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Lilla: The Forgotten Female Designers of the Minton Tile Factory

Harking back to the old buyer’s adage of ‘buy what you like’ , last year I came across a quaint Victorian charcoal drawing of a girl and a boy playing with a dog. I could see that it was signed only ‘Lilla 1853’— either the artist or the subject—and so not knowing anything about the artist I did just that; I bought it, because I liked it. Hereafter, due to a lack of a title, I decided that this particular drawing should be called ‘Lilla’, and that this should be the name of the girl in the drawing. At least with a name, this eradicated some of the anonymity of the piece, imparting to it if you like a more human quality.

The piece was in good condition, although the frame needed replacing which I wasn’t too bothered about (after all, I like to frame my pieces according to my own tastes and conservation-related specifications). Putting the piece aside for the time being, I perhaps even forgot about it, that is; until a curious incident at a car-boot sale alerted me to the possibility that I’d picked up something not insignificant.

Although not normally an item of usual interest, I found some decorative tiles at a car boot sale which I subsequently bought. The tiles seemed quite odd to me, as they weren’t decorated with simple patterns, but adorned with detailed landscapes. If we imagine decorating our homes with such tiles, it would look a bit mismatched to use an array of landscapes scenes as opposed to conventional continuous patterns. Thus, to me,  being unusual is normally a sufficient quality to warrant a transaction, as many readers will sympathise with. It was while researching these tiles on the internet that I found a curious image of a tile, which looked strikingly familiar. Perhaps tantalisingly enough, I had begun to forget about Lilla, but there she was again! I subsequently purchased the tile, which happened to have been made by the famous Minton Tile Factory of Stoke-On-Trent in the United Kingdom c. 1880.

Fortuitously finding a connection between charcoal drawing and Minton tile fuelled the hunt to ascertain the artist. For many collectors or enthusiasts of art, a seemingly generic style coupled with a lack of any meaningful script or signature can often lead to the melancholy notion that finding the original artist is a doomed effort. We all buy art that we like, and so one would think not knowing the original architect behind a piece isn’t that much of a deal; enjoying the piece should be enough. It’s perhaps curious that this doesn’t often turn out to be the case. In many cases, knowing the artist provides closure. Such a word implies quite a personal connection to a painting or drawing, however that relationship should arise.

My first point of contact, armed with this new information, was the antique decorative tile expert Hans van Lemmen – author of many publications on tiles including ‘5000 years of  tiles’. He admitted that, despite being aware of the specific tile design, that a Lilla of any sort did not register in his mind as a known artist for Minton. He did however provide some other information on the design, including the existence of an exact duplicate of the one I purchased but in blue and white instead. After some jolly correspondence, I then turned to contact the Ceramics and Glass collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

This second correspondence threw up some important information, namely that the tile was featured in the Dictionary of Minton (p. 317) written by Batterbury and Batkin in 1990. In this text (I don’t have it to hand myself) I was told that the piece was entitled ‘Girl with Dog’ and was described as being drawn and etched by William Wise (1847 – 1889). Whilst I appreciated this information greatly, my particular drawing was dated to 1853, which by my reasoning would have made Wise six years old when he drew it. An unlikely, yet exciting prospect.

The next logical step was to contact the paintings collection of the same museum, who had some works by Wise in their collection. Wise had been a well-researched artist in the museum as he had designed and painted many of the tiles used in the museum itself, especially the ones used on the main staircase leading to the museum’s lecture theatre during its decoration in 1852. One such article written about Wise was by V&A researcher Moira Thunder which appeared in the Journal of The Antique Collector’s Club (September 1984,Vol. 19, no. 4). Wise joined the Minton team as a freelance designer around 1877, and in the main created etchings from other people’s work. On page 65 of this article, Thunder states:

Amongst Wise’s sketches there are some which are after other artists. Wise did a watercolour sketch after Walter Crane’s title panel…the copying of work by other artists seems to have varied Wise’s style.

The birth discrepancy was clarified by this research: Wise was often an engraver of the work of others, without being the principle designer. It is therefore likely (but still not certain!) that the drawing was created by someone else, of which Wise made an engraving many years later in 1880. Who then, was the original artist?

An interesting article  from the University of Glasgow’s School of Culture and Creative Art’s website describes the creative work of a female Minton tile designer, Beatrice Whistler (1857 – 1896), wife of the artist James McNeill Whistler. Whilst again, she was born after the creation of Lilla, the article goes on to state that she often designed under the pseudonym of Beatrix. It has been suggested elsewhere that female designers often labelled their work with pseudonyms to prevent denigration of their work  owing to their gender (this being despite Beatrice Whistler’s work being confused for James McNeill Whistler’s work, and hence of a comparable standard!) Could it then be that Lilla—a lone name like Beatrix— is the nom-de-plume of a female artist long forgotten?

The cynical among you will ask why I didn’t just ask Minton themselves as to the identity of Lilla. Unfortunately the case has become complicated ever since Minton were taken over by Royal Doulton, which were both merged with Wedgwood following a takeover in 2005. Since then, a bitter court dispute has erupted over the ownership of the Minton collection, and hence it is currently inaccessible. With designers such as Beatrix, and even purpordedly Prince Albert, counted as part of Minton’s number, I think I’ll keep Lilla hidden away until the legal work clears the path for more research.

—Le Nouvel Artiste

Special thanks go to Hans van Lemmen as well as Nate Evuarherhe Jr, Assistant Librarian of the Word and Image Department of the V&A museum, for providing a copy of Moira Thunder’s original article. Rebecca Wallis, curator of the Ceramic and Glass section of the V&A is also thanked for her correspondence. 

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