A visit to Nantgarw
After half a year of being locked up in the big city, I ventured out for my first little trip last week. I spent a few days in Wales, the country West of England, part of the United Kingdom. It is a wild and mountainous place, green and famous for its incessant rain and storm and incomprehensible language. We were not disappointed: it was incredibly green, wild, peaceful, I was fascinated by the language and yes, it was raining most of the time. The noisiest thing you could hear on our farm was a rather happy pig rolling over in his sleep - our barn cottage being right near the stables.
But there is something else Wales is famous for: the short-lived porcelain industry of the early 19th Century. It all started at Nantgarw (pronounced nant-GAR-oo with a rolling "r") and I went for a visit, clad in my hiking gear and trodding through the soft Welsh rain.
Nantgarw was started by William Billingsley, a porcelain decorator from Derby who also worked at many other potteries. Billingsley was obsessed with finding the perfect porcelain recipe. He had developed a superior recipe at Worcester, but because it caused 90% failure in the kiln, Worcester did not want to use it. So Billingsley and his son-in-law Samuel Walker built their own pottery in Nantgarw in 1813 with the help of investor William Weston Young. This turned out to be the finest porcelain ever seen: whiter, more translucent, and finer than any other porcelain ever made. That is - the 10% that survived the firing process, as it was volatile in the kiln and 90% of each batch would break, sag or burst!
Billingsley had his items decorated at the best decorating studios in London - there was fierce competition between them for the honour of decorating this incredibly rare product.
Billingsley was a difficult man and his porcelain making was an even more difficult business proposal. Being such a perfectionist, he was terrible at running a business, so his business limped along for only 2 years before collapsing. A local potter and investor, Lewis Weston Dillwyn in Swansea, invited Billingsley and Walker to come to his pottery to spend time perfecting his recipe. But things didn't go well, and after two unsuccessful years Dillwyn threw them out and they returned to Nantgarw.
Once there, Young came to the rescue again together with some other local funders. Nantgarw China Works was able to make their wonderful but highly unsustainable porcelain again for the next 2 years.
In the meantime Coalport, the upstart factory in Shropshire, felt threatened by the brilliance of their work. When in 1820 they Nantgarw were on the edge of defaulting, John Rose from Coalport bought them out, taking sole ownership not only of the workmen's contracts and moulds, but, importantly, of the porcelain recipe itself. Billingsley and Walker ran off to Coalport in the middle of the night, leaving their unfulfilled lease and a huge stock of blanks to Young.
And so it came that Nantgarw porcelain was only produced for two short two-year stints.
The famous and highly secret porcelain recipe was never to be seen again; John Rose's worst nightmare was that someone would actually make it viable and dominate the market he wanted to dominate - yet he wasn't willing to invest in improving it himself so he continued to produce the inferior Coalport porcelain body.
Meanwhile at Nantgarw, Young had all the blanks decorated by Thomas Pardoe, a befriended and brilliant porcelain artist. This paid for the orderly wrapping up of the factory. In later years Pardoe's family turned the factory in a clay pipe works - yes I know, from the world's most superb porcelain to clay pipes!! 😱
After many years of neglect, nowadays a group of volunteers has revived the Nantgarw pottery and made it a place where potters are welcome again, as well as the admiring public. The recipe has been analysed and reconstituted and potters are now making custom orders using the old models and the original recipe, all to the same perfect standard that Billingsley strived for. Pottery classes are held every week and there is a running exhibition of Nantgarw pieces on loan from other museums.
Knowing that almost all factories have disappeared it is wonderful to see this one thriving even if in a very modest way. When I went to visit I got a long and interesting tour of the collection, the process and the famous kilns where it all happened. It was a feast for the eye to see so many beautiful Nantgarw pieces together. The museum reckons there are only about 6,000 known surviving pieces in the world - so if you wondered why you never see it in my shop this is why: they are very rare and very expensive!
If you ever go to Wales, go visit Nantgarw. They have just started their pottery classes again and after the pandemic they will also re-instate their demonstrations - but even now it is wonderful see the place where it all happened. And follow them on instagram: they have a beautiful and very lively feed. Thank you to Dr Eurwyn Wiliam for the tour, and thank you to all the volunteers for making this beautiful place known to the world!
I don't have any Nantgarw stock, but you can find everything I do have here in my shop. If you always want to see the latest additions, follow me on Instagram... I post pictures and a story every single day!
Happy weekend, and try pronounce "Nantgarw"! ☔️💚
This week's new treasures:
#gentlerattleofchina #antiqueporcelain #finebonechina #finechina #antiqueshop #englishantiques #antiquing #antique_r_us #decorativeantiques #interiordesign #interiordesigner #nantgarw #nantgarwporcelain #swanseaporcelain #williambillingsley #thomaspardoe #wales #welshporcelain