History Centre Heroes: William Cookworthy

We’re continuing our small series of porcelain-related articles by highlighting William Cookworthy in this ‘History Centre Heroes’ post.

He was born in Kingsbridge, Devon in 1705 and was a chemist by trade. He trained in London before setting up a Pharmacy in Notte Street, Plymouth.

As a Quaker he would always welcome guests into his house and some of his most famous visitors included Captain Cook and John Smeaton.

William Cookworthy, 1780 by Jon Opie © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)
William Cookworthy, 1780 by Jon Opie © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

Cookworthy was a man of many interests and was involved in a range of business ventures – one of which was the search for China Clay.

It was a quest that would see him discover it in 1748,  explore and eventually master the difficult process of using it to manufacture hard-paste porcelain, apply for and receive a patent to produce it in 1768 and establish the first factory in England to make it. The factory ran from 1768-1770 in the Coxside area of Sutton Harbour, Plymouth.

A memorial to Cookworthy at Tregonning Hill, Cornwall where he first discovered China Clay
A memorial to Cookworthy at Tregonning Hill, Cornwall – the place where he first discovered China Clay in 1748

Our Plymouth Porcelain collection is the largest public collection of its kind from this factory.

In total, we hold 483 pieces. 352 of these are domestic wares that range from cups, bowls, jugs and dishes to inkwells, vases and tea, coffee and chocolate pots.

The collection also includes 131 pieces of decorative ware – mainly ornaments in the form of animals and figurines.

The Four Continents - ornamental figures produced by the Plymouth Porcelain factory
The Four Continents – ornamental figures produced by the Plymouth Porcelain factory

Due to its significance, our curatorial team have researched and documented the collection over the years and have created a number of useful online resources.

  • Find out more about William Cookworthy and his search for China Clay here.
  • Find out about some of the key pieces in our Plymouth Porcelain collection here.
  • Read our recent post about the decant of our Clare Twomey commission which was inspired by the Plymouth Porcelain collection here.

Highlights from our Plymouth Porcelain collection can be seen on display in the ‘A Passion for Porcelain’ exhibition at Wheal Martyn China Clay Heritage Centre, near St Austell from 21 October until June 2017. Find out more about Wheal Martyn here.

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