Ceramics group learn history of Welsh porcelain

Fergus Gambon
Fergus Gambon

At their April meeting, Haywards Heath Ceramics Group hosted Fergus Gambon - director of the European Ceramics Department at Bonhams but best known for his appearances as a ceramics expert on the Antiques Roadshow.

He has a special interest in British porcelain, particularly that of south Wales which was the subject of his talk to the group.

Fergus gave a light-hearted insight into the complexities of Welsh porcelain and its history, mainly due to the fact that there were many unsuccessful ventures to make porcelain in Wales.

Nantgarw and Swansea porcelain is renowned throughout the world of ceramic collectors for its beauty and its rarity, and is much sought after. Founded in 1764 in Swansea, the Cambrian Pottery was producing product to emulate the high-quality pottery made fashionable by Josiah Wedgwood and some pieces on first glance could easily be mistaken for Wedgwood. However it was the attempt to replicate the thinly potted soft paste porcelain to rival that of Sevres which brought William Billingsley, a porcelain painter by training to the fore. From 1814 to 1817 he helped Lewis Weston Dillwyn, who had bought the factory, before returning to Nantgarw in 1818 to make it himself.

It is from Dillwyn’s original notebook that details of the secret formula emerged - a synthetic mixture of alkaline, aluminium silicates and bone ash and high temperature firing. The failure rate unfortunately was excessive, with nine out of every ten products warping or shattering in firing which explains the rarity. Nevertheless the porcelains produced at Nantgarw and Swansea between 1813 and 1820 are representative of the pinnacle of ceramic achievement in the firing of soft paste porcelains. During this time, much of the stock that survived the firing was sent to London for decorating and sold to the top end of the market while the rest was decorated in Wales by Billingsley himself, as well as William Weston Young and Thomas Pardoe.

Sadly the venture was never viable and Nantgarw closed in 1823 and porcelain production ended in Swansea in 1820. Pottery continued to be made in Swansea at the Glamorgan Pottery (1813-1838) and at the Cambrian Pottery, which survived until 1870. Llanelli’s South Wales Pottery was then the only significant pottery left in South Wales until it too had to close in 1922.

The story of Welsh pottery and porcelain is told at the Joseph Gallery in central London while the site of the Nantgarw China Works is now a museum.

If you are interested in coming to one of our meetings visit www.hhcg.org