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The Perfection of Pinxton Porcelain

Posted Friday, June 8, 2007

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Pinxton Porcelain - (Reflections Magazine 2001)

The Perfection of Pinxton.

Close by junction 28 of the M1 motorway in the heavily industrialised corridor of the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border, the former pit village of Pinxton is hardly the kind of place that you would normally associate with beauty. But the motorway cuts through the once stately - and quite beautiful Brookhill Park - former seat of the Coke family of Brookhill Hall.

`The most beautiful and sought after ceramic art in the world'

Furthermore, it was John Coke, the Squire of the Manor of Brookhill who founded the famous Pinxton China Factory which during it’s short life produced some of the most beautiful and sought after ceramic art in the world between 1796 and 1813.

`most distinctive and distinguished of all English porcelain'

The rare Pinxton porcelain was produced there for just seventeen years before the factory closed and thus the rarity value of this most distinctive and distinguished of all English porcelain has made it extremely collectable.

In a recent sale of small ceramic items at Neales Fine Art Auctioneers of Derby, a tea cup and saucer was sold for £120, a milk jug for £150, and a coffee can, tea cup and saucer for £200. At the other end of the market a Pinxton porter tankard with panelled scenes of Brookhill Hall recently went under the hammer at Sotheby’s for £14,500.

The manufacture of pottery is humankinds oldest current art form and began virtually at the dawn of civilisation. The Chinese were the first to manufacture porcelain for domestic, religious and commercial use.

The pure white clay they used was actually kaolin, a word meaning `top of the mountain’, thus once exported to English speaking countries the various porcelain products became known collectively as `china’. This should not be confused with `bone china’ which is an almost exclusively English product first perfected by Josiah Spode around 1750 by adding powdered animal bone to the mix of clay – thus producing `bone’- china.

The Pinxton Factory produced elegant porcelain of a fine, light transluscent quality which was richly and expertly decorated by a team of gilders and hand-painters led initially by William Billingsley, known for his artistry as a flower painter and especially for his design of the famous`Pinxton Roses’ – a favourite of our current Queen Elizabeth.

It was following the discovery of a fine, pure white clay within the grounds of Brookhill Hall that John Coke wrote to William Duesbury, owner of the Derby Porcelain Factory in 1795 seeking his opinion about the possible commercial prospects of building a factory at Pinxton.

These were the days of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution and the Cromford Canal, which ran from Arkwright’s Mill at Cromford to the Erewash Canal at Langley Mill before going on to Pixton Wharf, had been opened just two years earlier in 1793. Coke himself owned a number of boats which plied both the canal and River Trent, thus the siting of his proposed factory on the site of the Old Water Mill at Pinxton Wharf at the head of the Cromford Canal was ideal.

Duesbury, fearing competition tried to dissuade him, but William Billingsley who was the senior flower painter at Derby wrote to Coke offering his services. Billingsley had served his apprenticeship at Derby, where he had worked for twenty one years and had previously experimented making porcelain bodies to his own recipe. He saw the opportunity with Coke at Pinxton to produce his own porcelain and the two quickly made plans and the factory was built and in production from April 1796. A steam engine was ordered from Francis Thompson of Chesterfield to provide the power, but this proved unsuccessful and power was eventually supplied to the factory via a water-mill powered by the nearby Erewash River.

Billingsley’s `secret recipe’ produced beautiful but unstable porcelain and losses were heavy. The factory achieved it’s peak output late in 1798 but financial losses led to a reduction of staff in 1799 and Billingsley terminated his employment in April that year leaving John Coke as sole proprietor. He continued from 1801 to 1803 in partnership with Henry Bankes, and later with John Cutts. On April 26th 1806 John Coke married Suzanna Wilmott and severed his connection with the factory, leaving John Cutts as sole proprietor. Cutts finally closed the factory on Ladies Day 1813 signalling the end of the Pinxton porcelain manufactory after a short life of seventeen years. The factory site was convertaed into tenements for local colliers and the offices for Coke & Co.Ltd, a coal-mining company. At an auction in the George Hotel, Alfreton in 1859, lot 13 was described as `sixteen dwelling-houses or tenements situated at a place called The Factory at Pinxton’.

The buildings were finally demolished in 1934 and the land, rather incongruously, is today being used as a scrap-metal merchants.

The fascinating story of the Pinxton China Factory, together with 370 full-colour plate illustrations, is told in an expertly researched book by local Pinxton businessman Nicholas Gent, who according to the foreword by John Twitchett F.R.S.A., Curator of the Royal Crown Derby Museum, is regarded as, “the foremost authority in his field”.

The author describes the book as `a labour of love’, which was written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the Pinxton Factory in 1796, and is himself a passionate collector, owning over four hundred pieces, which constitutes one of the two largest collections of Pinxton China in the world.

Nicholas Gent probably inherited his passion for collecting from his father, who was an avid collector of antique guns. He also inherited an interest in guns and both father and son were members of the British Shooting Team, Mr.Gent Senior in the small bore rifle section, whilst son Nicholas was a crackshot with a pistol. Both shot regularly at Bisley during the Seventies and Nicholas fondly recalls the Saturday excursions when his joint passions for shooting and collecting ceramics could well have got him arrested on suspicion of terrorism! He shot at the Bisley Trials in the afternoon, but spent the morning trawling the stalls on the Portobello Road for that elusive piece of Pinxton china – whilst armed to the teeth with a bag full of guns!

His passion for Pinxton pottery began as a 16 year-old following family visits to Mr.& Mrs.P. Dennis at Langton Hall, who owned the world’s largest collection. Soon he was building his own collection by attending auctions in Nottingham and Derby and since then his passionate pursuit of Pinxton pieces has seen purchases from as far afield as Toronto and Cape Town.

He is a regular at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s and after thirty years of collecting, handling and valuing porcelain his enthusiasm remains undimmed; when asked, “what is the easiest way for a beginner to recognize genuine pieces of Pinxton porcelain”, he replies somewhat tongue-in-cheek, - “First, buy a copy of my book!”

`The Patterns & Shapes of The Pinxton China Factory’ by N. D.Gent.

ISBN 0 9527693 0 1.

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