A northern powerhouse...
Take a closer look at Leeds pottery firm Burmantofts’ wares
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.