‘You’d make a very good forger’, was what an expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London once told Tony Challiner.
An unusual compliment it may have been, but it summed up just how good a china painter this lad from Chell had become.
At the time, Tony had been given special access to a priceless, if somewhat time-worn clock once owned by Marie Antionette in order that he could copy its style and colouring. Not bad for a young man who, by his own admission, would go home ‘almost in tears’ every night when he first began his apprenticeship – convinced he wouldn’t make the grade.
Tony began his seven-year apprenticeship at Royal Doulton’s headquarters in Burslem at the age of 15 in 1957.
He was following a family tradition.
His auntie and uncle had both worked for Royal Doulton and his father, Ben Challiner, had also been a china painter at Nile Street and went on to become chairman of the Royal Doulton Arts Society.
Speaking to me at Burslem School of Art where he had been a student some five decades earlier, Tony recalled the early days of his apprenticeship.
He said: “I suppose I was always destined to become a china painter. I actually didn’t touch a figure for the first six months then when I did I thought I’d never get it right and would often go home really upset.
“As an apprentice I was everyone’s gofer – being sent to fetch turps and the like – but I made use of my time around the factory. I observed things, asked questions and learned about all aspects of pottery manufacture which, ultimately, helped me in my work.”
If you own a Royal Doulton figurine there’s a chance Tony painted it. Look for the initial ‘C’ near the backstamp or ‘TC’ for his work after he finished his apprenticeship.
Tony said: “I became something of a perfectionist. I’m from the ‘wash it off and start again’ school of thinking. If I feel something isn’t right I would rather start over.”
The 70-year-old worked in the pottery industry for 50 years – spending many years with Royal Doulton and Spode and also working for nine years in America for the Franklin Mint Co. before returning to his native North Staffordshire in 1988.
By that time, according to Tony, the landscape had changed.
He said: “I always felt that pottery manufacture and sale went in 15 year cycles. There were good and bad times depending on the state of the economy. In my opinion the best period for the industry was between the mid 1960s and mid 1970s.
“There simply was no recovery in the Eighties. It felt like all downhill from the mid-Seventies onwards.”
Tony explained that in its heyday Royal Doulton would have employed more than 500 painters and paintresses.
He said: “When I joined my ticket number was 4,071 so at that time Doulton’s were employing more than 4,000 people in the Mother Town.
“It’s hard to believe that all those jobs have gone and, of course, it really saddens me when I drive past the site of what was the factory in Nile Street and just see piles of bricks.”
Thankfully, Tony is helping to keep traditional skills alive through his work leading Burslem China Painters.
The group meets regularly at Burslem School of Art where Tony and other former china painters pass on their knowledge and expertise to those interested in an art which, if not dying, is certainly endangered.
Tony, who lives in Bucknall and used to teach pottery skills to students at Stoke-on-Trent College, said: “China painting is a skill that can be taught but obviously some people are more gifted than others because they are born with a degree of artistic ability and flair. We have around 12 members in the group and it’s nice for me to be able to pass on some of the things I’ve learned.
“Many people who worked in the pottery industry were messed about, made redundant and, I have to say, let down by bad management.
I’m one of the lucky ones because the pottery industry gave me a good career.”
The Burslem China Painters are staging an exhibition, entitled ‘Keeping The Skill Alive’ at Burslem School of Art and it runs until next weekend.
Anyone wishing to learn more about the group can contact Tony Challiner on 01782 274215.
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