Reginald Harry Austin was born in Worcester in 1890. He became better known as Harry Austin. From a young age, he trained as an artist. And indeed, he won many medals for his drawings at this time.
He trained at Worcester College, and his chosen subjects were fruit, flowers and especially birds.
He started his career at Royal Worcester in 1910, together with his brother, Walter, who was one year younger. Walter was also a talented artist who had won many medals for his work.
Harry developed into a very skilled artist with a wide range of subjects. Birds were the most predominant feature of his many talents. He produced a series of amazing birds for the Australian market. He also made paintings of fruit, flowers and plants for the export market.
It was Harry who created the newer versions of the Worcester fancy birds on blue scale grounds.
Although the 1920s was a time of optimism and growth, the fall was coming.
In 1929, the Wall Street Stock Market crashed. This led to a worldwide depression. Britain was less badly affected than some other countries, like Germany. But the depression was followed by “The Great Slump” in the 1930s.
The porcelain industry was not exempt. Many potters either left the industry – willingly or not so willingly. Many of those workers remaining took on extra commissions to make ends meet.
Harry Austin boosted his income by selling his watercolours locally. He painted similar subjects to those he painted on pots – but this time on canvas, card, plywood or even paper. He then went around the local pubs and cafes to try to sell them. (Those who were able to buy them probably made a good investment).
After a while, he too left the pottery and went freelance, working with his younger brother. They were hard times, but he was able to earn more freelancing this way. He also painted designs of flowers on furniture, which was fashionable at this time.
He had some limited success with his freelance work and returned to the potteries. But he didn’t return to Royal Worcester but Paragon China, where he became their resident designer. It was here that he designed some lovebirds with flowers for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. This was to commemorate the birth of her daughter, Princess Margaret, who was born on 21st August 1930.
Royal Worcester Fruit Painters
While Harry worked at Royal Worcester he and his brother were part of a group of exceptionally talented artists painting fruit. So realistic were the paintings that one could almost reach out a hand to pick them. The group included such skilled artists as Harry Ayrton and William Bagnall, George Moseley, William Bee, John Freeman, Thomas Lockyer, William Ricketts, Horace Price, and perhaps the greatest of them, Richard Sebright. William Hawkins was the foreman – and it is unlikely that such a body of talent has ever been surpassed anywhere or at any time.
But it wasn’t simply a superb individual skill which produced such extraordinary beautiful fruit paintings on the pots. They needed the skills of the entire team to fashion them. (Although each piece is unique).
The way these pieces were produced evolved over a couple of hundred years in the Royal Worcester factories.
The Method in Brief of Producing Realistic Fruit Paintings on Porcelain
1. The Artist. The artist has a palette of translucent colours. This enables the underneath colours to show through the layers of paint. After the first layer is painted on, the piece is fired. Then the next coat of paint is applied and again the piece fired – and so it goes on. These multiple coats of paint mean that they are applied in such a way so as to produce an appearance of depth, a real 3D effect. And the colours are both bright and subtle.
2. The Guilder. This is painstaking work as the 22-carat gold is applied carefully by hand. This gives the final appearance a rich and luxurious look.
3. The Burnisher. The gold needs to be burnished to bring out its unique quality and the soft gleam of real gold.
4. Quality Control. Never more important than with these high-quality pieces. Perfection is required for the customer, nothing less will pass.
Buying Harry Austin’s Work
It can be quite hard to find good examples of his work for sale. One I really like is a watercolour of a young owl in a pine tree. Painted in delicate greys with a little gold colouring. It measures 38.5 cm. x 22 cm. and is signed R.H.Austin. This was sold in 2009 for £621 (Australian dollars $1136 today’s rate).
It can be said that Harry Austin had an interesting and varied life. It has been claimed that he never worked during the month of September – never once. He apparently devoted this month to fishing in Scotland.
He retired in 1955 and lived on until 1971, leaving a legacy of a truly beautiful bird and fruit ceramic art.