Victoria Art Gallery – People: William Harbutt

The bust of William Harbutt has been selected for the BBC's History of the World January 2010.


William Harbutt is remembered today as the inventor of Plasticine. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he came to Bath in 1874 to work as headmaster at Bath School of Art. He invented Plasticine as a teaching aid, and did not initially regard it as a commercial product. He designed it for his students, as the clay then used for modelling was heavy and difficult to work with.


But in 1900, the Harbutt Plasticine business was opened at Bathampton, just outside Bath, and was very successful. Soon, Plasticine was to become a household name amongst children all over the country, as well as being exported to over fifty other countries.


The actual formula for the composition of Plasticine seems to have been kept a closely guarded secret. A history of the Harbutt family, written in 1972, remained silent on the subject, as production was still taking place; and the factory did not finally close until 1983. The secret of its success was that it was oil-based, in contrast to clay, which required water and would therefore dry out much more quickly.


For some time it continued to be used by artists. Indeed, this bust, sculpted by Harbutt’s pupil Edwin Whitney-Smith in about 1910, was originally modelled in Plasticine before being cast in solid bronze.

Image: Bust of William Harbutt, the inventor of Plasticine

Bust of William Harbutt, the inventor of plasticine.


Image: Miniature of William Harbutt

William Harbutt, miniature