Why We’re Obsessed With William Kilburn


We chat with Maxwell & Williams’ Creative Director, Claire Chilcott, about what makes William Kilburn’s vintage floral patterns so popular today…

Ever since I laid eyes on the William Kilburn teaware range by the iconic Australian brand, Maxwell & Williams, I’ve been shamelessly obsessed. It was love at first sight.

The floral patterns are elegant but not overly feminine. The colours are beautiful. The quality of the bone china is second to none.

I quelled my urge to buy every Kilburn product on the market and settled with a single mug, which was enough – for a time. Then I couldn’t help myself and bought a tea set. Now I’m eyeing off the plates and coasters. And wondering if this obsession will ever end…

So I decided to go to the woman who started it all: Maxwell & Williams’ Creative Director, Claire Chilcott, and see how Kilburn’s vintage designs came to be all over my kitchen cupboard and why we’re all so obsessed with them today.

Featured: William Kilburn Plate, Ocean Fantasy, 20cm and the William Kilburn Placemat, Blossom (Set of 6) from Maxwell & Williams. Shop tableware online at Zanui.

Who Was William Kilburn?

If you’re up for a history lesson in 18th century textile design, then make yourself a tea and settle in.

The History Lesson

William Kilburn isn’t as widely known as you might think, especially compared with other designers of the century (like Josiah Wedgwood or William Morris). Kilburn’s Wikipedia page is remarkably empty.

Kilburn was born in Ireland in 1745. He flitted among artists in the textile industry and worked on illustrating a book called Flora Londinensis with botanist William Curtis.

RISDM 1987-028
L to R: Kilburn’s royal dress and an illustration from Flora Londinensis. Image Credit: RISD Museum and RHS Prints.

Kilburn became a partner at a textile factory and gained such esteem that he even presented a dress with his iconic seaweed pattern to Queen Charlotte.

Much to his dismay, Kilburn’s designs started being pirated, so he fought back. Kilburn went to the courts to have copyright laws enforced, giving him exclusive rights ‘for a limited time’. Unfortunately that meant just two months.

William Kilburn’s designs continued to be imitated and he eventually went bankrupt. He died in 1818.

Featured: the William Kilburn range by Maxwell & Williams. Shop tableware online at Zanui.

No, He’s Not William Morris

You might be forgiven for confusing William Kilburn with another prolific textile designer, William Morris (whose art also graces a range of teaware by Maxwell & Williams).

However, their designs and influences (even the times they were actively designing) were very different. As Claire Chilcott explains:

“William Kilburn and William Morris lived almost 100 years apart and this had an enormous effect on the style of their work.”

Featured: the William Morris range of teaware from Maxwell & Williams. Shop tableware online at Zanui.

“William Kilburn (1745-1818) was working prior to the Industrial Revolution in the UK and William Morris (1834-1896), after,” says Claire.

“William Kilburn’s work was a lot freer in its composition and lifelike in its approach. This could be partly due to his time painting botanical specimens for catalogues recording the flora of the London area.”

“William Morris was a member of The Arts and Crafts movement which was formed as a kind of backlash against industrialisation. His work was far more stylised and used a lot of close repeat pattern. Some people place it in the modern fantasy genre.”

Featured: William Kilburn Breakfast Bowl, Summer Blossom, 16cm from Maxwell & Williams. Shop tableware online at Zanui.

How Did His Textile Designs End Up On Bone China?

We’re forever grateful to Claire for seeing the beauty in Kilburn’s patterns and for putting them on teapots and cups.

It’s a big leap – from 18th century calico to 21st century china. Claire tells us how it came to be:

“We had great success many years ago with our Chintz Collection and were looking for something of that idiom to fill the gap in our Cashmere Range.”

“When we first saw the exquisite artworks of William Kilburn we were hooked. They have such a classic elegance that is simply timeless.”

Featured: William Kilburn Plate, Ocean Fantasy, 20cm and the William Kilburn Placemat, Blossom (Set of 6) from Maxwell & Williams. Shop tableware online at Zanui.

“The detail and colours are all so varied because he was such a prolific artist. This immediately spoke to us and we developed the collection and designed new pieces.”

With an archive of hundreds of floral prints and patterns, it must have been difficult to narrow the Maxwell & Williams’ collection down to the handful of designs we adore today.

“It was a process of elimination, really,” says Claire. “We had to use a pattern that continued over all the items at the same scale.”

Featured: William Kilburn Coupe Mug, Victorian Garden, 400ml from Maxwell & Williams. Shop tableware online at Zanui.

“We felt that was really important that each item had the same size pattern. Some of the artworks weren’t big enough so they didn’t make the cut. Then we looked at colour.”

“We wanted a varied palette to give colour choice. If I was pushed to select any personal favourites, I would have to say Victorian Garden and Midnight Blossom.”

Ah, Midnight Blossom. Be still, my beating heart. Your pastel pinks on inky black have me all aflutter at tea time.

Featured: William Kilburn Coupe Mug, Midnight Blossom, 400ml and William Kilburn Coupe Cup & Saucer, Midnight Blossom, 250ml from Maxwell & Williams. Shop tableware online at Zanui.

Why Are We So In Love With Them?

Of all the bone china beauties by Maxwell & Williams, what is it about Kilburn’s florals that has me glazing over like the heart-eyes emoji? (You know the one.)

What sort of ancient magic is at play here that compels me to click the ‘Add to Cart’ button? How are vintage floral patterns still so popular today? Luckily Claire shares my obsession for Kilburn:

“As a young ceramic design student in the UK I did my thesis on 20th Century Ceramic Decoration and it became evident then that flowers in all their incarnations were so popular and prolific. Even though at the time this is not what I wanted to find out.”

Featured: William Kilburn Breakfast Bowl, Victorian Garden, 16cm from Maxwell & Williams. Shop tableware online at Zanui.

“My work was minimal and used geometric pattern. But as I’ve matured so has my appreciation. Floral patterns work so well because they have a natural synergy with bone china tableware.”

“It’s something to do with the historic recall and that Grandma’s-attic kind of feeling.”

“When we drink tea together and talk it evokes strong memories that, like visual stories, seem to travel timelessly through our culture. Flowers are universal too and hold such generic beauty.”

Featured: William Kilburn Teapot, Ocean Fantasy and William Kilburn Coupe Cup & Saucer, Ocean Fantasy, 250ml from Maxwell & Williams. Shop tableware online at Zanui.

Claire has it right. When I sip from my Midnight Blossom tea cup or place it down on the saucer I feel that elegant, high-tea atmosphere around me.

Suddenly I’m in Downton Abbey. Jane Austen is my bestie. Lord Byron is sending me sestinas. The world is romantic once more.

“The classical nature of these patterns is timeless and we have a greater appreciation of all things vintage now,” Claire says. “His paintings really could have been painted yesterday.”

“Having that everlasting quality coupled with his exquisite painting techniques transcends fickle trends and fashion. Perfection is always in style.” We completely agree.

Kyra Thomsen is a writer and editor from Sydney, NSW. She has experience in copywriting, blogging, journalism, and social media. After completing two degrees in Creative Writing and English Literature in 2013 she began work with the content team at Zanui. Kyra was the winner of the 2012 Questions Writing Prize and her work has been published in print and online for numerous sources, including Writer's Edit, Seizure, and Fairfax Media among others.