Anne Robinson, Karen Saxby
The eternal appeal of a floral design is captured in the work of Irish illustrator William Kilburn. The artist behind William Curtis’ book on botany, Flora Londinensis, Kilburn was also a designer and printer of calico. His seaweed motifs were so iconic that he presented a dress in the pattern to Queen Charlotte!
The eternal appeal of a floral design is captured in the botanical art of Irish illustrator William Kilburn. Kilburn (1745–1818) was the artist behind the life-sized watercolours and signed etchings in William Curtis’ 18th-century book on botany Flora Londinensis and also a leading calico designer and printer in his own right.
Similar in style to the work of Arts & Crafts promoter William Morris, Kilburn’s patterns predate Morris’ by nearly a century. Kilburn’s sense of freedom and play is contrasted by Morris’ sharply stylized and closely repeated patterns. His most delicate and revered designs are those that use a seaweed motif, and his unique mix of sea anemone, coral and mosses is on display here. In fact, his seaweed patterns were so desired that after becoming a partner at a textile factory, Kilburn had the opportunity to present one such pattern to Queen Charlotte herself.
Like Morris, Kilburn and his work played a significant role in influencing the decorative artists who followed, even during his own lifetime. As his art became more popular it began to be knocked off by lesser artisans and mass production facilities. When he found that his work was being so widely replicated, Kilburn sought to protect his artistic intellectual property. He became an activist for artists’ rights, going to court to protect copyright in the textile industry, paving the way for future textile artists to flourish.
Sadly, despite his best efforts, Kilburn was unsuccessful in stopping the pirates. His designs continued to be imitated and he died bankrupt in 1818. It is our honour to bring this William Kilburn print back to life. The world may not know his name, but we see his influence through modern wallpaper designs, the Arts & Crafts movement and the contemporary copyright laws that protect artists today.