Sunday, 19 September 2021

Which one? Thai, of course

A COUPLE from Henley were commissioned to make 1,800 ceramic tiles by hand for the crown prince of Thailand.

A COUPLE from Henley were commissioned to make 1,800 ceramic tiles by hand for the crown prince of Thailand.

Douglas and Janet Watson, of Greys Road, spent a month producing and packing the order and sent it by air mail to the Far East this week.

The couple, who are in their sixties and both lifelong artists, have run the Douglas Watson Studio at Greys Green Business Centre since 1999.

They were emailed in November by crown prince Maha Vajiralongkorn's designers, who are building him a new palace near Bangkok.

They wanted to decorate it in traditional English style and found the company through the internet.

The 62-year-old royal, who is heir apparent to the Thai throne, trained with the British armed forces as a young man and is a noted Anglophile.

While on a state visit in 2012, he bought 300 items of bone china worth £10,000 from an antiques shop in Hartley Witney.

His architects chose their favourite designs from the Watsons' website before placing their order. They requested 1,300 glazed white clay tiles with hand-painted designs including birds, insects and flowers and a further 500 in plain white.

These will be laid in eight rooms around the palace, including the guest bathrooms and the kitchen and pantry.

A smaller number will be laid around fireplaces and beneath window sills.

The Watsons and their six staff began working on the order in mid-January so it would be finished by the end of this month.

They make every tile from scratch by pressing raw clay into sheets with a machine called an extruder. They then measure and cut it into squares by hand.

They brush each tile with glaze, then paint on the design using a heat-resistant pigment that comes in the form of a dry powder.

Finally, they bake or 'fire' them in a kiln at temperatures higher than 1000 degrees Celsius.

This permanently hardens the clay and changes the colour of the pigment so they must account for this when painting them.

Mrs Watson's daughter Ruth Galloway, a professional illustrator who lives in Reading, came in to help them finish on time.

Mr Watson said: "We've had high-profile clients before now but this was especially prestigious.

"It was a bit daunting at first because the crown prince's designers wanted it done in three weeks and we had to politely explain that was utterly impossible.

"Fortunately, they were happy to give us longer and they supplied us with very detailed instructions as to what they wanted, which we don't always get.

"There's always a bit of a worry as to whether you can pull it off but our instinct was that we could, so we agreed. It wasn't too difficult because they wanted designs from our website so we didn't have to come up with any new ones.

"We packed everything ourselves into crates as we ship abroad on a regular basis and are quite used to it."

Mr Watson launched the business in Checkendon in 1982 and moved to Greys Green when he met his wife, whom he married in 2010.

Mrs Watson retired as head of art at Langtree School in Woodcote about 10 years ago and is a textile artist who regularly exhibits locally.

The couple have previously produced tiles for the Loch Fyne restaurant chain and made some in the style of famous artists for the Tate Modern gallery's gift shop.

They were recently commissioned to redecorate a fireplace and kitchen at Highclere Castle, near Newbury, where Downton Abbey is filmed.

Most of their work is for architects in the UK who are building one-off houses for wealthy clients.

However, they also sell to suppliers in America, where Mr Watson studied an art degree in the Seventies and first made a living from selling ceramics.

He was originally a painter but was encouraged to try a new discipline by his sister Diana.

Now his company typically gets through between 10 and 12 tonnes of clay every year. Mr Watson said: â??I probably wouldn't have believed back then that I would end up working on this kind of scale.

"It was a small venture to begin with but it started to expand and after two or three years I began to see the potential it had.

"My wife and I plan to carry on for the foreseeable future, although we like to do a bit less now and let other people take over.

"It's always interesting and there are always new things to do so we still enjoy it very much."

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