The name of Coalport is synonymous with fine china and porcelain, but although much is known about the production of pottery in all its stages, the names of the ceramic artists who were responsible for supplying such high quality decoration and embellishment are difficult to recall in general terms.
Arthur Bowdler was one such artist. He was baptised at Madeley on 17th October 1841, the second of 7 children of Harriett and Richard Bowdler, who was himself a potter at Coalport.
We know little about Arthur’s early years apart from the fact that most of his brothers and only sister were younger than himself.
His name first appeared in documentary form on the Coalport artists payroll of 1859 for the princely sum of 12 shillings. However, it was not the lowest by any means which would indicate that he was not the youngest apprentice. His tutor was William Cook who also featured in the same payroll at a much higher level and the Museum also contains examples of William’s work.
The railway had come to Madeley in 1854 and in 1860 it was extended to Coalport. This would have supplemented the river and canal traffic of goods but Arthur is unlikely to have used it as a passenger. The 1861 census lists him as a china painter so we need to know where he lived at the time and In any case he would probably have walked to the china works. After a tiring day the walk home would have been exhausting because of the steep hills flanking the Ironbridge Gorge,
Records would suggest that Arthur’s wife Catherine was his elder by some 5 or 6 years and they may have married in the early 1860s, we have yet to confirm this.
There are references to 2 daughters, the baptism of Elizabeth Maria in 1864 and Lily in 1865, more of this later.
Llewellyn Jewitt refers to Arthur in his “Ceramic Arts of Great Britain” in a notice of the Paris Exhibition of 1867, as one of the foremost in the art of painting on porcelain, praise indeed.
The 1871 census lists him as a china painter living in Park Street, Madeley, along with his wife Catherine, daughter Elizabeth and a servant, presumably not related to them, We are puzzled by the omission of Lily, noted on her parents tombstone, as she would only be 6 years old at the time, a mystery to solve.
Arthur is mentioned in the contemporary accounts of 1878 and 1897 and in the 1881 census again as a china painter. He is known to have produced material for Coalport exhibits at the Chicago Exhibition of 1891 and much of his work is dated around that time.
The artist and historian John Randall refers to him as a “skilled flower painter”, a field in which he excelled. His versatile medium included vases, bowls, plates, cups and saucers, ewers, boxes and also snowscapes and crests, although it is possible that some of the latter may have been painted anonymously.
Arthur died on 5th January 1907 and his obituary printed in the Wellington Journal dated 12th January 1907 is most informative about the many achievements of this well-known and highly-respected inhabitant of Madeley.
He was a many-sided man, the obituary continues, and could undertake almost any department of ceramic decoration and embellishment. He was especially clever in various heraldic devices and was generally chosen for executing crests, coats of arms and monograms. The American market provided considerable demand for the imitation of gems as decoration on porcelain and in this he was very successful.
He also excelled as a teacher, not only to youthful apprentices at Coalport but also in a private capacity and he was frequently requested to give lessons in the hones of the nobility end county gentry. He was a certificated teacher in drawing in connection with the South Kensington School of Science and Art in addition to teaching in most of the schools in the Borough of Wenlock during the 1860s and 1870s. His later years were directed more towards Madeley where he taught the Technical Education class.
Some of his talent may have been inherited from the maternal side of the family. He was the grandson of Thomas Fennel, Thomas himself being an artist; at the Caughley works at the close of the 18th century when Thomas Minton, the founder of Stoke works, was a printer (or was it painter).
Arthur Bowdler was a man of high character and much courtesy but of a modest and retiring disposition. In addition to many artistic attributes he was closely associated with the Anstice Memorial Hall at Madeley being its Custodian for over 36 years and only resigned that position due to failing health a few months before his eventual death.
The Loyal Royal Oak Lodge of Oddfellows named him as a member for about 43 Years and his funeral was attended by a large contingent of members in mourning regalia as well as the proprietors of the Coalport works and members of the Wesleyan clergy and congregation.
Arthur is buried in Madeley church-yard. History records the deaths of his wife Catherine in 1931 at the grand age of 96 and his daughter Lily in 1955 at the age of 90. There is no evidence that the latter ever married but we are curious to know what happened to Elizabeth Maria. It is likely that she may have married and could well have changed her residence as well as her name.
Samples of Arthur’s exceptional ability survive as exhibits at Coalport China Museum and at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, however, we would like to think that there are more family heirlooms of Arthur’s work in existence other than those housed in museums.
The Coalport village of today is very much as it was in Arthur’s day but Madeley is now part of the larger town of Telford and although Park Street survives in a reduced form, it is completely surrounded by urbanisation. However, he might well approve of Blists Hill Museum which endeavours to preserve the area as it would be in Victorian times.
Taken from an article by Joy and Terry Bowdler