Inside story Everything you need to know about historic Staffordshire pottery brand Burleigh
The historic Staffordshire pottery known for its quintessentially English take on pattern
Sit down for afternoon tea at Dean Street Townhouse, one of Soho House & Co’s London restaurants, and your repast will be served on pretty, black-and-white floral china: the ‘Calico’ and ‘Felicity’ patterns, both classics by Burleigh. This Staffordshire pottery dates back to 1851, and its production methods have remained almost the same since. Every design is made largely by hand, with machines used only when necessary – it takes the skills of 25 different craftspeople to create a single piece.
Now owned by Denby – another Staffordshire pottery with a long history – Burleigh was originally known as Hulme and Booth. In 1862, it was taken over by William Leigh and Frederick Rathbone Burgess, who amalgamated their surnames to create a new brand name. The classic look that Burleigh is known for today is the result of a gradual process of accretion: in 1868, it took over the firm of Alcock & Co, acquiring both its moulds and its logo: a beehive. In 1886, it bought the 18th-century John Davenport business, adding yet more patterns and shapes to its archive. In this way, says the brand’s creative director Steven Moore, ‘ Burleigh became a flag-bearer for British ceramic history and tradition without even knowing it.’ ➤
‘IF YOU HAVE BURLEIGH CHINA OF YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S, YOU CAN ADD TO IT TODAY BECAUSE IT’S STILL MADE IN THE SAME WAY’
Fans of Burleigh – of which there are many, from the Royal Family to Ralph Lauren, who chose Burleigh ceramics to be used in his coffee shops – don’t buy it for novelty’s sake. Its patterns are conservative in the best possible sense, with designs such as ‘Blue Burgess Chintz’ and ‘Black Willow’ blending English country-garden florals and traditional oriental style (in 1913, Queen Mary became so besotted with ‘Black Regal Peacock’ that she made an informal visit to Harrods in pursuit of the tableware). ‘Evolution, not revolution, is the Burleigh way,’ explains Moore. ‘Our best-selling pattern, “Asiatic Pheasants”, has held the top spot since 1862, and people love it because it’s a moment of calm in a busy modern world. If you have some Burleigh china of your grandmother’s, you can add to it today because it’s still made in the same way. You can’t do that with any other brand.’
Burleigh still occupies Middleport Pottery, which it built on the bank of the Trent and Mersey canal in 1889, and whose ‘free flow’ production line, with one workshop dovetailing into the next, was groundbreaking at the time. The original machinery is still in use, as is the 300-year-old technique of underglaze tissuetransfer printing that’s used on all Burleigh wares. This craft, which takes five years to master, involves engraving patterns onto copper rollers, which are then printed onto tissue-thin paper and applied by hand to each vessel. ‘It has to be done right the first time – there are no second chances – and it has the added benefit of being microwave and dishwasher safe, even though it was invented long before such appliances,’ says Moore. Burleigh is the last pottery in the world to use this method, which, says Moore, results in patterns of ‘matchless subtlety and depth’.
Recent product launches include a ‘Calico’ mug collection in new colours to mark the design’s 50th anniversary, one of which is ‘Calico Mulberry’, a new colourway for Harrods. There’s also a new version of the ‘Hibiscus’ print for London hotel The Ned (available at sohohome.com), made using an archive pattern in an exclusive ‘ banker green’ colour inspired by the hotel building, a former bank (all Burleigh china is decorated using natural earth pigments, some of which are costlier than gold). Coming soon is ‘Highgrove Orchard’, a design created in collaboration with artist Sam Wilson especially for the Prince of Wales’ estate. HRH The Prince’s Regeneration Trust donated £9 million to the Middleport Pottery in 2011 to facilitate emergency repairs and to keep production going. As well as buying pieces, you can also book tours of Burleigh’s factory on its website. burleigh.co.uk