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Perhaps the tragedy of his career arose from that. He was just the man to reverse a tradition, and he upset—in England at least—the rules of flower-painting on china which had come down from Royal fabrik and Hablissement abroad to humble potteries here. Billingsley forsook the convention; he painted flowers as he saw them, and not as by the older masters in his art they had been seen. in his way and scope he too repudiated the white horse and the brown tree. England in him may claim the first impressionist. He worked in the small and upon still-life subjects, it is true; but all the same he was the first, i think, to "bring the picture out of the blur" to the momentary glance.
The outline of the Billingsley rose, and its lights and shadows too, are imprecise. Under the momentary glance the flower seems to float and quiver, almost to form itself and move, and the richly enamelled deep heart of it, like the drooping and blowing petals, makes a rounding contrast with the high light upon the swell. By older china-painters "the lights were simply left untouched," writes Mr. John Ward, keeper of the Billingsley china at Cardiff—that is, the "lights" were parts of the white uncolored glaze. But by the Billingsley method "the whole surface of the flower was covered with color, and the lights were then swept out with a half-charged brush." No great discovery, perhaps—simply an artist's device; but it was Billingsley's first, and it is this, together with a special "feeling" for flowers and a knack in grouping them, which makes it just to say, as a votary does, that "no other man in all the history of porcelain painted roses as this man did"; for upon the most fitting of material his brushes played in the most natural and liberated of styles.
Yet Billingsley would never speak of himself as an artist, one may be sure.
He was a workman, a craftsman, one of the good old kind of steady, rather silent, dour English artisans, better paid than most workmen at that date, but painting stolidly for dally bread, and drawing his thirty-five or forty shillings a week in quite a non-romantic and businesslike way. Romance was to come as a "high light" upon him, however, and his career, his mysterious law-breaking, his flight and exile, the pride of his achievements and the pathos of his failures were to afford a topic for biographers and novelists in the end. For in the first year of the nineteenth century he ceased to be the steady artisan of the pot-works at Derby. He took to the road, and became a Romany of art; he wandered in Sherwood Forest and Cannock Chase, Salop, Worcestershire, and Wales; and wherever he went he drew, or taught to draw, the Billingsley rose.
He left peace and comfort behind him at Derby, but he went towards renown. in his way he was famous already, and in his own country. "To be painted with Billingsley's flowers" is written on many pages of the patternbooks which used to be kept in the Derby China Works until a generation ago. His "prentice-plate" is treasured in the Derby Art Gallery, though somewhat the worse for wear. it is described as "bordered with roses in every conceivable position. The stems are wonderfully graceful and elastic, and suggest that they are alive, the weight of the flower giving a curve which one can fancy changing with the flutter of the breeze." it was by examples such as this that the craftsman taught at the Derby, Finxton, Worcester, Nantgarw, Swansea, and Coalport potteries the art and mystery of painting flowers to the life.
Not every Billingsley rose is by Billingsley, therefore, and he seldom signed his work, though the figure "7" on the back of a piece of "old Derby" is said to authenticate the painting as bis own. But bis work is signed all over to the instructed eye. Always the lights are "swept out with a halfcharged brush." But that is not all; he could group flowers more harmoniously and set them in truer perspective than his copiers. Not only did he blot them in more masterly, but he treated the shadows and developed values in an inimitable way. if you find these qualities in a flower-piece painted on "soft" English china, look again. What are the flowers? What are the prevalent hues? For Billingsley loved the auricula and the tulip, as well as the rose; he had a fondness for yellows and purples, and would bind in each nosegay at least one flower of a dovecolor gray. Then, also, his bouquets throw out loose sprays, and the leaves are darkish, little-veined, often vaguely washed-in.
"Make a bargain with Mr. Billingsley for him to continue with you," the London agent of the Derby China Works wrote to the proprietor of them urgently, in 1796. "For it will be a great loss to lose such a hand, and not only that, but his going into another factory will put them into the way of doing flowers in the same way, which they at present are entirely ignorant of." i daresay Mr. Duesbury would offer as much as fifty shillings a week for his "hand" to remain, but he offered in vain. Billingsley quitted Derby to become a master-man. But that was not his chief motive; he had a stronger incentive and a higher aim.
He was potter as well as painter, and he longed to produce a perfect porcelain. Mr. Duesbury's rules pro- • hlbited the painters from entering the potters' rooms at Derby, and the potters from visiting the painting-rooms; but he failed to limit Billingsley's technical knowledge, just as he did to retain the advantages of his brush. The painter-potter had experimented in the
mixing-room and the kiins at Derby; he sought after a ware which should possess the translucency and porousness of "soft" china, be exquisitely thin, and yet be durably "hard" like the porcelain from Dresden—perhaps an impossible ideal. The "hand" was no chemist, and had been only scantily schooled, but he was tireless and inventive, and he came at last, after heart-breaking failure, to something like achievement; for in Wales he produced from his recipes "a porcelain which, as an artificial felspar, approaches the nearest to real felspar" of any imitative china ever concocted. This was the famous ware of Nantgarw. But it did not wholly realize the aim, for it was brittle, not "hard." Billingsley never quite saw success.
He began his search for the perfect porcelain in 1796 at Pinxton. A certain Mr. Coke, who had lived at Dresden and knew the qualities of the Saxon ware, undertook to build and equip a small pottery if Blllingsley would act as managing partner in the concern. The thick white Pinxton china was the result, but it seldom flowered with the Billingsley rose; the potter had absorbed the painter, the artist had become a man of affairs. Yet the partnership lasted no longer than four years. Blllingsley's wife used to say of him that he was "never satisfied with what he did, always wishing to produce something better." Probably Mr. Coke had curbed experiment with his purse-strings. At any rate, in 1800, the inveterate experimenter carried away his recipes, and left the Pinxton pottery to fumble with inferior ware. Adversity drove the "hand" to his art again, and then befell a period of painting other people's china and of scheming for new capital. Then something mysterious and catastrophlcal occurred. in the winter of 1808 we see him scurrying south, escaping, a scared and quaking fugitive. his name concealed, his wife left behind, his daughter Sarah and her lover, Samuel Walker, accompanying him, and Lavinia Billingsley, a small weakly child of thirteen, wearily trudging beside them or lifted by turns in their arms. The quest for the perfect porcelain had been Interrupted, even the brushes lay idle; it was winter with the Billingsley rose.
Something evil had come into the man's life—some act of crime, maybe, but most probably some misdealing with money; enthusiasts and inventors are seldom nicely particular about other people's capital. Whatever his sin or fault had been, It drove him into sudden exile. Earlier than this, his wife had separated herself from bim, and for that there may have been serious cause. But his children followed him through all, to their death; Samuel Walker stood by him; and "of this man's failings or indiscretions we have no direct evidence," his first biographer, Mr. Haslem, of Derby, wrote gently. "But that they must have been greatly redeemed by paternal love is proved by the fact that his daughters, who maintained the most affectionate correspondence with their mother, clung to him with so much tenderness." "I shall never see you again," the mother had said. Pathos, as well as mystery and danger, had entered into the fugitive's life, and in those days, when "sensibility" and "sentiment" were a duty as well as a luxury, I think he would mark with tears his "dim and perilous way."
Palissy stands the great tragical figure in the history of ceramics, but Billingsley seems the more pathetlcal to me. When he fled he changed his name, and, as "Mr. Beeley" he was to know every kind of privation and sorrow. Late in the year 1808 Sarah Billingsley, then twenty-five years old, wrote to her mother with great secrecy, addressing the letter to a third hand,
mentioning no names, using initials only, and both watering down and sealing what she wrote. Expressed in the style of a period older than 1808, the letter reads quaintly to-day. The four inlanders, far from their mountainous Midland shire, had come very near real shipwreck, it appears. "Your prayers, my Dear Mother, are heard," the letter says, "and we are again in our Native Country after experiencing very great hardships which would fill pages to recount I don't recollect whether I told you that after the Storm and we got into Harbor I durst not venture on Shipboard again but preferred walking between 50 and 60 miles. I thought your last words were prophetic when you said you should never see us more. I had a thousand anxious fears for you. I was doubtful whether you would ever hear of our fate, on account of the name we went by"—the alias of these pilgrims of porcelain and love.
It Is impossible to be sure of what had happened to the Billingsleys In their exodus so far. But I think they would have struck south from Derby through Cannock Chase to the Staffordshire potteries, where the Davenports were making china at that date. Then, disappointed of employment, they would make for the porcelain potteries of the West, going to Worcester first, and at first almost fruitlessly, nodoubt. So, coming to the Severn mouth, they would take a coaster bound for Swansea, where porcelain of a kind was then being made. The storm which scared Sarah Billingsley would come upon them in the Bristol Channel, and the little ship would run for Newport or Cardiff; whence the four would trudge the "50 or 60 miles" to Swansea, only to be disappointed again. Billingsley would then write to the famous firm of Barr, Flight and Barr, at Worcester, accepting the wages—"very low for a good hand" as his daughter said—which he had at first refused; he certainly did write to the firm to beg "a little Money" for the journey to Worcester. The wanderers made that journey afoot, "all the way Back, which in the whole amounted to near 400 miles," Sarah Billingsley informed her mother. it need not be "near 400 miles" from Swansea to Worcester, of "course, but dread of arrest would cause the wanderers to avoid the more direct and public highways; and thus one sees them toiling northward from Cardiff, up the Taff valley, past the hamlet of Nantgarw, and so rounding to Worcester and their "Native Country" through the wild glens of midland Wales.
At Worcester the Billingsley rose began to flower again, and the collector finds it on Barr, Flight and Barr ware, on tea-things and dessert-services chiefly, often in floriated panels or "reserves" set in borders of blurred and blackish blue, or nestling inside the -cups. But the rose is not in its full glory; there was a lack of heart in Billingsley's art at this period; the free and impressionist style persisted, but the zest and zeal for perfection had waned. Yet the flowers which fell from his brush so took the eye of the other painters that even at Worcester he founded a school. But he was only a "hand" again, his pay at first "little better than that of the common hands," and the cost of living at Worcester was found to be "so extremely high, that with every frugality," Sarah Billingsley wrote, she could lay by no money to send to her mother. "i wish, my Dear Mother, i had it in my power, tut i hope, when our wages come to be settled and Mr. W. gets work, i shall be able to send you something to come to us." The two girls had found work in the factory, "Mr. W." was Samuel Walker, whom Sarah was to marry; he, too, had followed Billingsley through -all, with devotion that speaks well for both.
Background to these humble affairs,
the most world-shaking events were occurring; but Billingsley sat absorbed in plans for the perfect porcelain, and almost inconsciently painting the rose. The Reign of Terror had raged while he was trying his first recipe for a hard, white, translucent paste, at Derby, and about the time he took ship for Swansea Napoleon had entered Spain. So now, while the Army of Moscow in rags and jags drifts westward, the potter-painter (like Napoleon) plans a new effort, a fresh start. in 1813 the Billingsleys and Samuel Walker took to the road clandestinely again; they had a new reason for secrecy, and they made for lonely Nantgarw.
Nantgarw was then a hamlet of five or six houses, solitary amidst hills. They were coaly hills, and i daresay Billingsley's imagination saw them all consumed in huge kiins, which were to rise for the firing of a world-pervasive perfect porcelain, that should penetrate to Pekin itself; for Nantgarw stood conveniently placed for water-carriage, on a canal that reached to a port, the port of Cardiff, some seven or eight miles away. During his first journey in Wales, Billingsley had noted the fitness of Nantgarw for concealing yet aiding the enterprise of an outlawed potter, and he would approach the place in high hope the second time. For he was now in funds again. Somehow or other, in part, perhaps, by revealing to the Chamberlains of Worcester—rivals of Flight and Barr—suggestions which enabled them later to mix the compost for their beautiful "Regent" china; in part almost certainly by conveying hints to Mr. Rose, of the Coalport China Works; and in part, beyond doubt, by building two kiins "on the new or reverberating principle," Billingsley and Walker had got together capital with which to build kiins of their own. For that purpose they went to Nantgarw.
The cones of the Nantgarw pottery may still be seen from the Taff Valley Railway as you travel from Cardiff northward, and the eyes of the illuminatl rest on them with pity and sympathy, for it was at Nantgarw that Billingsley cast his last throws against Fate and definitely lost the game. He was a persistent idealist, and for persistency and idealism which end in success there is never a lack of applause; but also
tears to human suffering are due. And mortal hopes defeated and o'erthrown.
Billingsley approached Nantgarw the second time -with two hundred and fifty pounds in his fob. Shilling by shilling the precious little capital had been gathered together. Sarah Billingsley— Sarah Walker she was by this—would lament that none of this almost fabulous store of wealth should be spent on bringing the mother to the wedding and the common life of the family again; but that is ever your inventor's way. Mrs, Billingsley might weep like a Hecuba at Derby, but what was Hecuba to blm? Neither Hecuba nor the great doings of Wellington in Spain just then would occupy Billingsley's mind a minute; for him the engrossing thing was at Nantgarw to mix and fire the porcelain of his dreams,
He mixed and fired the nearest thing to his ideal porcelain at last , The paste and glaze of Nantgarw china have been compared with falling snow, a clarified silvery fluid just crystallized. Nantgarw ware was made of fusible glass mixed in with just as much finelypowdered non-fusible white matter as the glass would take up and hold; and no porcelain so thin and shining, so blanched and translucent, has ever been made elsewhere. The wanderer's porcelain inspired his brush again, and the Billingsley roses never flowered more beautifully eglantine than they
did in the Vale of Nantgarw; there is something of April in the ware and all of June in the rose. With what delight, with what pride and zest, the artist in the man would set to work on what the potter in him had produced! Seven "Nantgarw" plates of Billingsley's painting were recently sold for 97/., and one of these poems in porcelain has been bought for as much as twenty-six guineas, But when the ware was new it failed to hold the market. The compost was brittle, and "nine-tenths of the articles were either shivered or injured in shape" by the heat of the kiin. Nantgarw table-ware turned out to be "too bright and good for human nature's daily food," and the purely ornamental pieces cost much to make and were rarely sold. Writing himself "William Beeley," the artist-potter memorialized the Government for patronage, but that was no better a time for national subsidies to the arts than is our own. Within six months the tiny pottery at Nantgarw had used up the tiny capital, and a partner had to be found. The partner brought in 600/.; but after a while "the concern was again in danger of sinking, when an agreement was entered into with the proprietor of the Swansea pottery, and the work was removed there."
The proprietor of the "Cambrian Pottery" at Swansea was Mr. L. W. Dillwyn, "a botanist of some note and an author of some repute in natural history subjects"; one sees him weicome a fellow-idealist in Billingsley. So now for a time the kiins at Nantgarw stand cold, and "can this beautiful white compost be strengthened and hardened?" is the problem at Swansea. But again the experiments failed. Between the trial and re-trial firings Billingsley painted and taught to paint; there is a special impasto in the enamel of the Swansea "Billingsley" rose. But the perfect porcelain was still the chief aim, and "Another try, sir—a little more