fountains for Indian palaces to entire buildings, such as Harrods department store in London which has a terracotta exterior and tiled food-halls in Art Nouveau style. The exhibition catalog was my first publication and I sent it proudly to Antarctica where George, now my husband, photographed it with his penguin friends during his time with the British Antarctic Survey.

Many important exhibition vases were on display at the V & A including Tinworth’s History of England vase formerly in the Harriman-Judd collection and now at the Museum of London. A whole section was devoted to Tinworth in The Doulton Story and some of his best-known works have found their way to WMODA, for example, the Menagerie clock on loan from Don Kendall. A monumental Burslem exhibition vase by Charles Beresford Hopkins shown at the 1904 St. Louis exhibition is now at WMODA via the Royal Doulton collection together with the Mermaid centerpiece from the Chicago World Fair in 1893.

One of the most striking displays in the exhibition was the 1930s china shop which displayed stylish figures and vases by Richard Garbe, one of the most distinguished artists to work in the ceramic industry. Many of his Art Deco limited editions are now at WMODA. Another popular attraction was the Victorian pub, which was crammed full of Royal Doulton character and toby jugs, drinking steins and decanters, many of which were used to promote famous brewers and distillers such as Dewars. The Greene King plaque by Edward Kruger Gray once advertised their tied public houses to a thirsty public.

Following the success of the V & A exhibition, several mini Doulton Story exhibitions were held at Californian department stores and one of my first US trips was researching the Harriman-Judd collection for these events. The Doulton Story will be in the limelight once again from September 20-22 when WMODA and the Whitley collection will be hosting a Royal Doulton Collectors weekend. Join me for a nostalgic weekend with Doulton friends old and new.