Browsing through the gift shop in the Queensland Art Gallery, I discovered a large booklet, “18th Century English Floral Patterns,” by William Kilburn. Its contents included twelve elegant pieces of gift wrapping paper. ‘Wouldn’t my friends and family members enjoy receiving a present wrapped in one of these beautiful papers?’ So into my carry bag it went, then off to the counter to be purchased.
William Kilburn (1745 – 1818) was born in Capel-Street, Dublin to the Irish architect Samuel Kilburn, and his wife, Sarah Johnston. As young William grew and developed, his emerging artistic talents led him into water colour painting and botanical drawing. While he was apprenticed to a fabric printer he also mastered sketching and engraving.
After his father’s death, William Kilburn decided to seek his fortune in England. He moved to Bermondsey, a district in south London, where he found living quarters near the Curtis nursery. Here he met William Curtis, an English botanist who was currently engaged in the publication of his Flora Londinensis. This six volume botanical work was devoted to illustrations and descriptions of plants growing wild in the environs of London. On discovering Kilburn’s amazing talents, Curtis immediately hired him to produce hand-coloured copperplate prints for the collection.
Before Kilburn entered into this engagement, he briefly returned to Ireland to bring his mother and sister back with him where they all settled into a comfortable home in Bermondsey. As its garden and green-house were situated near the Curtis nursery, he occupied himself as a botanical illustrator, by drawing and engraving plants for the Curtis Londinensis series.
Through the exacting discipline of botanical art, Kilburn refined his ability to reproduce plants in authentic detail. Yet the rigidity of the botanic art form also fuelled his desire to adopt a more creative, free-flowing expression – one that would ultimately carry him back to water colour painting and a career in design for printed fabrics. In this new endeavour he would fine fame and financial success, by owning and managing his own calico and muslin printing factory in Wallington, Surrey.
Calico, the name given to any cotton cloth from the East, was first imported from Calicut, India. Kilburn’s factory in Surrey also produced muslin chintz—fine cotton and linen printed calicoes—of exceptionally fine quality. As many of his patterns played out against luxuriant dark-coloured grounds, the public found these new fabrics stunning and exciting.
Since many of Kilburn’s designs did not provide for small repeating patterns, these were reproduced with large woodblocks using a technique of calico printing that had originated in India. Kilburn’s hand-painted sketch would have been translated onto a woodblock by another craftsman. Outlines for each separate colour were made by eye on the blocks, resulting in the need for several blocks to complete the pattern that was repeated across the surface of the cotton. Fortunately in the late eighteenth-century, dyes had also become available to the designer in a broad range of new colours.
Flowers and arabesques had first been arranged by Kilburn on a white or pastel ground. Later he replaced ribbons with garlands tied into knots and bows. Finally his delicate seaweed and coral motifs, interwoven with leaves and flowers, suggested the identification of decoration with the creative life force itself. These later and richly patterned fabrics were expensive to purchase, costing a guinea per yard. One of his most beautiful floral/seaweed chintzes was presented to Queen Charlotte, wife of England’s King George III. Her gown was probably made when the textile was new and most fashionable, about 1790.
In 1786, Kilburn discovered that Ralph Yates, a London warehouse man, was regularly stealing and selling his designs to Peel & Co of Lancashire. This fabric printing company was copying Kilburn’s original designs and reproducing them on a cheaper fabric, as were factories in Manchester, Aberdeen and Carlisle. A trusted friend, Edmond Burke, presented a bill into Parliament, “To secure the calico printers, the copyright in original design.” This design copyright protection bill was passed in May, 1787, securing the legal right of ownership to Kilburn for his creative work.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London holds a collection of 223 original water colour designs on paper in the Kilburn Album. Many are representations of native British plants, and demonstrate his skill both as a botanical illustrator and a creative designer. This collection is available for public viewing on request. A digital archive of Kilburn’s patterns is also accessible from the online V & A archives.
Even today Kilburn is not forgotten, as the stunning beauty of his work is available for purchase from Maxwell & Williams designer home wares. The William Kilburn Collection of fine bone china tea pots, mugs, cups, saucers and plates are inexpensive and dishwasher safe. I own a little tea set featuring my favourite Kilburn pattern—Midnight Blossom—that is always a delight to use for special occasions. Thankfully, this is another means whereby Kilburn’s nature inspired work will live on, for many to enjoy.
Read Full Post »