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Behind the scenes at Royal Crown Derby

PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 June 2017

Artist Jackie Morrison at work on the limited edition Cheetah Big Cat

Artist Jackie Morrison at work on the limited edition Cheetah Big Cat

geoff ford

Derbyshire Life takes a visitor tour of the prestigious bone china manufacturers in Derby

Kevin Oakes is quite clear about what attracted him to invest in Royal Crown Derby. ‘For me it was always the exceptional nature of the artistry. Royal Crown Derby was always just that little bit exquisite, the quality of the artwork was always spectacularly good.’

After a lifetime in the ceramics industry, which saw Kevin rise through the Royal Doulton ranks to become Chief Executive at Steelite International and Chairman of the British Pottery Manufacturers Federation, he first embraced his passion for Royal Crown Derby by bringing it into the Steelite family in 2012. Four years later Kevin went a step further by leaving Steelite to become the sole owner of Royal Crown Derby with a view to restoring the company to its rightful place as a world-leading brand.

The quality of the product is paramount and this comes from having an exceptionally skilled workforce – around 200 people work at the Osmaston Road site – which is something Kevin recognises as the key to future success. ‘It’s an amazing skill base,’ he says, ‘and that’s why I really wanted to acquire the business in the first place and to ensure that those skills stay here in Derby.’

The quality and craftsmanship is there for all to see, as I discovered when I joined senior retail advisor and tour guide, Jane Benson on one of the Royal Crown Derby factory tours to see, first hand, just what skill is required to create ‘Derby’s finest’.

A swallow paperweight and the lithographs required to build the intricate pattern A swallow paperweight and the lithographs required to build the intricate pattern

Everything is manufactured in house, from the liquid slip required for the paperweight and giftware moulds to the design, artwork and lithograph decoration print synonymous with the Royal Crown Derby brand. Throughout the production process every item is subject to an eight point quality check before it can be sold as best quality.

The clay is the traditional 25% clay, 25% stone and 50% bone ash, with the bone ash adding the strength and durability essential for longevity of the product, something which is important, particularly when selling into the hospitality market. Liquid slip is poured into the reusable moulds for paperweights and some giftware while plates, ‘flatware’, are hand crafted on a 100-year-old but precise compact clay machine. All the items are very delicate at this stage and pieces damaged before the first firing process can be recycled and turned back into slip.

First firing takes place in one of two gas-fired kilns, each accommodating three one-ton trolleys. A skilled operator knows where the hot and cold spots in the kilns are and arranges the items on the trolley for maximum effect. Teapots, and other items with lids, have the lid in place to ensure a good fit. Along the route of the tour there are various items illustrating the different processes, but none are more striking than the before and after examples from that first visit to the kiln. Every item loses 13% of its size during the first firing, something that has to be taken into account when a product is designed.

Damaged items can still be recycled but, once fired, they are put into a skip to be used as hardcore, which is very good for drainage.

Gilder Emma Lawson applies the gold leaf paint to a tea pot handle Gilder Emma Lawson applies the gold leaf paint to a tea pot handle

Every piece of Royal Crown Derby passes through the ‘rumbler’ machine. This polishes and prepares each piece before glazing. It looks a violent process, like a giant gemstone polishing machine, but, Jane assures me, no item, no matter how delicate, is ever damaged as it passes through.

The glazing process takes place in a controlled atmosphere, with visitors looking on through a large viewing window. A coloured vegetable dye is added to the glaze to enable the operator to spot any areas missed in the spraying process before the items are again fired. The coloured dye burns off and the pieces then move to the ‘white warehouse’ where they will be stored before being decorated.

The lithographic designs are traditionally silkscreen printed with more ornate patterns being built up in layers. Firstly an in-glaze lithograph is applied, sinking into the glaze and feeling smooth to the touch. Subsequent lithographs will be on-glaze and add texture to the design. Royal Crown Derby works with 22 carat gold which is mixed with an oil-based medium for ease of working, and appears dark brown on the unfired lithograph, turning to a fudge colour after firing as the oil medium lifts to the surface.

In Royal Crown Derby’s team of 20 lithographers, each has their own identifying mark, which goes on the base of the piece. Highly skilled, it takes around five years to become fully trained. To the layman (at least if they are my age!), it can be likened to applying transfers to the more intricate Airfix models. Clearly some pieces are more complicated to work on than others, so each worker will have a variety of different pieces on the go.

Jasvinder Johal demonstrates how the gold leaf is burnished Jasvinder Johal demonstrates how the gold leaf is burnished

The earlier firing processes take several hours to complete but at this stage the items pass through the kiln on a conveyor belt in around an hour. Extra gilding is then applied by hand, another highly skilled process that requires a very steady hand.

Another firing follows and then the pieces pass along to the burnishing department for a final polish. Silver sand-impregnated pads and cotton buds dipped in silver sand remove the fudge-coloured medium to reveal the distinctive gold lining that is so much a part of Royal Crown Derby’s rich heritage. Finally the pieces are packed for distribution to outlets across the world. Best quality paperweights are fitted with gold stoppers while seconds have a silver stopper. Second quality items will also have part of the crown back stamp scratched away.

There is still one skill we have yet to see. In a quiet corner Jackie Morrison is working on the African Cheetah limited edition of 100 only, the first of the newly-launched prestigious Big Cat Collection. Royal Crown Derby intends to issue one item in this collection per year for the next three years, each will be part of a limited edition of 100 pieces.

Each piece is hand-painted by Jackie, who uses a prototype design as a guide. ‘I’ve tweaked it a bit because I found the spots that I put on the first I painted were a bit too harsh, so I’ve softened them a little,’ she said. She will paint the complete edition, each one taking around 20 hours to complete and requiring three firings, one for each stage of the painting process.

A British Bulldog paperweight emerges from its mould A British Bulldog paperweight emerges from its mould

Fascinating as it is, the factory tour is only part of the visitor experience at Royal Crown Derby. You then have a chance to look around the museum and the exhibition centre – on the occasion of my visit the current exhibition was High Society.

The exhibition covers Royal Crown Derby’s relationship with London, the retailers of the 17th and 18th centuries and its showroom in Chelsea. It also tells how strong and durable the product is, being transported to London by horse and carriage on poor quality roads, and arriving in London in impeccable condition. The story of High Society leads right up to the modern day and providing products for Harrods, Thomas Goode & Co and Fortnum & Mason. Thomas Goode has been around as long as Royal Crown Derby, so it’s a nice association.

In the museum, there is one of the largest collections of Derby porcelain in the world dating from the 17th century to modern day, including some very ornate sculptural pieces and a lot of tableware that high society would use, heavily gilded with raised paste and gold to show their wealth. A sample of every piece produced is archived together with a number one limited edition, with the exception of the African Cheetah launched in 2016 when the number one edition was given to the Born Free Foundation charity to auction.

Royal Crown Derby’s archive dates from the company’s earliest days and is a great resource when creating designs with a historic context. Afternoon Tea is a tradition at Bettys Tea Rooms in Yorkshire and when Royal Crown Derby was approached to create a unique pattern for Betty’s new Lady Betty Afternoon Tea, Royal Crown Derby looked at the archives from 1919, the time when Bettys began trading.

Bulldog Mood, the finished paperweight (photo: Royal Crown Derby) Bulldog Mood, the finished paperweight (photo: Royal Crown Derby)

Apparently, in food service it is all about food presentation, so Bettys needed the design to be a simplistic pattern to complement the exquisite afternoon tea. The pattern designed was well received and recently celebrated its first anniversary.

As with other areas of the business, the design team works across the whole portfolio of company products from luxury tableware to giftware including sculptural items, working alongside global retailers, interior designers, and Royal households looking for something unique. Accommodating all customers, the designers may work on private commissions, bespoke patterns for private clients, and high-end 5-star hotels, working on new designs where less traditional and more contemporary patterns are designed in line with current trends so that a range of products is offered to all demographics.

It was explained that for high usage hospitality the strength and durability of the product has to come across with a very clean pattern to present the food well. Within some hotels you may have several restaurants each using a different pattern, together with a bar or more than one bar, room service and perhaps a café offering afternoon tea. There are many different elements and requirements within a hotel providing plenty of commercial opportunities for Royal Crown Derby.

In recent years Royal Crown Derby has been best known for its collectable paperweights which will continue, but the emphasis for the business is shifting in line with trends towards casualization tableware with this area being developed to service the demand.

One pattern that has enjoyed a renaissance is that originally produced for the ocean liner RMS Titanic. Royal Crown Derby ran a popular exhibition around its 100th anniversary and the original pattern book remains on display in the museum. Also on display is a letter from the ship builders requesting the design of a tableware pattern for the à la carte menu for their first class passengers. The pattern was relaunched into the current range to celebrate the 100th anniversary and is still popular today.

It was highlighted that salvaging continues from the Titanic and a museum in Cherbourg has two pieces of tableware on display, a salad bowl and a plate. The museum contacted Royal Crown Derby to see if they could identify the pieces and the museum curator was able to confirm that they were Royal Crown Derby items, not because of the pattern, which was faded, but because of the gold which was still in good condition.

Royal Crown Derby is famed for the quality, strength and durability of its product and that has a great deal to do with the skill of the workforce here in Derby. The British Bulldog paperweight has become a symbol of Kevin Oakes’s desire to make Royal Crown Derby a world leading brand once more. In his time Kevin has seen much of the industry move overseas and he is determined that with the wealth of skill and expertise in Derby it should remain here. ‘You feel the weight of responsibility,’ he stresses. ‘The history, the heritage weighs heavily because I want to make sure it continues. Somebody’s got to fight for it and that is exactly what I intend to do.’

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