At Nantgarw, some ten miles from Cardiff, a small porcelain factory was established, about the year 1811, by William
Belly (Billingsley) and his son-in-law, Samuel Walker.
Mr. Dillwyn - of whose work at the Swansea pottery an account was given in Part 18 of Every Woman's Encyclopaedia, page 2148- visited these works in 1814, and found that porcelain of very fine quality was being made. He says : My friend, Sir Joseph Banks, informs me that two persons, named Walker and Beely, had sent to Government, from a small factory at Nantgarw, a specimen of beautiful china, with a petition for their patronage, and that, as one of the Board of
Trade, he requested me to examine and report upon that manufactory. Upon witnessing the firing of a kiln at Nantgarw, I found much reason for considering that the body used was too nearly allied to glass to bear the necessary heat, and observed that nine-tenths of the articles were shivered, or more or less injured in shape, by the firing.
"The parties, however, succeeded in making me believe that the defects in their porcelain arose entirely from imperfections in their tria1 kiln, and I agreed with them for a removal to the Cambrian pottery, at which two new kilns, under their direction, were prepared. While endeavouring to strengthen and improve this beautiful body, I was surprised at receiving a notice from Messrs. Flight and Barr, of Worcester, charging the parties calling themselves Walker and Beely with having clandestinely left an engagement at their works, and forbidding me to employ them."
This man Beely was indeed William Billingsley, that wandering artist who has been truly called the Palissy of English potters. He had begun his career (as described in Part 14 of Every Woman's Encyclopedia, page 1664) as an apprentice under Duesbury, at Derby, where he first made his mark as a painter of flowers.
In 1793. we are told, he was landlord of the "Nottingham Arms" at Derby, and here it is quite possible he may have saved a little money for we next hear of him at Pinxton, in 1796, where, with the assistance of Mr. John Coke, he invented a beautiful porcelain body. For some years his career is more or less obscure. He is known to have painted china at Mansfield, and to have manufactured and painted porcelain at Torksey, in Lincolnshire. In 1808 he settled at Worcester, under the name Beely. It is believed he was in hiding from his creditors, living under the guise of Beely to avoid a debtors' prison, which would have been his fate had his identity been discovered.
From the Cardiff Museum
Later on he settled, as we have seen, at Nantgarw, and afterwards at Swansea, returning three years later to Nantgarw, at which place he remained till 1819, when, at the invitation of Mr. Rose, he migrated to Coalport. Here he worked for some years, and died in 1828.
Nantgarw porcelain is very glassy and translucent. Indeed, so fine is the texture that Billingsley experienced almost insurmountable difficulties in firing it. The decoration generally takes the form of flowers- roses, auriculas and tulips being the most popular. These were painted by clever artists, William Billingsley himself being the chief. A large proportion of the Nantgarw porcelain to be bought to-day is more or less spurious. Some is true Nant-garw, with the mark of the factory, but has been painted anywhere and by anybody. Other pieces were made and painted at Coalport, after Billingsley had settled there. Some is real Nantgarw porcelain, sold undecorated, which, after being used for years till scratched and soiled, has been cleaned and painted, and is now offered and bought by the unwary as -genuine. Sometimes very high prices are given for such pieces.
From Mr. Alex. Puncan's collection
The only safe guide for the collector is a knowledge of the styles of the painters employed here. Very ornate and richly gilt pieces should be rejected, for William Billingsley used gold sparingly, perhaps of necessity ; though there is a tradition at Nantgarw that, gold being scarce, he melted down guineas to gild with.
It is strange that we have very few authentic specimens of Billingsley's painting; it would seem that he rarely signed his work, and yet we are frequently invited to purchase Nantgarw and Swansea porcelain painted with " the Billingsley rose," a rose painted in a style which proclaims another or other artists, and which is quite unrecognisable as his work by students of this man's mannerisms.
Saucer of Nantgarw china, signed by Thos. Pardoe, painter of the design thereon.