Bath may be better known for its iconic pale oolite limestone (often just known as Bath stone), but that’s not the only famous material with its foundations firmly in Bath.
The story starts with a Victorian art teacher named William Harbutt.
William was born and brought up in North Shields, England. He studied at the National Art Training School in London and became the headmaster of the Bath School of Art and Design from 1874 to 1877. After that he opened his own art school, The Paragon Art Studio, at 15 Bladud Buildings.
In many of his lessons Harbutt would give his pupils clay to practise making sculptures with in his classes. The problem was that their work dried out too quickly and when he wanted them to make changes to what they had done the clay was too dry and they weren’t able to.
Frustrated by this, Harbutt began experimenting with making his own clay that wouldn’t dry out so quickly. In his basement at his home in Alfred Street in Bath in the 1890s (accounts vary, citing both 1895 and 1897 as the year) he created an oil-based modelling clay and began a small-scale, cottage-industry kind of production – using a garden roller to flatten out his clay.
At first his aim had been only to create a material for use in his classes, but when his students started to play with plasticine at home he realised that his invention might have a wider audience. He was awarded a patent for plasticine in 1899 and soon after Harbutt had established the first plasticine factory in Bathampton.
However, although Bath was the birthplace of plasticine, it’s probably Bristol that did more in terms of making plasticine famous. Bristol-based Aardman Animations use tons and tons of plasticine when they make their amazing films. Their plasticine creature Morph first made his TV debut and shot to fame in 1977 and it all went from there. Without plasticine and Aardman would we have the likes of Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep?
Plasticine has been on sale to the general public since 1908. At first it was only available in grey but as it became more popular other colours were developed, and all of them made at the factory in Bathampton. This factory produced plasticine for over 80 years - into the early 1980s; right up until the Harbutts company was taken over and packing and production moved abroad.
Today Harbutts Bathampton factory is no more, but the site, a modern housing development, does commemorate its history with a plaque set in the developments surrounding wall.
Harbutt’s still remembered in the city of Bath too, and tributes to him are still on display if you know where to look. This bust in Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery (that looks rather like Charles Darwin) is actually a bust of William Harbutt. It was moulded in plasticine first and then cast in bronze by one of Harbutt’s own pupils, C. Whitney Smith. It was donated to the gallery in 1930 by Harbutt’s widow Elizabeth.