09:00 Friday 18 October 2013

Trentham's Mr Darcy and his booming ceramics trade

Written byJane Bewick Green

At the bottom of his garden, in a purpose built pottery studio, a Stoke-on-Trent dad makes original Staffordshire china and earthenware for his booming ceramics business. The phone doesn’t stop ringing. Not just for orders, but from news outlets and entertainment agencies who all want to hire the pottery man who is the spitting image of ‘Mr Darcy’. Jane Bewick Green drew the long straw and went to meet him.

Pictures: English Heritage and North News and Pictures.

“Can you do a story on this chap for me?”, asked our editor, Louise. She handed me a photo of what looked like Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, emerging from the Pemberley lake all wet, yet smouldering, in that famous scene from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ that had millions of female hearts a-fluttering.

“Oh, go on then,” I replied, snatching the photo out of her hand.

And so, I ended up knocking on Mathew Dimbleby’s front door in Trentham. I did a quick check in the window reflection to see if I looked OK before he answered the door, and there he was.

A modern day Mr Darcy, in jeans, and with a distinctive Stoke accent. Superb.

Matthew and Rachel Dimbleby
Matthew and Rachel Dimbleby
This is a father-of-two, with an impressive ceramics and teaching background, who is also now registered with a top agency in London that books lookalikes for the PR and entertainment industries. So how did it all start? “Well, to be honest, my sister saw a billboard on the Hanford roundabout with a photo of the actor, Colin Firth, in what I think was an ad for the Bridget Jones film.
It was years ago. My eldest daughter was still a toddler, and would ask, ‘Why is daddy on those posters?’.

“People started to stare at me as well, and after ‘Pride and Prejudice’ came out, ladies would come up to me and say ‘You do look like that Mr Darcy, you know’. My wife, Rachel, agreed, and would tease me about it too.” Mathew’s wife – who finds the whole thing a bit of a giggle — suggested he join a lookalikes agency to see what happened. So, last year Mathew finally signed up and waited.

After a year of no follow-ups from them, he forgot about it all. Then the phone rang. “I thought it was a prank at first,” he laughs. “They said they had a potential booking for me. I was worried it would be something sleazy and I’d have to say no, but when they said it was for English Heritage, I jumped at the chance.” The job was a photoshoot at Belsay Hall, Northumberland, where English Heritage were running an exhibition of costumes from a variety of Jane Austen film and TV productions, including that famous shirt worn by Colin Firth in TV’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

Mathew was asked to wear the shirt and become ‘Mr Darcy’ for a photoshoot, emerging from a lake in the scene we all know so well.

“I had a great time on the day,” recalls Mathew. “I was pursued by TV and radio programmes too and ended up being interviewed. It was my first time doing anything like that and I really enjoyed it. I have to say though, that I imagine being famous, like Colin Firth, and having that fuss around you all the time would be a bit of a headache. It was nice to experience it for just one day though.”

Now, Mathew’s ready for the next call from the agency, and is keeping an eye on Colin Firth’s career moves, as bookings are likely to be when Colin is in the news. Is this going to be a new career path for him? “Oh no,” he laughs. “I’m rather busy with my own business.” The business is Dimbleby Ceramics.

Mathew is an experienced ceramics designer, and after a varied career using his pottery skills, he set up business three years ago, working from a purpose built studio at the bottom of his garden.

His wife is an art teacher by day, and works with Mathew on the business at weekends and evenings. Their pottery is sold in retail outlets all over the country.

Business is so good, that they’re exploring how to expand.

It’s lovely to see Stoke pottery being made from scratch in Stoke, in what is effectively a cottage industry, in much the same way the great ceramics names started all those years ago. Mathew is passionate about the revival of ‘Made in Stoke-on-Trent’ ceramics, and about the subject of ‘backstamping’ – the process of stamping where a product is from – or appears to be from.

“If you see ‘England’ stamped on the bottom of a piece of china, you understandably believe it has been made in England,” he explains. “But it probably hasn’t been. More than likely, it’s been made on the other side of the world and just finished off here. That means it can be sold to you with an England or British backstamp.

I think it’s wrong, and people should be able to know where their products have come from. It’s particularly important, I believe, for the Stoke pottery industry, which has suffered so much from imports.

There are actually still a lot of ceramics made in Stoke; designers like myself who are small businesses doing well and making beautiful things. Buyers tell us they want things made in Stoke, so the stamping is important.” It’s a subject Mathew feels very strongly about. He lives just a few doors away from the house he grew up in, in Trentham. He gave up a well paid job and sold his car, so he could follow his passion for pottery, and did a ceramics degree at Staffordshire University. That led to him being hired by the likes of Heal’s and John Lewis’ to produce designs for their shops.

Then the 1990s brought the decline of the Stoke-on-Trent ceramics industry, with closures like Royal Doulton and the Trentham Superpit. The decline meant Mathew struggled to make a living doing what he loved most, so he got a job setting up an art department for a therapy centre.

That success led to a decade of teaching art at Dovegate Prison, where he ended up running the education department. “It was when I took redundancy from that job that I decided to set up Dimbleby Ceramics, and to get back to making the pottery I love, and to get English pottery back to its roots here in Stoke”.

Mathew thinks the pottery industry is actually thriving again in his hometown.

“There are lots of independent little ceramics businesses here, like mine, that just need a bit of help. I’m involved with the Ceramic Development Group which has just launched a virtual pottery academy; business owners like myself are going to take on apprentices to help the renaissance of Stoke pottery and to try and fill the skills gap that has happened because of the past few decades. We’re not very good in Stoke about shouting about what we’re good at. And we’re good at ceramics”.

This interview wasn’t quite what I expected.

I have to confess, my favourite book ever, is ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and my favourite character is Mr Darcy. What I love about him is how his character turns out to be a surprise – and not at all like Elizabeth Bennett presumed. And here I am, meeting a Mr Darcy lookalike - Mathew Dimbleby - and, he too, has turned out to be surprise. A talented ceramics designer, with a passion for his craft and love of his hometown, who thinks the pottery industry in Stoke needs more PR. “If being Mr Darcy once in a while helps me promote my business and the ceramics industry here, then I’d be delighted”, he says.

I think Jane Austen would have been rather impressed.

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