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William Billingsley.

The year 2024 marks the 250th anniversary of William Billingsley beginning his career as a decorator of porcelain.  He was apprenticed by his mother Mary at the Derby porcelain factory in September 1774, at the age of 16.  This was for a term of five years, during which time he received a wage of five shillings per week. 

(See the book "William Billingsley, 1758-1828" by W. D. John.)

Once his apprenticeship was completed, Billingsley began his illustrious, though at times controversial career.  Many would argue that he was the finest decorator of 18th and early 19th century porcelain and he was certainly one of the "greats".  We can only cover his life and career quite briefly here, but will include in this exhibition some wonderfully decorated porcelain from all the factories he was involved with.  However the main focus will be on his work on Derby porcelain.

The style of decoration produced by Billingsley in those early years was unremarkable, he'd have worked as instructed by his superiors.  The same would have applied after completing his apprenticeship and pieces decorated by him during the Chelsea Derby period are almost impossible to identify.  The first time we start to get a clue of his own style was from the start of the puce marked period, which began in 1784 when some of the workmen were allotted numbers to identify their work.  Unusually for a painter, Billingsley was also a gilder and was allotted 7 as his gilder's number.  Therefore from this time the so called "long-tailed 7" can be found on his work.


Early Floral Decoration from the Puce Marked Period With Long-Tailed 7's.

From the start of the puce marked period in 1784, Billingsley was still following the style he was taught and his work is unremarkable.  Some of the early pieces would not be attributed to him were it not for the long-tailed 7 to the reverse.  Some examples of those pieces follow here, all have the long-tailed 7 identifying them as by Billingsley.  There is one plate in pattern 15, then three plates or dishes of various shapes in pattern 18, followed by one in pattern 35, the central landscape of which is most probably by Zachariah Boreman.  All these plates and dishes come from private collections and date from c.1784 - 1788.

Early Puce Marked Pieces with Floral Decoration but without Long-Tailed 7's.

As with so much in our research of early English porcelain, there is no hard and fast rule and many early puce marked pieces decorated by Billingsley do not have long-tailed 7's.  We can sometimes recognise his work, however, with the aid of the pattern books which in some cases actually allocate a pattern to a particular painter.  Care must be taken here though, as it's always possible that a second service was subsequently ordered in that pattern which may have been decorated by another hand.  We can also judge the evolving style as Billingsley began to develop his "wiped out" style of painting highlights and his increasing use of flowers being painted from the reverse.  It's also possible to look back at the thoughts of other scholars from days gone by who research Billingsley and his work.  Therefore it must be remembered that the following are attributions to Billingsley which cannot be proved conclusively.

The following photos all show pieces decorated between c.1785 and 1790 which we attribute to Billingsley.  There is an ice pail decorated in pattern 80 and shown from both sides, then there follows a cup and saucer decorated in pattern 138.  Following this is a dessert plate decorated in pattern 76 (notice the almost identical "love-in-a-mist" from both cup and saucer and this plate) and finally a teapot stand decorated in pattern 65.  All are from private collections.

Floral Decoration from c.1788 - 1795.

From around 1788, Billingsley's style developed quite quickly to become more individual and identifiable.  We can't be sure what prompted this change, whether the young decorator was becoming more confident in his own abilities or whether a talent was recognised by his superiors and he was encouraged to develop it.  Whatever the reason, his style of painting blossoms to become the finest of all the Derby decorators and arguably the finest decorator in the country.

One of the changes to his style was how he started to "wipe out" the highlights of the flowers.  He would have been taught to leave the highlights white, as was the custom at the time.  However he developed a way to paint the highlights, then wipe them back, so leaving a faint layer of colour and therefore making the flowers much more lifelike.  He was also brave enough to start to paint some of the flowers from the reverse, thus making a group of flowers more realistic.  

The following plates are of patterns 100, 107, 129, 137, 151, 157 and 185, with the final two plates not having pattern numbers.  All are from private collections.


It is easy to overlook the work that Billingsley did, decorating landscapes on Derby porcelain.  He is so well known for his flowers, especially his roses, but in fact he was also quite an accomplished landscape painter.  He was close friends with that great painter of landscapes, Zachariah Boreman, who may well have guided and trained the young Billingsley in this particular skill.  So much so that it is quite likely that many of Billingsley's landscapes are wrongly attributed to Boreman, their styles being quite similar.  Therefore when looking for landscapes by Billingsley on Derby porcelain, the presence of a long-tailed 7 is of importance but these are hard to find.  We illustrate one example below, a saucer decorated in pattern 85 which has that all important long-tailed 7.  Photo be permission of Hansons Fine Art Auctioneers.

Hansons saucer with LT7 pattern 85.jpg

The Prentice Plate.

Before we leave Billingsley's time at Derby, we should look at the so called "Prentice Plate".  It is believed that this was executed by Billingsley as an example of roses painted from all directions.  Haslem records that it was retained by the factory as an example for the young apprentices to follow, right up to the time the factory closed in 1848.  Unsurprisingly it is somewhat worn, but still of huge significance.  Interestingly it is marked as pattern 138, though this does not match that pattern number in the pattern book.  It is held by Derby Museums where it is on display at their city centre museum. The photos here are by permission from them.

Billingsley Leaves Derby.

Billingsley was ambitious, he wanted to create a porcelain body as fine as that which was produced on the continent and then add his own exquisite decoration to that porcelain.  He must have been discussing this quite openly as word reached Joseph Lygo, manager of the Derby warehouse in London.  During August 1795, Lygo wrote to William Duesbury on this very matter, part of which is reproduced here:


"I hope that you will be able to make a bargain with Mr. Billingsley for him to continue with you, for it will be a great loss to loose such a hand, and not only that, but his going into another factory will put them in a way of doing flowers in the same way, which they are at present entirely ignorant of".

In 1795 Billingsley left the Derby factory to begin setting up the porcelain factory at Pinxton.  As far as we know, he never returned to work there again. 


The research of Andrew Ledger, published in our Journal 2 under the title "Derby Botanical Dessert Services, 1791-1811", strongly suggests that the last botanical dessert service that Billingsley could have contributed to the decoration of before leaving is pattern 197.  Therefore any attribution to him of later patterns should be treated with caution.


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