Saturday, October 4, 2014
Unfortunately it is impossible to know exactly what textiles were imported to early America in the period immediately after the Revolution, when trade with England resumed. Irish artist William Kilburn (1745-1818), was an illustrator for William Curtis' Flora Londinensis, as well as a leading designer & printer of extraordinary calico. A few hundred originals of his water color designs for calico, make up the Kilburn Album, housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Kilburn was not just an amazing talent, he was willing to go to court to try to protect his designs, & he was generous in recognizing his employees.
Woman's Printed Muslin Dress, 1836-1838, fabric 1790-1818, British. This delicate design, the ground densely covered with leaves, is in the style of William Kilburn (1745-1818), designer and calico printer in the late 18th century. The fabric must have been cherished, as this dress has been re-made, as many were during the period to avoid waste.
Kilburn was the son of a Dublin architect Samuel Kilburn and his wife Sarah Johnston. Because of his penchant for drawing & his delicate health, his parents apprenticed him to Jonathan Sisson, an Englishman, who had established a calico printing factory in the countryside at Leixlip, just 8 miles from Dublin.
The seaweed-patterned fabric used for this dress was expensive at the time of its purchase, a guinea per yard. Kilburn gave a similar length for a gown to Queen Charlotte, wife of England’s George III. The printed design was found in an album of Kilburn watercolor drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The dress’s style indicates, that it was probably made when the textile was brand new & at its most fashionable, about 1790.
While he was an apprentice, he would rise at 4 am to draw patterns for paper stainers, which, with his master's leave, he sold to earn extra money. The income from this venture gave him pocket money & enabled him to purchase a pony, on which he rode to Dublin on Saturdays, to spend every Sunday with his parents.
When his father died, he decided to visit London, where he obtained a ready sale for his designs amongst the calico printers. He also drew & engraved flowers from nature for the print shops. This led to his acquaintance with William Curtis, the botanist, who hired the uncommon talent to execute the plates for Curtis' work, the Flora Londinensis.
When the young Kilburn had entered into this engagement, he returned to Ireland, brought his mother & sister to small house in Bermondsey with a garden & green-house near the Curtis nursery. There he occupied himself from sunrise to sunset drawing & engraving the plants for the Flora Londinensis.
When he finished his engraving contract, he accepted a proposal to manage a Newton's calico printing factory, at Wallington, for which he was to have a share in the profits without advancing capital. They were so successful that, at the end of 7 years, he purchased the concern becoming sole proprietor.
Because he had worked so hard to attain this position, he gave the highest wages to his workmen, some of whom came from the continent, & gave annual premiums for the best designs. He had the honor of presenting one of his pieces of printed chintz, the sea-weed pattern, designed by himself, to Queen Charlotte.
Finding that his patterns were pirated in Manchester, he applied for a bill, which was brought into Parliament by his neighbour, Edmund Burke, "To secure to calico printers the copyright in original designs."
The bill was passed in May 1787 "An Act for the Encouragement of the Arts of designing & printing Linens, Cottons, Callicoes & Muslins by vesting the Properties thereof in the Designers, Printers, Proprietors for a limited Time." Unfortunately, this "limited Time" was a period of 2 months from the date of first publishing the design. But it was a beginning.
For more biographical information see The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 23, December 1, 1832..