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Visit to Nantgarw China Works and Museum

Friends Visit on Tuesday 27th August 2019

A group of the Friends had the opportunity to see the various aspects of the Nantgarw China Works amd Museum.  In his introduction, Charles Fountain, Director of Nantgarw China Works and Museum, mentioned that we were the largest group of visitors that the site had played host to.  The site is both a Museum for Nantgarw Porcelain and, once again after a gap of two hundred years, a producer of porcelain, .  He explained that the Works receives no public subsidies or grants and is run by volunteers. Money comes from visitors to the site to visit the Museum and teashop and from the sales of commission porcelain pieces that the Works now produces.

As a Museum for Nantgarw Porcelain, it is currently hosting an exhibition, Coming Home, which celebrates the manufacture of Nantgarw porcelain in its brief production period of four years from 1813 and the exhibition includes twenty-three pieces from Amgueddfa Cymru’s collection as well as other important pieces from public and private collections.

First of all. Charles told the story of William Billingsley, its founder.  In the course of his career, he set up, and was financially ruined by, a series or factories he set up across England before he came to Nantgarw where he set up the works in 1813 and for the next four years produced the finest porcelain the world has ever seen.  His soft-paste porcelain was fine-grained, pure white and translucent whatever the thickness of the piece made. 
Blue Plaque
Nantgarw's Blue Plaque

Charles Fountain talking to Friends

   Friends listening to Charles Fountain giving a talk on the history of the Works                                                                                    

He went on to tell about the recent revival of porcelain making at Nantgarw.  By using the latest scientific technology, they have been able to recreate the secret formula that William Billingsley carried to his grave.  They are now therefore now making cups to commission – each one is hand-crafted, so probably as expensive, in today’s terms, as Billingsley’s porcelain was in his day.

Unfortunately, its firing required precise temperature control, which was impossible in the kilns of the time, and his wastage rate from the firing was nearly 90%.  It was not economically viable and, inevitably, the business ran into financial difficulties so that after four years production stopped.  Sufficient had been produced that a further two years were spent decorating the pieces for customers before the works closed for good in 1819 (thus the exhibition to commemorate the anniversary).

We were then split into three groups.  Each had a guided tour of the Exhibition with David, who pointed out some of the most interesting exhibits.

Reconstructed kiln
Then there was a chance to see the historic old factory and kilns, which are designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, before visiting Sally Stubbings, the artist-in-residence, who is making the new porcelain pieces. She took us through the stages of  how Nantgarw porcelain was and is made.  First the clay is poured into moulds, removed and allowed to harden and dry. This results in an incredible 15% shrinkage of the piece without causing any damage or distortion to the shape of the cup, which even she found amazing.  Then came firing and glazing before the white porcelain piece was turned over for decoration according to the wishes of the commissioner.

The third aspect was the history of the works between these two periods of porcelain manufacture.  For most of that time three generations of the Pardoe family produced everyday objects such as clay pipes and tiles. 
Artist in residence
Reconstruction of one of the three kilns on the site
There was an irony in that these objects of mass production proved extremely profitable for nearly 100 years in stark contrast to the fine porcelain that William Billingsley produced for such a short period.
Sally Stubbings, artist-in-residence, explaining to us how moulds are used to create the cup  and handles from the liquid slip

In addition, we were treated to morning coffee and afternoon tea as well as a tasty buffet lunch.

Many thanks must go to Gwen Williams who organised the trip.  At the end she spoke on behalf of us all of our appreciation of the care and efforts of David Fountain and the volunteer staff who had made the visit such an illuminating and enjoyable experience.

Diane Davies

Friends Day Out in Worcester
Visit to Royal Worcester Museum and Worcester Cathedral: Tuesday 6th August 2019

Our last coach trip of 2019 was to Worcester.  An almost fully booked coach set off early and reached Worcester without trouble around 10:00am.  Our first port of call was the Royal Worcester Museum.  Here we treated to a wonderful talk by Jane Tudge on the history of porcelain making in Worcester from its beginnings in 1751.  In addition, we had the opportunity to handle some of the items in the collection and hear sound bites from audio recordings of workers talking about their experiences.  
Royal Worcester Museum

Royal Worcester Museum
Worcester Cathedral Nave

Porcelain production ceased in Worcester in the late 1970s and in 2008 the company itself went into administration.  Fortunately, by then a Trust had been set up to create a Museum which was given ownership of all the historic pieces thus safeguarding them from sale by the administrators.

Then there was an opportunity to visit the Museum galleries to see the collection.  So we were able to explore Galleries showing the Museum’s extensive holdings of Royal Worcester Porcelain with one gallery devoted to the Georgian period when it all started, one devoted to the Victorian period and a third gallery showing pieces up to the closure of the works.                              

After lunch we assembled at Worcester Cathedral for a guided tour. We were split into four groups each with our own guide.  The Cathedral was built between 1084 and 1504 and thus has examples of every style of English architecture from Norman to perpendicular. 
Nave of Worcester Cathedral

The cathedral is famous for its Norman crypt and early 12th century Chapter House.  In addition it houses the tomb of King John as well as a chapel with the tomb of Prince Arthur, the eldest son of Henry VII.  Arthur's early death at the age of fifteen meant that his younger brother Henry acceded to the throne when Henry VII died in 1509.   Our guide pointed out aspects of Prince Arthur's Chapel that suggest it was built off site in pieces and reassembled because it would appear to be facing the wrong way and also certain decorative features had to be broken off in order for the chapel to fit.  As well as these sights, a stained-glass window dedicated to Edward Elgar was pointed out.
Worcester Cathedral Choir
Many thanks to Peter Davies for organising such an interesting and informative visit.

Diane Davies
  Friends in the Choir of Worcester Cathedral listening to our guide

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