Decorative vitreous enamels were made at Wolverhampton, Wednesfield, Birmingham and other places but the largest and most famous production was at Bilston. The artists and craftsmen of Bilston not only enamelled the boxes and other trinkets but others in the town also made the boxes and trinkets for enamelling and engraved the plates from which transfers for enamelling were made.

The story of this trade has been exhaustively chronicled in Tom Cope's "Bilston Enamels of the 18th Century", published by the Black Country Society (undated). The information on this page has been mostly taken from that book.

Left: watch face transfer printed in gold on white enamel.  Birmingham. c.1770.
Right: watch face painted in enamel colours on white enamel with ploughing scene. Bilston (1770-1780).

Both photos copyright Wolverhampton City Council 2001.

It is sometimes suggested that the closing of the famous Battersea enamel factory in 1756 lead to the setting up of the Bilston enamel trade; but this cannot be the case as there is clear evidence of the trade's existence in Bilston well before 1750. But, Cope suggests, men and materials, such as the engraved plates for transfers, may have migrated to Bilston after 1756 and improved the standard of work. Probably Dovey Hawksford was the first Bilston enameller, taking up the art to improve the value and attractiveness of the boxes and other toys which he produced on a large scale.

Left:  Oblong box, transfer printed, overpainted in enamel colours, raised gilt scrollwork.  Birmingham, c.1760.
Right: Oblong snuff box, transfer printed and ovrpainted in enamel colours. Birmingham, 1770-75.

Both photos copyright Wolverhampton City Council 2001.

The main period for the production of these enamels was roughly 1760 to 1790. In that period there were many workshops in the Bilston area, mostly small scale, family run affairs - in which, it is worth noting, women seem to have played an important role.

Left: scent bottle painted in enamel colours on white enamel.  Bilston, 1765-70. Note the intricacy of the metalwork.
Right: etui with portrait, in enamel colours, of Miss Day. Note the skill of the painting.

Both photos copyright Wolverhampton City Council 2001.

Cope seems to suggest that one reason for the decline of the industry was the establishment of other industries in the area, especially the expansion of the iron and coal industries. But how such a process might have worked is not clear. A more obvious reason for the decline was the Napoleonic Wars and the economic straightening which they produced. This was accompanied by changes in fashion and the increasing ability of the pottery industry to provide small decorative items at a lower cost. 

Left:  patch box lid transfer printed in black on white, body of box in mauve enamel.  Bilston, c.1780.
Right: patch box with raised royal blue, gilt and white decoration.  Wednesbury, c.1775.

Both photos copyright Wolverhampton City Council 2001.

Cope even suggests that the sheer longevity of enamelled wares and the resulting shortage of repeat orders might have contributed. It is also possible that Bilston would have felt any fall in demand sooner than other places because its products were produced cheaply and sold cheaply, making them available to the masses and therefore no longer fashionable. But industrial enamelling, mainly of iron and steel, was taken up in Bilston as decorative enamelling declined and it remained an important industry in the area well into the 20th century.

Left:  inkpot with cover from a writing set.  Painted enamel colours on white enamel.  Bilston, c.1770.
Right: nutmeg grater, the birds in raised enamel "bianco sopra bianco", with raised white "pearls", typical of Wednesbury designs.  Wednesbury, 1790.

Both photos copyright Wolverhampton City Council 2001.

It is difficult to identify Bilston enamels as neither the boxes nor the enamel work nor the transfer engravings were ever signed. Stylistic identification also seems to have failed. Nor can the enamel itself be identified as the powdered colours were bought it and were not unique to Bilston. The best way to be certain that an enamel is a Bilston one is to have its provenance, such as coming from a member of a family of enamellers.

Oval medallion painted in enamel colours on a white ground. Note the remarkable quality of the painting, in a medium in which you cannot see, when painting, what the final colours will be after firing.  Bilston, 1761-5.  

Photo copyright Wolverhampton City Council 2001.

The illustrations on this page are all by courtesy of the Wolverhampton City Council and are all of items in their possession, many of which are displayed at Bantock House, a visit to which is strongly recommended. We would like to thank Philippa Tinsley, Helen Statham and Susannah Gilbert  for their kind assistance with the illustrations and captions. All the photos are copyright of the Wolverhampton City Council and may not be reproduced without their express permission.

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