A north­ern pow­er­house...

Take a closer look at Leeds pottery firm Bur­mantofts’ wares

Harefield Gazette - - Antiques Fair -

EL­E­GANT, stylish, colour­ful with a hint of whimsy, the highly col­lectable late 19th cen­tury art pottery pic­tured here was made in... Leeds. Un­likely? Pos­si­bly, but for a brief few years, the Bur­mantofts Pottery Com­pany flour­ished.

Home was the area of the York­shire city named af­ter the me­dieval allotments, known as “tofts”, given to the crafts­men own­ers of “bur­gages”, parcels of land on which their homes and busi­nesses were built, hence Bur­gage men’s tofts.

Come the 19th cen­tury and the area was dom­i­nated by the Rock Col­liery, ex­ploit­ing a rich seam of coal run­ning be­neath the allotments, while a kiln us­ing the fuel to fire clay in de­posits ei­ther side of the coal was mak­ing bricks, drain­pipes and earth­en­ware do­mes­tic items.

In 1863, Rock Col­liery was sold to John Hol­royd, a rich cloth trader and mill owner in Leeds, who clearly had an eye for a good in­vest­ment.

He named the busi­ness, Wil­cock and Co. af­ter John Wil­cock its founder, and it boomed un­der his con­trol, pro­duc­ing bricks to build the bur­geon­ing city.

Hol­royd died in 1873, leav­ing his busi­ness in­ter­ests to his three sons, one of them, James, well ed­u­cated, cul­tured, well con­nected and in­ter­ested in art and ar­chi­tec­ture.

Re­al­is­ing the com­mer­cial prospects of the busi­ness, James con­cen­trated first on the pro­duc­tion of high qual­ity salt-glazed bricks, still in de­mand for the build­ing work in progress in North­ern cities and as this pros­pered, he opened an art pottery stu­dio to pro­duce dec­o­ra­tive tiles and fine pottery.

He called his new ware “Bur­mantofts Faience” af­ter the 18th cen­tury pottery pro­duced in the Ital­ian town Faenza. Even though it over­came the many hur­dles faced by a novice, the new ven­ture in hand-thrown and hand-painted ceram­ics could never add sig­nif­i­cantly to Hol­royd’s profit mar­gins.

Nev­er­the­less, he drove the project am­bi­tiously and the ware be­came pop­u­lar thanks to him spend­ing most of his time pro­mot­ing it.

He ad­ver­tised in such papers as The Pottery Gazette and Builders’ News and gave lec­tures on pottery pro­duc­tion at many venues.

By now the coun­try was gripped by a fas­ci­na­tion for art pottery and the Aes­thetic Move­ment was in full swing. Bur­mantofts re­sponded by pro­duc­ing grand one-off pieces and nu­mer­ous small pots, ei­ther thrown en­tirely by hand or turned on lathes by skilled pot­ters.

By 1888, Wil­cock and Co. was re­named and re­branded as The Bur­mantofts Com­pany Ltd. and in the fol­low­ing year Bur­mantofts amal­ga­mated with sev­eral other lo­cal pot­ter­ies to be­come the Leeds Fire­clay Com­pany.

The end of pro­duc­tion of Bur­mantofts art pottery came in 1904. By then the cre­ative steam be­hind the com­pany had started to run out. Stale de­signs were no longer fash­ion­able and failed to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of the pub­lic.

Pro­duc­tion of san­i­tary wares and architectural com­mis­sions con­tin­ued but the fac­tory was forced to close in 1957 due to fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

Fac­tory build­ings were de­mol­ished in 1967 to make way for high-rise coun­cil houses, which re­main to­day, hid­ing all ev­i­dence of the area’s his­toric past.

Few records ex­ist list­ing prod­ucts from the Bur­mantofts fac­tory.

How­ever, the beau­ti­ful pots that sur­vive mir­ror the ex­tra­or­di­nary taste and style of the Arts and Crafts Move­ment.

Early pieces were complex cre­ations that took many hours to pro­duce. They re­flect the in­ter­est in Ori­en­tal art and pieces from an­tiq­uity, while quirky grotesques are mod­elled as frogs mas­querad­ing as spoon warm­ers. Wall and floor tiles, wall panes and grand room heaters shaped like Moor­ish minarets com­plete the range of architectural and house­hold ob­jects.

De­spite his close in­volve­ment, Hol­royd was not an artis­tic di­rec­tor and so his de­sign­ers were free to ex­plore a mul­ti­plic­ity of ideas and in­flu­ences.

Lead-based glazes were a health risk to the work­ers em­ployed to dec­o­rate the ware but their legacy was a range of vi­brant colours that can­not have failed to cheer the work­force of any dark sa­tanic mill.

Turquoise blue, mus­tard yel­low, olive green, red, pink, brown and a rich sang-de-boeuf were the most pop­u­lar, which could be or­dered in the cus­tomer’s choice ac­cord­ing to their home decor.

Ex­per­i­men­tal wares were the re­sult of streaky glazes that ran into each other when fired, pro­duc­ing highly de­sir­able pots of unique colours, while oth­ers were dec­o­rated by mix­ing glazes with clay slip to form a paste. When painted onto the body of the ob­ject and fired, the re­sult is a unique raised tex­tured sur­face.

Pan­els of flo­ral dec­o­ra­tion were ap­plied us­ing this method to vases, charg­ers and jar­dinières, giv­ing a three-di­men­sional feel to them.

De­signs were also added by in­cis­ing the clay or by tube lin­ing, a tech­nique not un­like pip­ing ic­ing on to a cake. As dec­o­ra­tors be­came more ac­com­plished, dif­fer­ent glazes were ap­plied to raised de­signs to make crisper fin­ished ar­ti­cles that were quicker and eas­ier to pro­duce.

Re­gret­tably, this led to mass-pro­duc­tion, anath­ema to devo­tees of the Aes­thetic Move­ment – a re­bel­lion against ma­chine-made uni­for­mity – and Bur­mantofts be­gan to lose its in­di­vid­u­al­ity. In­tri­cate Per­sian-style dec­o­ra­tion was pop­u­lar from around 1887, cham­pi­oned by artist-designer Leonard King in the style of Wil­liam De Mor­gan. Charg­ers, plates and other flat painted wares were dec­o­rated with coloured glazes and de­picted scenes of birds, fish and flow­ers.

Lus­tre glazed wares were pro­duced through­out the short life of the pottery, be­com­ing par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar at the turn of the cen­tury.

To­day, the Abbey House Mu­seum in Leeds holds a large col­lec­tion of Bur­mantofts, much of it ac­quired di­rectly from the pottery when it closed down.

The 1853 Gallery at Salts Mills in Sal­taire, Ship­ley, West York­shire has a col­lec­tion open to the pub­lic, while a stroll around Leeds is all it takes to see some of the many ex­am­ples of Bur­mantofts’ architectural com­mis­sions.

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