Nantgarw China Works is the only surviving 19th century porcelain works in Great Britain. Between the years 1813-14 and again in 1817-20, the finest porcelain of its day was produced by William Billingsley (1758-1828), one of the most remarkable porcelain painters and manufacturers of his time.
The pottery was established at Nantgarw in the year 1813. It was located on the outskirts of the village alongside the Glamorgan canal. This secluded spot had its advantages - coal was plentiful and living expenses were cheap. There was a mill nearby for grinding purposes. The canal provided convenient transport to Cardiff and its thriving shipping port.
With financial aid from William Weston Young, a local business man, William Billingsley and his son in law, Samuel Walker, produced what was to become world renowned porcelain which was desired for its translucency and fine glaze. In October 1814 the pottery closed through a lack of finances. Billingsley, with his family, moved to Swansea where, with the help of Lewis Weston Dillwyn at the Cambrian factory, he continued his experiments in the production of soft paste porcelain.
William Billingsley and Lewis Weston Dillwyn soon found that they disagreed on the recipe for the porcelain body. Dillwyn took a financial point of view and was not happy with the high failure rate in the kiln, whilst Billingsley, as always, was still looking for perfection.
It was in December 1816 that William Billingsley returned to Nantgarw and was followed in September 1817 by his daughter Lavinia and Samuel Walker.
It is in this period that the majority of Nantgarw porcelain was produced. Such was the quality of the porcelain the London decorating shops, where the majority was decorated, clamoured to purchase all they could of Billingsley’s Nantgarw porcelain. Unfortunately the wastage that was experienced at Swansea still persisted and in April of 1820 Billingsley and Walker, without funds to sustain themselves and the business, left Nantgarw and the production of porcelain ended.
The pottery then fell into the hands of William Weston Young who, along with others, had invested a large amount of money in the venture. Weston Young turned to Thomas Pardoe of Bristol, a decorator he had met earlier at the Swansea Pottery, to finish the undecorated porcelain left behind by Billingsley.
Some of the finest examples of Nantgarw porcelain were decorated by Thomas Pardoe and he continued to decorate up until the closing of the factory. The sale was held on the 28th day of October 1822.
Much less decorating was done by William Billingsley so those he did are very sought after. His main concern was in perfecting the development and production of the porcelain body
In his book Old Derby Porcelain (1925), Frank Hurlbutt wrote,
” Billingsley ’s artistic skill and taste, his white-hot enthusiasm for his creative trade, his love of beauty, of perfection itself, his power of absorption of all that was most perfect and beautiful around him, set him on a plane apart, with such names as Palissy, Dwight and Böttger. In an artistic sense he reached a perfection which has never been surpassed, perhaps can never be surpassed.”