An Interesting Dish or Two.

It seems like forever since we were able to visit and walk into museums, art galleries and historic buildings, but fortunately this dry spell of cultural visiting is drawing to a close. Next month, from May 17 onwards, more and more of these special places are reopening as lockdown ends.

Octagonal table with a slightly bizarre glass decoration in the bay window of the dining room. Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk. A manor house with a moat.

I have been so desperate for cultural inspiration I have been trawling through my old photos. And, here is something to whet the appetite and ready us for the return of the visit.

Now, when I visited Oxburgh Hall, some five years ago, I paid little attention to the vast selection of pieces on display as I had specifically gone to see one display, the Oxburgh Hangings (the famous embroideries sewn by Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick). However, once you’ve paid your entrance fee you might as well make the most of a visit and I dutifully snapped the various interiors open to the public at this National Trust property. Amongst the random collection of stuff which I photographed were these ceramics above the grand fireplace in the library. Recently as I scrolled through those old photos the two dishes at either end of the mantelpiece display caught my attention. They did not look like the usual 19th-century Royal Crown Derby or Royal Worcester versions of Japanese ceramics.

Stone fireplace complete with carved wooden overmantel in the library. Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk.

At the time I hadn’t been able to get close enough to photograph them individually as that half of the library was cordoned off. However, on entering the next room, the dining room, I could see there was more china on display including another one of these dishes.

Heavily carved panelling from the 1830s makes this a dark room. Dining Room, Oxburgh Hall.

As is frequently the case with many rooms in heritage buildings, the dining room was barely lit with the lowest of lighting. This was no doubt great for intimate dinner parties in the past and nowadays for protecting the antiques against light damage, but awkward for those of us attempting to photograph the collections. Nevertheless at least in this room I was able to get a lot closer to those mysterious plates and with the widest aperture on my camera, a slow shutter speed and holding my breath I achieved one reasonable image.

Imari or Imari-style dish on display at Oxburgh Hall.

This is a very beautiful and intriguing ceramic dish. This design has a stylised central chrysanthemum and a floral border all painted in the classical Imari colours of blue and orange with highlights of gold. But what is that beneath the chrysanthemum? Is it a tortoise or a turtle, or is it some strange, vegetal design?

I have spent sometime trying to find out more by visiting online ceramic collections and scanning auction site catalogues in an attempt to locate any similar pieces. Naturally, I have checked the Oxburgh Hall National Trust listing and searched the National Trust Collections database, but these dishes have not been considered worthy of record. It might be because they are not genuinely part of the history of the house nor either of significance in a broader national context. However, there is one Japanese Imari bowl listed for Oxburgh Hall, but not of the same design.

Japanese Imari bowl, earthenware, dated 1700-1900. Oxburgh Hall. (Given to the National Trust in 1985 by Violet Hartcup, Lady Sybil Bedingfeld’s niece. Some of the Bedingfeld family still occupy part of Oxburgh Hall.)

From perusing the National Trust’s Collection database more generally, it would appear that no stately home was without a piece or two of Imari. That is not surprising as collecting Japanese ceramics during the 18th and 19th centuries had been popular and Imari ware was made specifically for the European market.

Examples of Japanese Imari dishes. Left possibly 18th century. Right 19th century.

This interest in collecting was a business opportunity and it was not going to be missed by the famous Staffordshire ceramics manufacturers operating in England during the 19th century. Firms such as Royal Crown Derby, Royal Worcester and Spode made the most of Imari ware passion and they amongst others produced Imari-style products. In fact English Imari is still made today with Royal Crown Derby producing an ‘Old Imari’ plate that’s even dishwasher safe.

Examples of 19th-century English Imari-style dishes. Left Chamberlain Worcester. Right Spode.

From comparing the images of the Japanese and the English examples it is almost as if the Oxburgh ‘turtle/tortoise?’ dish is a hybrid. An idea which brings me to consider the possibility of it being Chinese. At the time when the European fashion to collect Imari ware was booming, ceramics imported from the East also came from China. So, perhaps this is a dish made with the techniques and skills of the East, but with a Chinese interpretation of a Japanese original? Or, maybe it’s just part of a set of slightly weirdly decorated Staffordshire ironstone, date unknown, bought by the National Trust as a job lot to dress the hall when the moated, but distressed manor house was donated to the nation.

The more I have looked at these photographs the more I am wondering whether it might not be a turtle or a tortoise at all. Perhaps it’s me seeing something that isn’t there. Anyway I posted the main picture on Instagram to see if anybody had any ideas and a Japanese lady replied. She wrote that there is a saying in Japanese ‘the crane lives 1,000 years, the turtle 10,000’. She continued recounting that from this expression the turtle is considered one of the auspicious patterns and as such is not represented in this form in Japan. She then went on to say it would be hard for a Japanese person to recognise this blue/grey pattern as a turtle.

Perhaps somebody reading this post may recognise these slightly odd dishes and have more information, if so please leave a comment. I am not entirely sure why, but I’m definitely interested to know more.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

16 thoughts on “An Interesting Dish or Two.”

    1. I am pleased you thought it was a turtle too, but, of course, once something like that has been suggested it’s sometimes hard to see anything else. I also agree with your suggestion and there may well be a story behind it.

    1. Thank you. I must admit I’ve had quite a bee in my bonnet about this possible ‘turtle’ for some time. I thought posting about it might one day throw more light on the design’s origins. You never know!

    1. I’d certainly like to. In the scheme of things I know it’s trivial, but I’d just wanted to know more and Mr Google doesn’t always have the answers.

      1. Well, remembering back to 1998, I found VERY little, scant information on Benbecula for a holiday…now we have SO much available to us 20 years later!

  1. I can’t add anything to your quest. I can say that in my manuscript – which is how being split into two books – there is a scene where the main protagonist shops in a major Sydney department store 1890 and contemplates buying the Imari ware.

    1. Well, I am not surprised about that 😊, as Sydney in 1890 was obviously a very, sophisticated city and any self-respecting protagonist would be an Imari ware collector. πŸ˜‰

      1. And Spode, Doulton and Wedgewood – all of which I make passing reference to in a sentence of two. I bought some beautiful pieces in a second hand store, reminiscent of the delicate part of the Meissen range many years ago, but in the end, it all went to the opportunity store. Less in more. I adored them while I had them, but I don’t miss them now.
        When the day comes I cross the Great
        Divide (as another of my characters says) I won’t have to look on in horror as my grandchildren toss the lot in a trailer destined for the tip.

      2. Yes, I know what you mean. Two or three years ago my father started the clear out process. I’ve started to look around me and really think it’s time to reduce the clutter, again. This last move was good in that way as I did make several trips to the charity shops and several to the recycling centre (the dump).

      3. Seriously, when I first did it many years ago, moving from a three bedroom house to a two bedroom flat, I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Then year on year I whittled down a little more each time I did the annual spring clean. Now I have just enough, and on good days, I know where it all is!

      4. I am very impressed. My sister is a ‘clearer’, but I have been a bit of a hoarder. I feel that there will be a tipping point when I just start going for it big time. It’s getting closer every day.

  2. We visited Oxburgh Hall some years ago, and I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember the ceramics collection at all. Could be something to do with having a pre-teen daughter with us! But this post almost makes up for my inattention.

    1. You know there might not even have been a ceramics collection to speak of at all when you visited. As ‘the family’ had fallen on, how should we say, awkward times, paintings and anything of value had been auctioned off in the mid 20th century. More recently as and when the opportunities have arisen the NT have been buying stuff back or supplementing with similar.

      In the light of everything that has happened this last year, Covid and Brexit, our deification of large, old houses and their random collections of stuff seems almost frivolous. Still the gardens and grounds are usually restorative.

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