PUBLISHED: 11:34 03 April 2008 | UPDATED: 15:06 20 February 2013
In our April 08 issue we look at the life of William Cookworthy, famous during the 18th century for manufacturing the first 'hard paste' porcelain in the country
Andrew Thomas of Bearne's looks at the life of William Cookworthy, famous during
the 18th century for manufacturing the first'hard paste' porcelain in the country
William Cookworthy can legitimately take his place amongst the hierarchy of those involved in porcelain production in England during the 18th century. Furthermore, he must wholly be given credit for manufacturing the first 'true' or 'hard paste' porcelain in this country, and for using good Cornish ingredients in the process.
Cookworthy was born in Kingsbridge, Devon, in 1705, the son of a weaver. His father died in 1718, and by 1720 the family found itself in severely reduced circumstances. William was then sent to London to take up an apprenticeship with chemists Timothy and Sylvanus Bevan, Quakers like his father. As the family were unable to afford the coach fare to London, William was forced to walk the entire 200-odd miles to the city. How fascinating would a diary of that journey be to us now, with details of how far he travelled each day, where he slept or the weather and people he encountered, for example. On my next trip to London, I must remember not to grumble about the traffic on the A303 while sitting in a warm and comfortable car.
Once he had successfully completed his training in 1726, the Bevans offered William a position in a new wholesale pharmacy business they were setting up in Notte Street in Plymouth. This business venture prospered, and by 1735 he had become a partner and the business was renamed Bevan and Cookworthy. Sadly, in that year his wife, Sarah, unexpectedly died and he was left to bring up his five daughters on his own. However, his brother, Philip, helped by joining him in the business, and Messrs William Cookworthy and Company came into existence.
It is not known exactly when Cookworthy's interest in porcelain began, but during his business travels in Cornwall in the 1740s he discovered Kaolin (or china clay) at Tregonning Hill, near Godolphin House between Helston and Penzance. His experiments started immediately, but later on he found an even better source not only of china clay but also of the other important ingredient for porcelain making, petuntse (or china stone), at St Stephen's, which lies between Truro,
St Austell and St Columb.
On 17 March 1768, Cookworthy obtained a patent for 'making porcelain from Moorstone, Growan and Growan Clay'. This gave him the exclusive right to use china clay and china stone for porcelain manufacture. And so the Plymouth manufactory was born and the earliest known piece is a mug painted in blue with the arms of Plymouth and inscribed '1768 CF'. It is in the British Museum and by tradition the initials stand for Cookworthy Fecit. As was the case with most other English factories, the first productions were painted in blue to rival the most commonly imported wares from China. Some controversy exists over the actual location of Cookworthy's manufactory, particularly in view of the building called 'The China House' at Shepherds Wharf, Coxside. However, it is thought that the premises were actually in the High Street and that only goods were stored at Coxside.
Much Plymouth porcelain is unmarked and is distinguished by the hard, flinty look of its body. The glaze can sometimes be discoloured with brown or black smoke-staining, and with underglaze blue pieces a blackish tint can be present. Because of the required heat in the kiln and the instability of the ingredients, some pieces became distorted, particularly the rims and foot rims of mugs. The factory mark, when there
is one, is the alchemist's sign
for tin, the numerals 2 and 4 joined.
Amongst the shareholders in Cookworthy's venture, all of whom were Quakers, was Richard Champion of Bristol and he, together with four other shareholders, persuaded Cookworthy to move his manufactory from Plymouth to Bristol sometime in 1770 where it continued for a further ten years. William retired from the business in 1773 but continued to receive a royalty on every item made. He died on 17 October 1780.
Plymouth porcelain, whether polychrome or blue and white, has a very distinct charm, and any serious collector of English porcelain should have a piece or two in his or her collection. Prices range from £300-400 for a small, damaged piece, to 10,000 for the rarest items in good condition.
I have great regard for William Cookworthy, a clever and hard-working businessman who became a much- respected person in his local society and whose Plymouth porcelain is a lasting tribute to his ingenuity and artistic skill.