Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that on May 19, Queen Elizabeth’s grandson Prince Harry will marry actress and humanitarian Meghan Markle. The wedding marks the first time in eighty years an American has married into the British royal family, a ceremony to be attended by 1,200 guests and likely watched by more than a billion people around the world. Because Bas Bleu is proudly American—but royally charmed—we decided to commemorate the occasion by offering the Royal Wedding Mug in our Spring 2018 edition. Customer response was immediate and enthusiastic, creating such a surprise bestseller among our Anglophile readers that we decided to take you behind the scenes of the oh-so-English method for making these wonderful royal souvenirs.
The Artist Behind the Mug
Alison Gardiner Designs is a small family-owned company in southern England, its offerings created to showcase the vivid and whimsical creations of its namesake illustrator. The artist began her career illustrating stationery, children’s books, and textiles, until a collaboration with the National Trust in 2000 propelled her into the world of ceramics. She has designed a variety of products for the Royal Collection, the division of the Royal Household that opens Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle to the public and operates the sites’ retail stores.
In 2011, Alison created a commemorative royal wedding mug for Prince William and his bride, Kate Middleton, and she later created a range of fine bone china to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Along the way she’s learned a lot about the uniforms, carriages, and other regalia of the royal family, small details she incorporates into her designs in delightful ways. That knowledge served her well when Prince Harry’s royal engagement was announced in November: from inspiration to final artwork took Alison just three weeks!
“At the time of designing the Royal Wedding Mug there were no details from the Palace about the wedding apart from it would be conducted at Windsor Castle in St. George’s Chapel. I therefore had to use a bit of guesswork as to the carriage Harry and Meghan would be travelling in so I opted for a Landau open carriage. The horses are the famous Windsor Greys, so called since they were kept at Windsor in Victorian times where they drew private carriages of the royal family. The riders are wearing Ascot livery with a coachman walking alongside in scarlet uniform, again not sure on the day what they will wear but will be similar. There will be lots of flag waving so plenty of Union Jacks and Stars and Stripes to celebrate the occasion!”
The Makers Behind the Mark
Like all of the Alison Gardiner Designs pottery (including our popular Suffragette Mug), the Royal Wedding Mug is made of fine bone china: translucent and pure white in color, it’s stronger and more chip-resistant than earthenware china, yet capable of creating a wide variety of delicate shapes. Developed by Joseph Spode in the 1790s and used to create his namesake tableware—as well as top dinner services crafted by Wedgewood and Royal Doulton—fine bone china was, until quite recently, produced almost exclusively in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Though cheaper options are available overseas, Alison Gardiner Designs opted to prioritize quality over price, selecting Duchess China in that storied English city to create her tableware. The small pottery has been crafting fine bone china tableware on the same site in England since 1888, operating out of a Victorian pottery using traditional techniques which would be recognized by potters from more a century ago. Appropriately, Duchess China’s customers range from famous retailers to royalty!
From an artist’s perspective, being able to work so closely with the craftspeople is priceless. “The pottery is about three and a half hours in the car from my studio, so it’s quite easy to visit and work closely with a wide variety of highly skilled individuals,” Alison says. “There is nothing like sitting down in the same room when trying to take my ideas and turn it into a piece of china. There is also inspiration all over the city; from the ceramic museums, old moulds which potteries always seem to have hidden away which could be re-used to create a new product. As the products are handmade, prototyping is much easier. It is not uncommon for me to have a proof prepared while I visit for approval. This is just not possible when working with a pottery on the other side of the world where the culture is so different.”
From Template to Tea Table
So how exactly is Alison’s artistic vision translated from her studio to your china cabinet? After the initial design and modeling of the mug’s shape, and the design fitting and reproduction of the lithographs of Alison’s original artwork (to be applied to the mugs), the Royal Wedding Mug goes through more than fifteen different manufacturing processes and four ceramic firings before it’s ready to ship from England to Bas Bleu’s warehouse in Ohio. Scroll through the slideshow below to follow the mugs through their creation process:
Inside the Duchess pottery, the manufacturing process has its roots firmly planted in tradition, operating with a highly skilled workforce that has more than three hundred years’ cumulative experience. A few members of the team of skilled people crafting our Royal Wedding Mug include:
- Carol, who began training as a lithographer when she was sixteen and has thirty-nine years’ experience in the industry, working for Aynsley China, Crown Trent, Royal Doulton, and Wedgewood before joining Duchess China. As Decoration Supervisor, she is the pottery’s only gilder, applying precious metals of silver, gold (as on the Royal Wedding Mug), and platinum to give each piece the perfect finishing touch. She is applauded by her teammates as a great motivator who is always the first to share a joke and a laugh.
- Judith, who has devoted thirty-eight of her forty-three years in the pottery industry to Duchess China. When she began her career, Stoke-on-Trent was the center of the pottery industry, with more than 2,000 bottle ovens pumping smoke into the atmosphere. As a teenager, she remembers going to the parks—commonly known as “breathing” spaces—for a respite from the heavy smoke-filled air. The daughter of gloss selectors, Judith is a highly valued cup/mug maker who handles 6,000-8,000 items every week, her bubbly, vibrant character guaranteed to put a smile on her coworkers’ faces.
- Sue, who has worked in the pottery industry for nearly a half century, becoming a member of the Duchess China team thirteen years ago. A specialist lithographer—a highly technical and skilled role that requires years of training—she is responsible for application of patterns or designs onto the fine bone china products. A key figure within the Duchess China family, Sue gets a real buzz from seeing a plain white item transformed into a decorative final piece. She loves that Duchess China has retained its British heritage, of which she is ferociously proud.
It’s thanks to time-tested techniques and the individual skills of Duchess China’s devoted team that the Royal Wedding Mug retains its outstanding durability and color vibrancy use after use. And the pottery is committed to an environmental and sustainable manufacturing process, taking the utmost responsibility for handling waste and rejected products.
Whether you celebrate the royal wedding with a full English breakfast in front of the television broadcast (PJs and tiaras will be de rigueur in our house) or by reading the highlights in the Sunday newspaper, we think your cup of tea—or champagne!—will taste that much better in the lovingly crafted Royal Wedding Mug. And now that you know a little more about Alison Gardiner and the team she works with to create such lovely keepsakes, we hope you’ll cherish your souvenir mug that much more!
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