Christchurch Mansions in Ipswich is a fine historical house that these days uses its beautiful rooms to display art. Traditional art, oil paintings, sculpture and a few framed textiles cover the walls in an art gallery manner. However, some of the main rooms are still furnished as for their original purpose in a style you might see in a National Trust stately home and include using paintings and art pieces in a domestic setting.
Personally, I appreciate seeing a Reynolds or a Gainsborough portrait displayed in a drawing room or library with a Georgian atmosphere. I know some folk prefer to summon up their historical imaginations and quibble about authenticity, but I enjoy visiting these ‘posed’ rooms even if purists consider it a borderline Disneyesque experience. I think informed, well-curated rooms help to provide context for the paintings especially when some of the portraits are of people connected with the house’s history.
One such painting is the Reynolds’ portrait of Sir Hutchins Williams (1701-1758). Williams was the father of Mrs Anne Fonnereau (1732-1805) who had married the Reverend William Fonnereau (1732-1817) in 1758. Anne and William lived at Great Munden in Hertfordshire where William was Rector, before in later life they moved to Ipswich. The Reverend William Fonnereau eventually inheriting Christchurch Mansion in 1804.
However, it is not only art on display at Christchurch Mansions, in the library the curators have arranged a room full of smaller, functional pieces such as an antique desk that is set with writing paraphernalia and a gorgeous, elegant clock.
The room contains an eclectic mix as you might see accumulated over a century or two.
The library was not only a place for reading, it perhaps also provided an agreeable environment for a serious game of chess.
On a small table an Indian ivory chess set is displayed, pieces ready for the next move. These chessmen are typical of the work from the two neighbouring towns, Berhampur and Murshidabad, located in the West Bengal region of India.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was the custom for British families resident in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to take a voyage up stream on the Hooghly river to these two towns.
A chess set was a typical souvenir purchased by these visitors and was eventually brought to Britain when the family finally returned home. This set comprises of intricately carved figures, one set has pawns clothed as East Indian Company Sepoys and the other set are Marathi spearmen.
Recently I have been sorting and collating and trying to delete some of my thousands of photographs. It’s what I call a New Year’s task and as usual I have already been completely sidetracked!
This time it was all St Gabriel’s fault or rather should I say the talented Victorian stained glass artist who created this work. I think it could possibly have been painted by somebody who worked for James Powell & Sons. It has an Arts and Crafts feel, and, the overall design of the complete window has a look very similar to the late-19th/early-20th century works by that famous, London-based stained glass makers.
It wasn’t so much the beauty of the window, although I really do love the restrained aesthetic of this style of glass, but I wanted to know who had made it and so the hunt began. I was sidetracked.
Disappointingly, I was not successful, however, I did come across a little thread of discord from 2005 regarding the taking of photographs within National Trust properties. The above stained glass window, that had captured my attention, can be found in the chapel on the Oxburgh Hall estate in Norfolk.
Inside the chapel there are a few artworks worth attention. There is the tomb of the 6th Baronet, Sir Henry Bedingfield, complete with a fine, marble effigy and alabaster tomb chest.
There is also a further stained glass window by Thomas Willement, this time featuring heraldic motifs and . .
there is an oddly, overblown altarpiece arrangement. This is not the original 1839 altarpiece. In fact the painted and gilded wooden structure we see today is a retable with wings that was purchased sometime in the late-19th century. It is unclear when and who put together the full arrangement with the upper retable, the sacrament tabernacle and the bottom, carved altar table.
As you can see from my photographs, when the wings are opened displaying scenes from the Passion and the life of St James of Compostela, the whole effect is unbalanced and out of proportion within such a small chapel. Flemish altarpieces from the sixteenth century are often seen these days in museums and art galleries, but originally they would have been erected in cathedrals or larger churches set beneath high vaulted ceilings and tall windows. Perhaps the entire Oxburgh construction was purchased during a moment of Victorian religious zeal. Strangely, according to the official guidebook ‘The retable was acquired by the National Trust in 1982 with the aid of grants from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Victoria & Albert Museum’ thirty years after Oxburgh Hall had been given to the National Trust. If you are at all interested in the baffling and convoluted arrangements for keeping some art accessible to the public you can read about the retable provenance here.
Now, after that minor digression, I come back to the issue of taking photographs, such as mine of the Oxburgh Retable, in National Trust properties. Back in January 2005, Simon Knott, who has made a fine photographic record of much of East Anglia’s church art, was visiting Oxburgh Hall. And, in 2005 photography was not allowed inside any National Trust properties for ‘security reasons’. However, Mr Knott attempted to photograph inside the chapel and was caught by the room steward. Mr Knott subsequently recounted this episode on his website. He was mildly critical of the NT’s over zealous no photography policy and then latterly received a sharp slap down in reply. Below is a glimpse back to those pre-selfie, pre-Instagram days!
Postcript, June 2005: Teresa Squires, House Steward at the Hall, was alerted by, as she put it, ‘a concerned National Trust volunteer’, and contacted me [Simon Knott] : I am most concerned about your puerile comments regarding the “sneak” photography. The National Trust has a No Photography rule for a number of good reasons, of which one is security. If you had taken the trouble to enquire of the steward, you would have found out that the No Photography rule only applies during public visiting hours, and an arrangement can be made to photograph for bona fide reasons at another time. Your irresponsible attitude is likely to cause others to think they can buck the system with impunity. Remember, the National Trust is a conservation charity, not a subsidised Government organisation. Yes, it is most unlikely that someone will steal this particular altarpiece, but art crime is on the increase everywhere. If you are truly concerned with recording and disseminating knowledge of church history, I would expect you to show a little more respect.
From commentary by Simon Knott
How times have changed! Fortunately, in 2009 the National Trust changed their policy regarding photographs. It is, of course, still no flash photography (so damaging to delicate artworks), but the sensible decision to permit paying visitors to photograph and share their experiences can only help attract more visitors to National Trust properties. Furthermore, sharing pictures of minority interests such as the needlework of Mary, Queen of Scots, can only be a positive addition to our shared culture.
Now it’s time for me to return to my original task and get deleting those underexposed, overexposed and just slightly out of focus photographs.
It is amazing that an object, possibly used everyday, that can so easily be dropped or knocked over and broken, could ever survive 250 years, but that is the case with some of these beautiful old teapots.
Of course, many of them have been in grand collections and as such probably infrequently handled. I can imagine that most of these prized painted examples have not been in regular use for a couple of centuries.
Porcelain teapot with underglaze blue and enamel decoration. Nicholas Crisp, Vauxhall, London. 1753-1764
Porcelain teapot painted in enamels. William Baddeley (or William Littler at Longton Hall, Staffordshire) 1777-1784
They are currently on display as part of the Early Porcelain (1740-1780) section of the The Twining Teapot Gallery, Norwich Castle Museum.
For most of the 18th century imported tea was an expensive beverage not least as it was heavily taxed. The high price (5 shillings per pound in 1711) affordable only by the wealthy, was also maintained by the virtual monopoly held by the merchants of the East India Company. Although the tax was reduced in 1723 and again in 1745, tea was smuggled into the country. It was also adulterated with other ingredients such as dried hawthorn leaves. I can’t imagine what that tasted like.
Towards the end of the 18th century following pressure from Richard Twining, Chairman of the London Tea Dealers, the Tea and Window Act of 1784 reduced the duty from 119 per cent to 12 per cent per pound. With such a reduction in price tea became available to the lower levels of society and consumption rose, and, within ten years imports had quadrupled and tea smuggling disappeared. It was William Pitt the Younger who introduced these new much lower rates and at the same time, to mitigate the loss of revenue from tea imports, he increased the window tax hence the Tea and Window Act.
Naturally, teapots were used for tea, but, interestingly not exclusively tea. Below, this cream, textured teapot is one such example. Larger than most of teapots in the Early Porcelain section of the display, it may well have been used for punch. I should think that punch was infinitely preferable to ‘hawthorn’ tea.
From 4 November 2017 – 4 February 2018 the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool is hosting the exhibition ‘Making Himself Claire: Grayson Perry’s Dresses’. Regular readers of this Blog will know I am a big fan of Grayson Perry and his work. And, Claire is a force of nature.
The Exhibition is displaying ensembles designed by students of Central St Martins for this world-famous, cross-dressing artist as well as outfits designed by Grayson Perry himself.
A friend of mine recently went along and took some photos to share with me as I can’t get to Liverpool to see these fabulous, outrageous creations.
The Exhibition is taking place in the Craft and Design Gallery of the Walker Art Gallery.
There is a perennial question ‘Is it art or is it craft?’ that bothers some folk, but I think we can say that both in his Turner Prize winning work, and, his personal expression as Claire, it is all first rate visual culture with no need for post-medieval boundaries.
Last year I entered a competition ‘Norwich Shawls: Past Glory, Present Inspiration’. It was to feature both exhibits of original shawls and new textile work inspired by the shawls. At the time I blogged about the initial re-dyeing and reusing of my silk scraps in preparation for working into a hooked textile wall hanging. My work wasn’t accepted, but it was an interesting experience and gave me the opportunity to find out about the weavers and wearers of Norwich Shawls and consider how to interpret their legacy.
Now as I write, with my Art Historian’s hat on, I know that the production of a creative work and the audiences’ reception of a creative piece, is not without context. As far as the original, very expensive (then and now) Norwich Shawls are concerned, there is plenty of context. The Norwich Shawl was popular in one form or another across the nineteenth century with at it’s height, a royal wearer. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had provided the weavers of Norwich the chance to exhibit their shawls. When Queen Victoria visited the exhibition she saw some of their work and was duly impressed with the beautiful shawls and later ordered two.
Originally Norwich Shawls were produced by weavers working from home and many of the weavers and their families had a hard and precarious existence as recounted in the following extract.
REPORT OF VISITS TO HANDLOOM WEAVERS, 1850 (Extracts from the Morning Chronicle, 29 Jan 1850, Letter XVII)
As usual the loom was in the upper room, which was used as a workroom, bedroom, and in winter, to save a second fire, as a sitting-room. A diminutive little woman – all Norwich weavers are so – was busily engaged at the loom, and during the intervals of putting the fresh bobbins on the shuttle, I obtained the following information from her:- ‘I do the best kind of barege work. If I commence work at light, and keep on till eleven at night, without being called off to do anything else, I can weave eleven dozen in a week, and I should get 11s. 11d. for that – that is, 13d. a dozen. I pay a girl, who does the winding, 2s a week and her dinner; then ‘beaming on,’ candles, and other expenses would be about 10d.- so that would leave me 9s. 1d. for my week’s work. I am rather a privileged person, and if there is any work to be got, I usually have the preference, but I am often obliged to ‘play’… I suppose for the last twelve months I have played four at least. I am married and have four children; they are all at school. My husband sometimes works the other loom. When I do not have this girl to wind for me I can get it done for a penny a dozen.’ A person unacquainted with the process of winding could scarcely form an idea of the quantity of manual labour thus performed for a penny. The ‘dozen’ referred to is a dozen skeins, each containing 560 yards, or 6,720 in the dozen; and this quantity has to be transferred from the hank or skeins to small bobbins for the shuttle, by means of a small wheel, turned by the hand of the winder. A great loss of time constantly takes place in consequence of the threads of silk breaking, and of the constant change of bobbins required when full. At the winding it is physically impossible to earn more than from 2s. to 3s. per week. Of course, the great proportion of this kind of work is done by young 8 children or old persons; but that is not always the case. The person employed as winder in the above instance was a young woman of eighteen years of age, and she received 2s. a week and her dinner; but in addition to winding she was expected to assist in the household duties, in taking care of the children, and other matters, while the woman was at work.”
During my research I read about the advancements in weaving technology through the nineteenth century and, in particular, the ability to weave complex patterns with the invention of the Jacquard loom. Specifically in Norwich the industrialisation of weaving was a slow process. The first power-looms introduced by Henry Willett in 1828 were met with a negative response from the city’s hand-loom weavers who smashed the windows of the Willett & Nephew factory premises viewing the new technology as a threat to their livelihoods. Nevertheless, modernity advanced, albeit slowly, and towards the later half of the nineteenth century the larger, more complicated, all-silk Norwich shawls were mostly made on Jacquard looms either in large workrooms or factories. The Jacquard looms were usually too big for domestic houses and so factory life became the norm for most Norwich shawl weavers.
This is a short video showing the Jacquard loom (pictured above right) in action.
Despite, the industrialisation of the weaving process throughout the 19th century the employment of children in the weaving business was routine both in a domestic and industrial setting. The more I read and learned, the less I felt like ‘celebrating’ the ‘Norwich Shawl’ as simply beautifully woven pieces. The context of their production was as significant as their history of being exemplary textiles prized and owned by a few lucky ladies.
In Part II, I will discuss my creative response to these contexts and the final work I submitted to ‘Norwich Shawls: Past Glory, Present Inspiration’ as well as photographs of other textile artists’ contributions that were exhibited. (Sadly, for some reason which couldn’t be explained, photos weren’t allowed at the Exhibition and it was firmly policed by the volunteers, but I did capture a few snaps on my phone. I would just comment that some of the contemporary artists’ work featured in the Exhibition was/is displayed on the artists’ own websites.)
From the mid-seventeenth century onwards tea-drinking arrived in England and over the next century the English started making teapots and gradually formulated a version of porcelain that could be made into ‘china’ teapots. Originally porcelain production was a Chinese secret, but by the 1740s a form of porcelain was being produced in Britain. Chinese porcelain was very expensive and highly rated as noted by Nicholas Crisp in 1743.
The essential properties of China-ware, besides the Beauty of its Colours, are these: that it is smooth, and as easily cleaned as Glass, and at the same Time bears the hottest Liquors without danger of breaking.
Nicholas Crisp writing in the Public Advertiser in 1743
It was only natural that the innovative potters of England would want to be able to make teapots as good as the much praised China-ware. As a result of fierce, commercial competition to successfully copy these much admired Chinese imports, soft paste porcelain was developed. It was white and glossy and thinly potted to produce teapots similar in appearance to the Chinese imports. However, as soft paste porcelain is fired at relatively low temperatures some of the early teapots shattered when filled with hot water.
Some manufacturers recommended ‘Warming the Pot’. That is slowly warming a teapot to avoid it shattering. It didn’t take many years before soft porcelain was perfected and teapots became reliable receptacles for boiling water, however, ‘Warming the Pot’ persisted. I learnt the ritual from my mother without question, but I have thought, on more than one occasion, why am I doing this as boiling water poured over tea immediately makes the teapot more than warm! Well, now I know – and I won’t be warming the pot in the future! Unless somebody gives me a new plausible reason.
You may have noticed I like pink and I like flowers, so naturally I have painted quite a few scarves inspired by pink flowers.
However, sometimes when nature is doing it so well I feel intimidated by her perfection and find myself turning to the manmade for alternative sources of inspiration.
Firstly, I take a photo of an everyday object, remove the distraction of colour, then turn the image upside down to stop myself from recognising the object. The idea is to stop seeing the motor bike and just see shapes. Then using Photoshop I soften and blur the lines to produce a picture that gives an outcome similar to the resultant image we see when we squint.
With a little more tweaking I eventually get an image that I can use to work from.
And here’s a little first go, freewheeling in monochrome inspired by a motor bike.
Of course, I’ve used the classic black and white combination before giving a very clear area of contrast. But, wait, I can also see some pink flowers!!
Scrolling through a selection of recents photographs I noticed how often birds have been used as a source of creative inspiration. Using creatures symbolically is as old as human culture and even if a bird or animal representation is purely decorative, the work still offers an insight into how the maker viewed their natural environment.
There is this fierce goose-like bird from the Anglo Saxons. It is part of the metal helmet (circa CE625) found amongst the treasures of the Sutton Hoo ship burial discovered in Suffolk, East Anglia. The bird design works as part of the structure of the helmet too with the wings shielding the eyebrows, the body of the bird protecting the nose and the tail fashioned into a metal moustache above the wearer’s mouth.
Bird design on Sutton Hoo Helmet.
Bird design, wings and beak more clearly seen on the replica of Sutton Hoo helmet. Bird faces upwards meeting the mouth of a snake coming over the crown.
Then we have a simple, stylised bird on this French jug from about 1300. French pottery was popular during the 13th century when shipped as part of the wine trade to the English royal court from Aquitaine to England. Despite its age this bird motif has a contemporary ‘now’ feel.
Birds often featured in hunting scenes as shown in these paintings which decorated the late-fifteenth-century East Anglian parish rood screens.
And, birds have often alluded to the unworldly or exotic as shown by this needlework representation of ‘A Byrd of America’ from about 1570. This textile was embroidered either by Mary, Queen of Scots, or, Elizabeth, Countess of Hardwick and forms part of the Oxburgh hangings.
Then we have my recent photograph taken in North Norfolk of a black stork and the beginnings of its translation into the design for a silk scarf.
Tea and teapots came to Britain from China in the middle of the 17th century. The teapots were made either of hard red stoneware or white porcelain and were extremely expensive, but by the 1690s enterprising English potters were producing more affordable copies. In Staffordshire, David and John Elers made unglazed red stoneware from local red clay.
These ‘red’ teapots were imitations of the Chinese teapots from the province of Yixing.
Gradually tea drinking spread from the fashionable and rich to the fashionable and aspirational. Aspirational individuals were those who wanted to emulate the habits of the gentry, including their new and elaborate social ritual of tea-drinking. Demand for teawares increased, both imported from China and locally manufactured in England, giving the Staffordshire Potteries a huge boost as the area began to industrialize in the early eighteenth century. Enterprising potters developed their own range of decorative effects as they attempted to copy Chinese porcelain.
This salt-glazed stoneware teapot has been painted in imitation of Chinese ‘famille rose’ porcelain. The term ‘famille rose’ describes a popular style of decoration used on porcelain produced in China in the 18th century for the Western market. The style was characterised by soft colours, particularly rose pink. Shells were a common decorative motif in the mid-18th century and several different models of shell teapots were produced by the creative Staffordshire potters at this time.
More innovative new glazes were also developed that mimicked precious stones such as agate (shown in this teapot below). The unnamed Staffordshire potter who made this teapot has also added a Buddhist lion knob to the lid to enhance its Oriental appeal.
By the 1770s new designs for teapots featuring fruit or vegetable mouldings became very popular.
It wasn’t just the glazing and surface decoration of teapots that saw extensive innovation, as during the middle of the 18th century the first novelty teapots were introduced. Factories had responded to widening markets and pushed developments in materials and techniques allowing production of moulded as opposed to thrown teapots such as this sitting camel teapot.
This teapot is made in white salt-glazed stoneware and is modelled as a sitting camel, with its legs tucked under its body. It has been made using the slip casting technique. Slip casting using moulds had actually been invented 50 years previously by David and John Elers, but was revived to allow the manufacture of complex and highly irregular shapes in bulk. Slip casting involved thinning white clays mixed with calcined flint to a viscous liquid that was poured into hollow plaster moulds. These moulds were made by specialist craftsmen. Enough Staffordshire slip-cast camel teapots have survived that they are not all sitting on the shelves of museums – you can still buy one from an antique dealer or auction house if you have a spare £5000!
Of course, in the mid-18th century more ordinary folk might have saved up to buy a less glamorous teapot perhaps one similar to this orange-brown earthenware example. It would have cost a shilling, equivalent to about £70 today. Teapots like this one were mass-produced and sold through ‘Staffordshire Warehouses’. These shops had opened across the country in most major towns and cities selling teawares to meet the demand for this newly acquired social pastime – ‘tea-drinking’.
Can you imagine pouring your afternoon tea from one of these fascinating teapots? Here we have three delightful quaint teapots that form a little series decorated with scenes from the parable of the Prodigal Son. A parable that has been visually rendered in various forms over the centuries usually as a serious composition in heavy oils which makes these vibrant, slightly racy images from the 18th century so refreshing. These creamware teapots were made by William Greatbatch and can be found in The Twining Teapot Gallery at the Norwich Castle Museum.
Creamware was popular through the 1760s to the 1780s as it was a more affordable earthenware version of fashionable, ‘high society’ porcelain. The development of creamware is a fine example of the mid-eighteenth-century technological drive improving pottery technique and glazing skills to achieve a commercial advantage. Creamware was successfully exported to Europe with English factory catalogues translated into German, Dutch, French and Spanish.
William Greatbatch creamware teapot and lid circa 1770-82 This is a cylindrical form teapot. Printed and enamelled on the front with The Prodigal Son in Excess, the reverse with The Prodigal Son in Misery.
William Greatbatch creamware teapot and lid circa 1770-82 Printed and enamelled on the front with The Prodigal Son returns Reclaim’d, the reverse with The Prodigal Son feasted on his Return.
William Greatbatch (1735-1813) was one of the talented potters working with creamware. He was a prolific designer and maker of potters’ moulds during the second half of the 18th century. He ran his own pottery in Staffordshire and sometimes worked for Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795). These teapots show pictures that have been transfer-printed and coloured with enamels to decorate the thinly potted earthenware. The images are printed onto the teapot that has been covered with a creamy coloured lead glaze. Alternatively, light creamware items were simply embellished with a pithy verse.
If you’ve ever wondered what the folks used to do in a few minutes of downtime before everybody had a smart phone to fiddle with – it was a spot of scrimshaw. Well, it was if you were a whaler in the 18th or 19th century.
Scrimshaw is the carving of images onto the leftover bleached bones or ivory from the carcasses of hunted marine mammals. Most commonly, the bones and teeth of sperm whales and the ivory tusks of walruses were used. Nowadays when you see these types of examples in museums, which in some cases so obviously look like the original whale tooth or tusk, it’s quite disconcerting. We know that the 19th-century industrialised hunting of sperm whales has taken the species to near extinction and knowing that coloured my response to the whalers’ handiwork. Of course, they were unaware of the extent of the damage being done, for them being a whaler was simply a hard and dangerous way to earn a living. I suppose the best that can be said is that whilst living this harsh life they still wished to be productive and creative, and their finished pieces were tradable and are now viewed as folk art.
Interestingly and unusually, at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, along with the carved sperm whale teeth there were a couple scrimshaw ostrich eggs. Still, I would definitely prefer a dark chocolate Easter Egg instead!
Ostrich egg scrimshaw, late 19th-century, depicting two sailing ships.
Ostrich egg scrimshaw depicting two fashionable ladies carved by 19th-century whalers.