Burleigh is a handmade pottery company established in 1851, located in Burslem, Stroke-on-Trent, England. This year marks its 170th anniversary. They are unique because they are the only pottery factory in the world that continues to use tissue transfer printing to decorate their wares. This sets Burleigh apart from all other pottery factories. In the process, ink is first applied to copper-engraved rollers, and then it is printed onto French cigarette paper. Following, the paper is applied by hand to the “biscuit” ceramic ware. This skill takes seven years to learn, and some apprentices will undertake a rare career at Burleigh.
The result is beautiful, and the process itself is quite beautiful in itself. Their most popular pattern Asiatic Pheasants is an old pattern that presages Burleigh as a company. The design is known for its Englishness, and yet its inspiration derived from the Far East. Burleigh is made of Earthenware from the finest white clays from Devon and Cornwall. It is known for its sturdiness and durability and it can be formed into intricate and delicate shapes. It is no surprise that Burleigh has attracted an international clientele as well as collaborations with Ralph Lauren, Soho House, and Highgrove.
Burleigh’s can boast an archive of fifty-thousand plus documents of pattern books, catalogs, and receipts for almost everything ever purchased, including what some clients and highly regarded staff received for Christmas, such as a goose or silk stockings. The archive was stored in no particular order and it took several rooms to store its contents, and it is currently being archived by Re-Form Heritage.
I met up with Jemma Baskeyfield Burleigh’s company historian over a Zoom chat to get a glimpse into the world of Burleigh.
How did your customers continue to shop over the past year?
Well, in the past year the way people shop has changed. We used to have Japanese customers travel to the Burleigh shop for a two-day visit and then fly home. They came all that way just to visit our shop in Staffordshire. Now, that is not so easy, so we have started to explore virtual shopping, where shoppers use the services of a translator alongside our expert advice so they can actually navigate their way around the store from the other side of the globe. The company has a website and we also sell over the phone or by email. Some customers just really like to talk to someone, and we offer the same traditionally polite and extremely efficient level of service no matter where the customer may be.
What is the advantage of traditional underglaze tissue printing?
Underglaze tissue transfer printing is way ahead of its time. It was a technique perfected in the mid-1700s. It is dishwasher and microwave safe: transfer printed ware has the pattern under the glaze, so the pattern will never fade. The other advantage is the unique quality: every item is different. The patterns are printed in house each day from engravings, and this is then applied to the unglazed pottery by skilled transferors who take a seven year journey to perfect the technique. All of this hands-on work means no two items are the same, and there is no such thing as a perfect piece of Burleigh. This is a human process and you come to Burleigh if you appreciate the way things are made.
Do you have advice for someone who would like to apprentice at Burleigh?
Expect hard work! It’s so nice that in the last ten years we have taken on apprentices in some key areas of the factory. We have a duty to everyone who has gone before us at Burleigh to ensure we have a future. We are just custodians, and so we constantly need to look to the future.
How should we care for and store our pottery?
Don't keep pottery in a damp environment is my biggest bit of advice. The rough bit under a mug or cup, etcetera, is a place where moisture can get in. So never leave the pottery sitting in water, and if you put items away, store them with something like a silica gel pouch to keep them dry. Damp ware will craze over time, and crazed ware is not hygienic to eat or drink from. No one in the industry would drink from a chipped or crazed mug. Germs and bugs can get into the pottery this way, so it’s fine to keep chipped ware to look at but please don’t drink out of it.
Could you please suggest some books to read on ceramics?
It’s not a book on ceramics as such but if you want to really know what the Staffordshire potteries are all about it’s a novel by Arnold Bennett. He was born a short distance from where I was born, and he visited this factory a number of times. He sets many of his books in the local area and in his book Anna of the Five Town you really get an insight into the stuff we are made of here. Clay runs through our veins. Also, the book Burleigh, The Story of a Pottery by Julie McKeown is a great read for anyone who is interested in our past production. We sell the book in the shop, and it really takes you on the Burleigh journey from 1851 up to when it was written in 1999.
The decorative arts are the perfect marriage of utility and art. If you’re interested in where to start collecting, Jemma suggests beginning with serving bowls and platters, and maybe a reclining cow creamer to add pizzaz to serve your milk. For Burleigh’s 170th anniversary, they have introduced a limited edition mug in regal peacock pattern, and in late July, they will launch a limited edition copper pen inspired by the copper-engraved rollers.
When developing a collection, it is important to consider quality over quantity. It is reassuring that Burleigh has preserved time-honored ways of doing things. My chat with Jemma has inspired me to visit Burleigh in person when I’m in England next.