A visit to the Nantgarw China Works Museum

This was the day Kevin Williams Art (Kevin & Dave) decided to take a trip to one of the jewels in the industrial heritage crown of the Rhondda Cynon Taff area – The Nantgarw China Works Museum. And if we were really lucky, we might even get to see a real artisan in action. As a prelude, I did some research to get some background information and here’s what I came up with.

The Village of Nantgarw

The village name appears well before that of its now larger neighbour Taff’s Well with some experts claiming that the original name was ‘Nant y Carw Coch’. It was famed for its poetry, music and for being the source of the Nantgarw Folk Dance style with forays made by the Mari Lywd troupe into neighbouring villages at Christmas. The drill being that the entourage would visit hostelries and pose questions at the publicans - if they couldn’t answer, free drinks would be given to the whole troupe. It was not unheard of for landlords to employ the services of ‘professional’ academics reasoning that it would be cheaper than being unable to answer the challenge. The extensive Nantgarw colliery which existed from 1910-1986 once boasted the deepest coal seam in the South Wales coalfield and employed around six hundred people and of course, prior to the A470, the Glamorganshire Canal ran through the village and right beside Nantgarw House, the site of the porcelain manufacturing.

How it all Started

Nantgarw China Works is the last surviving porcelain producing facility in the UK harking back from the early 19th century having been originally started by a remarkable porcelain painter from Derby by the name of William Billingsley who in 1812 partnered with son-in-law and investor Samuel Walker to form Billingsley & Walker which was in turn was funded by Quaker and investor William Young. For those of us who don’t know our China clay from our creamware – porcelain is a white vitrified (glass-like) ceramic with a fine-grained body that is usually translucent, as distinguished from earthenware, which is porous, opaque, and coarser. The early recipe was top secret and known only to Billingsley as industrial espionage was rife forcing it to be recorded in code only. The ingredients were crushed at a mill next to the Cross Keys pub with the water wheel being powered by the river Taff. Nantgarw produced porcelain was of such a high degree of pure ‘whiteness’, (thanks to its unique composite bone ash/frit based soft-paste), it has been deemed to be arguably the best quality porcelain ever produced and was shipped for sale mainly to high society in London. Much of the highly detailed finishing was also undertaken in London.

Huge Production Losses

Production was something of an expensive process as 90% of the fired clays were lost due to ‘slump’ when heated with high temperatures in the kilns. Although there was plenty of demand in 1814, the operation was moved to the Lewis Weston Dillwyn owned Cambrian Pottery of Swansea in 1815 due to the heavy losses before returning to Nantgarw in 1817. Young invested another £1,100 of his own money plus £1,000 from ten ‘gentleman of the county’ and Billingsley proceeded to produce the finest quality porcelain he had ever produced although still operating at huge losses. The story takes a rather nefarious twist as when Young was away on business, both Billingsley and Walker absconded to Shropshire leaving their partner to face the music and the term of the remaining lease.  He was forced to sell the business and assets at auction enabling him to buy out minor partners and reclaim the business as sole owner, effectively re-salvaging the operation and owning a considerable amount of undecorated ‘in the white’ porcelain.

Young  & Pardoe

It was at this stage that Young courted the services of a previous friend and acquaintance by the name of Thomas Pardoe who had been a co-working artist from the Cambrian Pottery and whose task it was to decorate the remaining stock. They also experimented with a recipe but with no access to the formula used by Billingsley, they could not add to the porcelain inventory. The eventual sales of the stock barely paid the staff’s wages in arrears and failed to recoup his losses leaving Young to narrowly avoid bankruptcy and losing his tenure at Nantgarw. Much of the white porcelain ware left over ended up being sent to London for finishing by other decorators. Pardoe remained at Nantgarw until his death in 1823 when the factory closed down for ten years. In 1833, William Henry, son of Thomas Pardoe, decided to take over the now redundant building and set about producing clay tobacco pipes to the tune of up to 10,000 per year alongside glazed earthenware known as Rockingham pottery. Upon his death in 1867, family descendants continued to run the business until cigarettes proved the final death-knell for pipe smoking in 1920. Interestingly, Pardoe’s descendants continued to inhabit Nantgarw House up until the 1970’s.

The Present Day

As an artist and photographer, I often get the privilege of meetings many types of artisans and today it was my pleasure to meet resident potter Sally Stubbings who kindly walked us around Nantgarw House which was renovated by Taff Ely Borough Council in 1989 for it to open to the public in 1991 as a charitable trust. It’s a fine looking whitewashed stone building with outhouses and one rebuilt kiln and another one under restoration. It’s full of examples of incredibly decorated porcelain with a full explanation of the history surrounding the venue. The project survives off its own revenue which includes daily courses in pottery, willow basket making, botanical painting, enamelling & gilding plus the many talks, demonstrations and exhibitions which are held.

‘Throwing’ the Clay

Sally explained that samples of Billingsley made porcelain had been recently sent for analysis which produced the formula by which she is now able to produce the very same grade of porcelain as in the halcyon days of Billingsley & Walker – what a thrill that must be! Luckily, modern technology guarantees consistent success in production, a luxury not afforded to Sally’s predecessors.  With an appointment to keep, she still had time to show us her time-honed skills at ‘throwing’ which she made look effortless (I think she was teasing us) and we got to see our first hand-thrown Nantgarw porcelain piece in the flesh as it were.

Thanks Sally, great ending to a very informative visit.

See the video of our visit:  https://youtu.be/KgvzV6jpe2g


Coming up…

Nantgarw China Works will be holding a major exhibition from Saturday July 13th to Saturday September 28th to celebrate the 200th anniversary of William Billingsley’s porcelain production at Nantgarw. It will feature over sixty of the finest items of porcelain ever produced from both major private collections and national collections (twenty-three will be coming from the National Museum of Wales) with many items never before seen in public.

The exhibition will also include several events and demonstrations:

  • There will also be a number of events and demonstrations running alongside the exhibition.
  • Talks from Andrew Renton Keeper of Art, Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales
  • Talks from Eurwyn Wiliam, Trustee, Nantgarw China Works & Museum
  • Talks from Charles Fountain, Director Nantgarw China Works & Museum
  • Porcelain Painting demonstrations from Francis Clark
  • Slip Casting demonstrations from Sally Stubbings

Admission (including museum entry) £2.50