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The History of Royal Lancastrian Pottery

Debbie Porter

The Royal Lancastrian Pottery Company was an innovative producer of decorative pottery, whose distinctive designs earned the company a royal warrant. This July, our Fine Art sale will be featuring a selection of these gorgeous pieces. Here’s some background on this illustrious company.

The company began life in Clifton, Lancashire, as the result of a failed coal mine. In 1889, the Clifton and Kersley Coal Company had sunk a pair of shafts to access coal seams next to the geological feature known as the Pendleton Fault. Excessive water seepage rendered the project unworkable, and the Pilkington brothers decided to try and produce glazed bricks with the marl that had been encountered. This also bore no fruit, however, as the marl proved unsuitable. Yet, by sheer chance, the secretary of the coal company happened to know William Burton, a chemist working for Wedgwood. Burton suggested that the marl would be better suited to making tiles – decorative tiles were very popular at the time. Burton was then invited to manage the company in 1891.

A William S Mycock for Pilkington Royal Lancastrian lustre heraldic vase

This William S Mycock for Pilkington Royal Lancastrian lustre heraldic vase will be featured in our July Fine Art sale. Lot 667, estimate £300-£600.

Even making tiles using the marl turned out to be problematic, however, and instead it was used to make saggars used to contain pottery during the firing process. A small number of floor tiles were also made. Nevertheless, the business of pottery making had begun. The site of the proposed factory was in a good location – adjacent to a canal – with a railway nearby and coal available from the Wet Earth Colliery.

William Burton’s drive and charisma had enticed many skilled artists and craftsmen to join the company, such as Richard Joyce, Charles Cundall, Gwladys Rodgers, W.S. Mycock, Dorothy Dacre, Jessie Jones and Annie Burton. Together, their decorative abilities gave rise to works of phenomenal quality, and information about each artist can be found in A. J. Cross’ book  Pilkington’s Royal Lancastrian Pottery and Tiles (Dennis, 1980).

One of the best craftsmen to have joined the company was Edward Thomas Radford, who was known for his uncanny ability to produce pottery of great size and delicacy. He is reputed to have been able, after making a large-sized pot, to produce a perfectly-fitting lid by eye and hand alone. For the amusement of the Pilkington’s children, he would also create tiny vases of an inch-and-a-half or less. Towards the end of his career, Radford also gave pottery making demonstrations in Hayward’s China merchants in Manchester.

A William S Mycock for Pilkington Royal Lancastrian lustre vase with red flowers and silver foliate scrolls

This William S Mycock for Pilkington Royal Lancastrian lustre vase with red flowers and silver foliate scrolls will also be featured in our July Fine Art sale. Lot 670, estimate £400-£800.

Pilkington’s designers were also of a similar calibre, experimenting and coming up with new types of glaze. These included curdled, aventurine, crystalline and sunstone, as well as variations in texture. These fruit skin glazes had a texture akin to that of orange peel or apricot skin. The works’ chemist, Abraham Lomax, produced a book Royal Lancastrian Pottery, in which he recorded, in great detail, the various discoveries made. What brought Pilkington’s the most fame, though, was their lustre ware.

An example of Royal Lancastrian fruit skin glaze

An example of fruit skin glaze, one of the many innovations to come from the designers at Royal Lancastrian. Image credit

Tiles weren’t considered good enough to display the various new glazes being pioneered, so to show them off the company started producing pottery, with initial examples being produced using ware made by firth in Kirby Lonsdale.

By 1903, the firm had developed an opalescent ceramic glaze, which was named ‘Lancastrian’. Then, in 1906, designer Gordon Forsyth was brought on board, and he became largely associated with high lustre finishes.

The Lancastrian pieces were decorated in a variety of ways, often gilt, including geometric and foliate patterns, as well as depictions of various animals. Some had a classical influence, displaying ships, classical gods and Latin inscriptions. Many of the pieces that were made are quite elaborate, and certainly highly decorative.

A William S Mycock for Pilkington Royal Lancastrian lustre ginger jar with flowers and foliate

Another item to be featured in our July Fine Art sale is this William S Mycock for Pilkington Royal Lancastrian lustre ginger jar with flowers and foliate on a lovely red ground. Lot 668, estimate £500-£1,000.

Such was the quality and desirability of the Lancastrian wares, that pieces were being sold at Tiffany’s. Then, in 1913, Lord Derby hosted King George V and Queen Mary at his home, where he had several Lancastrian vases proudly on display. The King and Queen were so impressed with the items on display that permission for a royal warrant was granted. The company was then renamed Pilkington’s Royal Lancastrian Pottery Company.

This heyday was not to last, however. In the years after the First World War, the high purchase cost of pieces, coupled with the departure of several artists, led to a decline in sales. The high purchase cost was due in no small part to the cost of production; the science of firing lustre pieces being somewhat inexact. Thus, even an ordinary vase would be worth nearly a week’s wages, whereas a larger lustre piece could cost a month’s wages.

1928 did see a brief resurgence, with the introduction of the new lapis glaze, so-named for its resemblance to the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. Gwladys Rodgers was particularly known for her work with this glaze.

A Richard Joyce for Pilkington Royal Lancastrian lustre two handled vase

This Richard Joyce for Pilkington Royal Lancastrian lustre two handled vase will be featuring in our July Fine Art sale, too. Lot 669, estimate £250-£500.

Sadly, though, the rebound was to be short-lived, and the company ceased its pottery line in 1938. An attempt was made to restart it in 1948, but their pieces in this period failed to recapture the style and quality of earlier times. To make matters worse, the kilns which had been used to produce their world-famous lustre wares had been destroyed in the intervening years. Production ceased again around 1957-58. One final attempt at re-launching the pottery line was made in 1973, but it was not to be.

Pilkington’s continued to manufacture tiles until 2010, when it became a victim of the recession, and the once-prestigious and acclaimed company was no more.

Their legacy remains, however, in the beautiful pieces they created over the years, and our July Fine Art sale will be your opportunity to purchase some fine examples.

How to Sell Pottery at Auction

If you have pottery pieces for auction, get in touch and we can help you with a valuation. Talk to our team of experts who will be able to give you an accurate auction estimate of your pottery. You can join us at one of our valuation days every Tuesday, email us for an appointment on or call us on +44 (0)1782 638100 Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm.

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