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His book is a work of art
Mantecans definitive book on California Faience ceramics
Kirby William Brown holds a digital copy of his book on California Faience. He will be signing copies of his book at Antique Avenue in Spreckels Park all day during business hours this Saturday. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

When Kirby Brown and his wife Iran visited the famed Hearst Castle in San Simeon, they were treated like royalty.

That’s how the couple described their unforgettable visits to this enchanted above the clouds castle overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. But then, the Browns were not just ordinary visitors like the hordes of people who show up year-round eager to see up close the genius of premier American architect Julia Morgan who made the dream of publishing magnate William Randolph Heart a reality – the Hearst Castle. That’s not to mention the lavish lifestyle of one of America’s one-time rich and famous that many still find fascinating today.

For Kirby Brown, especially, the visits were of a very personal nature, as well as for professional reasons.

The personal factor is literally in the retired entomologist’s blood. Many of the colorful and artistic tiles – literally thousands of them – that accentuate the enchantment of the Casa Grande (main house) and other buildings on the expansive property, as well as the connecting walkways and stairways, came from “The Little Tile Shop” in Berkeley owned by business partners Chauncey R. Tomas and William V. Bragdon. Thomas was the founder of California Faience. Two years after opening California Faience in Berkeley in 1912, he was joined by his friend Bragdon who, at that time, was teaching at the California School of Arts and Crafts.

Like any start-up business, the Tile Shop struggled. Then came the big break. Brown tells that dramatic turn-around in the preface to the chapter on “Of Castles” in his just-published book, California Faience: Ceramics for Cottages and Castles.

“Imagine yourself as a partner in a tiny pottery shop, struggling to keep afloat, when a world-renowned architect approaches you with a commission to make tiles for one of the world’s wealthiest men. You are honored, overwhelmed and exhilarated. It’s not really a big job, just a hundred or so tiles for friezes on a house or two. You eagerly take the job. You make such wonderful tiles that before long the order grows to thousands of tiles. But that’s not the end. Eventually you must move to a larger facility and spend the next ten years producing tens of thousands of tiles.

“This is what happened to the little Tile Shop in Berkeley,” Brown writes.

The Hearst Castle project made the not-so-little and no longer struggling Little Tile Shop, and partners Thomas and Bragdon, successful, said Brown.

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The making of a book: 15 years of intense research

The visits to Hearst Castle constitute a major part of Brown’s book on California Faience. The first visit was in the 1980s. Subsequent research trips took place in the 1990s. He returned six times to the enchanted place just to do the photography. The staff at the castle, which is now a part of the California State Parks system, were only too happy to grant Brown a clear pass to obtain all of the information he needed for his ambitious tome project.

“They were just very accommodating,” said the very affable Kirby, smiling at those fond recollections.

“They really gave him the royal treatment,” smilingly chirped his equally friendly wife, Iran, a retired registered nurse.

In the book, Kirby outlines in detail how the book project ended on his lap without knowing what to expect, with no inkling at how much work – all the extensive research and interviews, doing all the photographic work and the accompanying Photoshop tasks it entailed, and then actually doing the writing. He estimates he took roughly more or less 10,000 photographs. The book is lavishly illustrated which includes his photographs and others from archives that includes that of his own family. Several of the photos were taken by others and are duly noted in the book.

Chuckling, with serious undertones, Kirby opined that “if it weren’t for digital photography, I never would have done this.”

The photographic effort would have been so gargantuan were he to have done it utilizing the difficult and time-consuming task of processing negatives, printing then half-toning them, among the many steps involved to get the image into the printing stage of a project.

He did not set out to write a book; it was started by somebody else (Peter Monsour) who was interviewing his late mother, Elizabeth “Bettie” Bragdon Brown, who was an accountant for the University of California system. He honors and acknowledges his mother in the coffee-table book by dedicating it to her, “who made this book possible.”

The Browns, who are the parents of two daughters and the grandparents of two, lived in Manteca for many years in the middle of an almond orchard – he was a “part-time almond farmer just to keep out of trouble” – on East Lathrop Road. Their old house and the orchard are still there. The house, though, and surrounding landscaping have since been changed a bit.

After he retired from his job as staff entomologist for the San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner, the alumnus of UC-Riverside where he received his doctorate in entomology and former museum curator at Yale University, and his wife moved to Arizona then to Paradise, Calif., where they lived for 15 years. Today, they have come full circle. They returned to Manteca in the fall of 2011 and now enjoying retirement life at the Woodbridge at Del Webb on North Union Road.