The Clay Sculpture
Each English Ladies Co figurine is modelled in clay by skilled modellers. They create not only the front of the figurine, but also the back as the concept moves from 2D to a 3-Dimensional sculpture. The clay piece has to be carefully devised to ensure that the intricate details in the figurine can be reproduced using moulds in production and also that the figurine can stand unsupported. The clay piece is approximately 12% larger than the desired size of the finished piece, to allow for the shrinkage of the clay when it is fired.
For the next stage of the process our beautiful clay model has to be destroyed! The model is cut into several pieces so that every piece is reproduced precisely. In the case of ‘The Merry Go Round’ the finished piece is made of 19 individual pieces. Each piece is then carefully encased in plaster of paris to create a mould. Once dry, the clay is scraped away from the plaster, destroying the clay piece completely. Each mould may be made up of up to four or five pieces. These plaster moulds are called blocks.
Each plaster block mould is then filled with a hard resin material to give a permanent representation of the original clay piece. This ‘case’ is the ‘master’ from with production moulds can be made. Production moulds can be re-used several times, however, to maintain the precision of the English Ladies figurines, the production moulds are regularly replaced to ensure each piece has the same level of detail as the original model.
Assembling the Figurine
Each mould is filled with liquid clay, or slip, to create the pieces of the figurine. After a few moments a thin layer of clay forms within the mould and the excess slip is tipped away to be re-used. The remaining clay is left in the mould until it dries enough to handle. Each piece of the figurine is left to further dry in the air before being carefully assembled to create the finished figurine. The pieces are joined together using more slip, ensuring that the complete piece is made of a uniform material. At this stage it is important that air can move freely through the piece and small holes may be added to allow air to escape in firing. Without these, the piece could explode in firing. These holes are hidden so they do not spoil the finished piece. The figurine is now ready to be fired for the first time. For this first fire it may need to be supported in the kiln while it contracts as its water content evaporates. The kiln is at 800°C and the clay pieces are fired for 12 hours. The piece emerges from the kiln as dry, brittle and very porous. This is known as ‘biscuit’. Each piece is inspected to check for any cracks or defects.
Next a thin layer of liquid glass, or glaze, is applied to each piece. This is a highly skilled process as the glaze must be applied to precisely the right thickness. If the glaze is too thin, then the biscuit shows through and can go black during the other processes. If it is too thick, then the detail of the figurine can be lost. The glazed pieces are then fired for a second time at 800°C for 8 hours to create the white bone china figurines. The whiteware piece is then passed to our Master Painter, Dan Smith, who decides on the colour scheme for the finished figurine. He builds up the depth of colour by layering multiple colours on top of each other. Each layer must be fired before the next can be applied, so the painted piece may be fired up to a further 3 or 4 times at temperatures of up to 1100°C. Many ceramic colours change on firing and Dan applies his considerable experience to ensure that the finished piece looks just as he envisaged it. Many English Ladies Co figurines are embellished with gold, which is applied last as it fires at a lower temperature than colour, and would be burnt away if applied earlier.
Once the prototype has been completed it is sent to the factory where the painstaking task of reproducing Dan’s work is meticulously undertaken. First it is taken to a studio where colours and techniques are matched in order to produce ‘instructions’ for the factory. Once this piece is approved the colours required are then purchased in bulk, ready for production. A final ‘pre-production’ piece is made on the factory for approval, to ensure that every piece is made to the same high standards as Dan’s prototype.
The figurine is inspected at every stage of its progress through production, after biscuit firing, after glazing and after every painting fire. Once the piece passes inspection the backstamp is applied and fired again so that the glaze melts and covers the backstamp. After the final gold fire, the piece in inspected for a final time, and for limited edition pieces the number is hand written on the base of each piece.
Each finished English Ladies figurine is carefully packed in a beautiful gift box with a certificate of authenticity.