Early history of the Pilkington's Tile and Pottery Company

In 1888 the Pilkington family, who owned a number of collieries to the north of Manchester, sunk two new shafts. These had to be abandoned because of flooding, but in the process good quality red marl clay was discovered.

It was at first thought that the clay could be used for bricks, but when advice was sought from William Burton, a chemist at Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, Etruria, Burton suggested that the clay, though not suitable for bricks, could be used for ceramic tiles. In 1891 Pilkington's Tile and Pottery Company was founded and tile production began in 1893.

From an early date small pottery items were produced to demonstrate experimental glaze techniques. In 1897 pottery items were produced as distinct from tiles and by 1903 the manufacture of Lancastrian Pottery had begun. Initially, pots bought in biscuit state, that is fired but not glazed, were obtained from a well respected potter named John Thomas Firth of Kirkby Lonsdale who had a small workshop on the river Lune.

William Burton (1863-1941)

William Burton who was closely involved with the formation of the company from the initial decision to commence tile production until he retired in 1915, played a central role in the success of the company. Burton, who was a trained scientist, was also an authority on the history of ceramic art. After establishing the firm he concentrated on producing fine pottery in the style of the ancient Chinese and Persian potters. He gathered together a highly creative team of designers, John Chambers and Joseph Kwiatkowski being the first to be employed at Clifton Junction in 1893. As well as employing their own artists, Pilkington's also commissioned work from famous designers including Walter Crane, Lewis F. Day and C.F.A.Voysey.

The Arts and Crafts Movement

William Burton, his associates and the artists and designers at Pilkington's were inspired by the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The followers of the movement believed that the separation of the design of objects from their production had resulted in the inappropriate use of ornament, and that industrialisation had resulted in the demoralisation of the individual. The leading figure of the movement, William Morris, was greatly influenced by the teachings of the writer and philosopher John Ruskin. The second volume of Ruskin's book 'the Stones of Venice', 1853, contains a passage entitled 'The Nature of Gothic' which was influential in the development of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Prompted by Ruskin's ideas, a number of artists and designers organised themselves into modern versions of the medieval guilds, the most notable being the Art Workers Guild, founded in London in 1884.

John Chambers

The ceramics display room at the gallery is dedicated to the Lancastrian designer John Chambers. John Chambers was born in 1869 in Etruria, Staffordshire, the eldest son of George and Hannah Chambers. Hannah Chambers' father, Moses Brownswood, had worked at Wedgwood's Pottery and John Chambers himself worked at both the Wedgwood and Doulton potteries in his early twenties before becoming a freelance designer. He was then invited by both William and Joseph Burton to join them, together with Edward Shepherd, in helping to run the Pilkington Tile Company at Clifton Junction in Manchester in 1891. At Pilkington's, John Chambers was chief designer and responsible for all the artistic work carried out in the factory. In the early days he painted designs on pottery although he seldom used his monogram. He was often responsible for tiles produced in what became known as the 'Persian style', and was head of the architectural pottery department throughout his time with the company. Designs of his tiles appeared in influential art magazines like 'Studio' and 'The Art Journal'. John Chambers retired in 1938 and died in 1945.

International Exhibitions

Far from being a regional pottery. Lancastrian ware was exhibited in international exhibitions from an early date including Paris 1900, Milan 1904, Brussels 1910, Turin 1911.

Royal Warrant

In 1913 Pilkington's was given the Royal Warrant by King George V and was then known as the Royal Lancastrian Pottery Company.

Pilkington's Tiles

Ceramic tiles were first produced by Pilkington’s in 1893 at their Clifton Junction factory.The tiles were made by compressing dried clay dust into a steel die or mould. After firing in a kiln, the biscuit fired tiles, that is tiles which have been fired once, were taken for glazing either with a plain glaze or for decorating by the paintresses.

Royal Lancastrian Glazes

One of the most striking and memorable aspects of Lancastrian Pottery is the range of glaze techniques which were employed. The chemists at Pilkington’s factory were able to apply recent scientific advances, producing a rich range of glazes.

Lancastrian Lustre

One of the most notable glazes developed by Pilkington’s was 'Lancastrian Lustre'. The quotation below is taken from the Chapter on 'Pilkington’s Tile & Pottery Company' in the Catalogue of the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908

"If we examine specimens of the lustre work of old Persian, Indian or Spanish potters, we shall find that the decoration however strong and metallic it may be in certain lights , is softened and beautified by a wonderful play of iridescent colours, similar to those of a soap bubble or the inside of a pearl shell." H.C.Marillier