19 August 2013
This is a work by a potter that I've been trying to find. Obviously not ceramics - it's Dora Billington's embroidery "The Park". I've been looking for it as part of the research I'm doing into her life.
When Dora went to the Royal College of Art (RCA) on a scholarship from Stoke-on-Trent council in 1912, she dismissed pottery as "trade", coming from a family that had worked in the pottery industry for generations. Stephen Bird, interviewed in Ceramic Review (September/October 2013), also grew up in The Potteries, and says that pottery was something done in factories; no-one touched clay outside them. And The Potteries has always had fewer studio potters than anywhere else in England. So Dora didn't want to do pottery at first; and when she did do it, she also specialized in embroidery under Grace Christie.
"The Park" was made as a student piece. A review in The Times of the RCA student exhibition of 1914 thought that most of the work in it was lamentable but declared that one of the best pictures was a design for tapestry by “Mr. D. M. Billington” - probably this one. Dora kept it and treasured it and she singled it out in her will, leaving it to her friend and colleague Gilbert-Harding Green, who took over the ceramics department at the Central School of Arts and Crafts when Dora retired. Gilbert Harding-Green - whom everyone called "HG" - died thirty years ago, so I couldn't talk to him. Then I discovered Grace Christie's book Samplers and Stitches, first published in 1920 and a classic of the embroiderers' art, which included this picture of "The Park" as an example of blanket stitch.
So what became of "The Park"? The inheritor of HG's estate has, alas, also died, but I was able to find a friend of his who had inherited some if his things. Did he have "The Park"? He had heard HG talk about Dora Billington, and he recognized this photograph, but he had no idea what had become of the tapestry.
That's what so often happens to the literary detective: he follows a chain of connections to find nothing at the end. HG knew the story of "The Park" and kept it, but it meant nothing to his heir and he got rid of it. It's unlikely that he would have thrown away such an intricate and pretty little piece of textile art, especially as he was a designer himself, so it must have been sold or given away. The literary detective suspects that it's still somewhere - either framed and on someone's wall or folded away in tissue in a trunk in the attic - but is tantalized by the thought that he may never find it.