Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Co. Ltd.
NOTE: This article which follows originally appeared in a 1956 book 'British Potters and Pottery Today', is based mainly upon accounts provided mainly by the firms themselves.
About 1745, the date when the famous Chelsea factory was inaugurated, a certain Andrew Planche, described as a 'china maker', came as a refugee from Saxony and settled in. Lodge Lane, Derby, where he presently gained a precarious living by making small figures of animals, birds, etc., which he took to be fired to a local maker of clay pipes. He is chiefly remembered now as being associated with William Duesbury and John Heath in founding the famous Derby establishment.
In the Victoria and Albert Museum Library is preserved the original manuscript 'Articles of Agreement between John Heath of Derby, in the County of Derby, Gentleman, Andrew Planche of ye same Place, China Maker and Wm. Duesbury of Longton, in ye County of Stafford, Enameller'. It was made and entered into the on 1st January, 1756.
Duesbury's was the master mind the acuteness of which was chiefly instrumental in bringing Derby porcelain to perfection. But there is reason to believe that china was being produced at least as early as 18750 at the Cockpit Hill factory. Whether John Heath was responsible, or whether it was Andrew Planche (who was producing his figures between 1747 and 1755) is uncertain. A cream jug of Derby china is to be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum which was made in 1750 and is reputed to be a Cockpit Hill piece, which means that it must have been made while yet Duesbury was with William Littler at Longton Hall, Staffordshire.
Duesbury, as is proved by entries in his Family Bible, only went to Derby in 1755, where he proposed to practice 'ye art of making English china'. Nevertheless it is obvious that before the above Agreement was entered into, in 1756, there must have been some association between the three. Duesbury painted china for Cockpit Hill and possibly decorated some of Planche"s figurines.
The name of Planche does not occur again. Only 'Duesbury and Co.', more often 'Duesbury and Heath' and finally Duesbury alone, are the names employed in the contemporary records of goods sent to London. These goods included many sauce boats variously shaped, fruit plates, coffee cups, vases, strawberry pots, coffee pots, teapots, butter dishes as well as numerous figures of animals and human beings, besides ordinary plates, dishes, etc.
From the first Duesbury's success was in a measure due to his engaging the very best available talent, as, for example, when in 1769, he engaged John Bacon, the finest sculptor of the day, to produce a set of models.
In February 1770 he acquired the famous factory at Chelsea, which he carried on until 1784, when he demolished the works and took the effects, with many of the craftsmen to Derby. Meanwhile in 1773, King George III had paid a visit to the Derby works and granted Duesbury a patent permitting him to use the Royal Crown upon his wares, which thereafter became the 'Crown Derby' of our present day connoisseurs.
It was in 1766, with the Derby factory flourishing and Chelsea producing a fine range of figures, vases and other high grade wares, that Duesbury acquired the well-known Bow factory to add to the reputation of his Derby business. And, just as, when he finally closed the Chelsea factory in 1770 he took the moulds, patterns and the best of its artists and potters to Derby, so, too, he absorbed the best of all available from Bow.
Duesbury pere died in 1786, leaving his son, a William likewise, to carry on alone until 1795, when, being in indifferent health, he took into partnership an Irishman named Michael Kean. A year later he died and his widow eventually married the partner.
We may say that this closed a period in English ceramic history which, in technical excellence and refinement of taste, has set a standard to which the eye of every present-day craftsman and artist must turn as the ne plus ultra of ceramic art. The super-excellence of the wares of this great period, thin but hard in texture, milk-white in colour, soft and lustrous of glaze, enhanced by gilding and a rare sense of decorative fitness in colour, whether of landscape, fruit or floral sprays, was the basis of its fame. But mention should be made of the men (especially of the artists) whose genius helped to create so beautiful and so English a phase of high industrial art.
Billingsley, the exquisite Rower painter, (apprenticed to Duesbury senior in 1774) became famous while at Derby, though later he moved to other fields of activity; Zachariah Boreman, the famous Chelsea artist; Edmund Withers, also a painter of flowers; Banford who painted figure subjects; William Peg the Quaker, who gave up painting even flowers as against his religious convictions; Cuthbert Lawton who favoured spirited hunting scenes; Moses Webster, who painted roses so naturally that it was said one could smell them; Thomas Steele painter of fruit; and the modellers Spangler, Stephan and Coffee, veritable sculptors in small – all names well known to connoisseurs.
The standards set by the first two Duesburys were maintained subsequently. William the second had himself a son who was a William, born in 1790, who, when he came of age in 1811 took over control, Michael Kean selling his interest to his father-in-law, named Sheffield. Thus the firm became Duesbury and Sheffield. They carried on thus until 1815, when Duesbury, last of the great original founder's family leased the concern to Robert Bloor and the name of Duesbury is found no more in the annals of the firm.
Bloor may have lacked the artistic background of his predecessors, having been clerk and salesman to the Duesburys. But the factory was never without talented artists and much fine work was produced under the Bloor regime. There is every reason to believe that he was well aware of the traditions he had succeeded to and endeavoured to maintain the high standard.
He died in 1845 and the factory was carried on by Thomas Clarke until 1848. This might well have brought to an end the story of Derby, but for the enthusiasm of a few of the factory's craftsmen, who opened a small works in King Street, Derby, where they carried on in a small way. They pooled their resources to acquire the bulk of the models, moulds, receipts and patterns, the good will and trademarks. With them they reverently carried off the old potter's wheel used by the original Duesbury. (It is still treasured by the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Co.). At the King Street works full use was made of the art of throwing and no mechanical aids were employed in decorating. Thus was individuality preserved, for no two pieces were exactly alike.
Of the original band of enthusiasts Samson Hancock was finally left to carry on the Derby tradition of fine craftsmanship. His family had served the Derby interests for generations and James Robinson, who carried on until 1916 was his grandson.
Meanwhile, in 1876, the present company was formed, one of whose objectives was the establishment of overseas markets. This was the Derby Crown Porcelain Co. and the works of today still occupy the original site at Osmaston Road. Fourteen years later, in 1890, Queen Victoria by Royal Warrant appointed the Company Porcelain Manufacturers to Her Majesty, with the privilege of using the title Royal before the company's name. This signal sign of Royal Patronage has been renewed in succeeding reigns.
Even during the 1914-18 war the company continued to flourish and, in 1935, it acquired the King Street factory, a memorable event which brought under one control again the entire production of Derby china, with all its traditions of fine workmanship, embracing not only Derby but also Chelsea and Bow.
Among the artists whose outstanding work has carried on the ideals set by the great ones of the past are several who are well worthy of mention. There is Desire Leroy, trained at Sevres, who set an exceptionally high standard by his original decorative designs, every process of which he carried through with his own hands. A. Gregory was a notable flower painter following the famous Billingsley style. W. E. J. Dean, a fine painter of marine subjects; Cuthbert Gresley who painted flowers and landscapes; and many others contributed their share.
In the midst of the depression of 1938 a courageous development programme was planned, under H. T. Robinson, Chairman of the Board of Directors, and during the last Great War the company visualized with foresight that its products would prove a valuable commodity for export. The development plan included such projects as the purchase of more than thirty houses to accommodate key operatives, the setting up of training schemes to augment the ranks of skilled labour and, above all, prosecution of an expansion programme which has resulted in the works being one of the most modern in the Industry for producing fine china exclusively.
It is worthy of note that during the difficult war and post-war periods a large number of its old employees, many of them old-age pensioners, returned to work, giving their skill and craftsmanship for the good of their Country and the Company.
On 27th June, 1949, the establishment had the distinction of a visit by Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth (our present Gracious Queen), an experience which all connected with the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Company remember with pride and pleasure.
In 1950 the present Company was privileged to celebrate the achievement of two hundred years' continuous production of china in Derby, and in 1953 a second factory, the 'Phoenix Mills', was opened. It is within a stone's throw of Duesbury's original factory and very close to Cockpit' Hill. Here much of the 'gift ware' and china-handled cutlery so popular today is made, having been re-introduced in 1952. Whatever the future years may bring forth we may rest assured that generations yet to come will look back upon the productions of today as worthily carrying on the high ideals of the generations past.
NOTE: This article which originally appeared in a 1956 book 'British Potters and Pottery Today', is based mainly upon accounts provided mainly by the firms themselves.
Questions, comments, contributions? email: Steve Birks