Every now and then we have a pleasant surprise when we discover something new. When you’re way past your half century novelty and surprises become less frequent, but they can still pop up and make you smile.
And, this was precisely my response on my most recent visit to Christchurch Mansion when I took the time to scrutinise a few ceramics that I must have hurried past at least ten times before.
These fabulous monsters and goblins are examples of the intriguing and imaginative work of Blanche Georgiana Vulliamy. Startlingly grotesque and so brilliantly coloured I can’t believe I had not noticed them before.
Blanche, one of thirteen children, was born at the family home, Oakstead, on Spring Road, Ipswich, in 1869. In 1890, after finishing her studies at the Ipswich School of Science and Art, she moved to London where she trained as a portrait artist. At some later point in the 1890s she moved down to Devon to live with her grandparents in Torquay. During this time she began working with Royal Aller Vale pottery in Barnstaple.
In her work as a ceramic production designer she created pieces that have the feel of medieval gargoyles. Her work was widely popular and she designed ranges for various manufacturers to produce under their own names. Baron, Wardle, Wileman, Brannam, Watcome as well as Royal Aller Vale all made ranges from her designs.
Naturally, she also sold original pieces from her studio and both Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra (then Princess of Wales) bought examples of her work.
Blanche was not only a ceramicist, she exhibited paintings at the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours and, whilst living in London, she wrote the play ‘Give Heed’ which was produced by Miss Kate Rorke at the Court Theatre in 1909. The play was also published as a book by Constable & Co. And, then during the course of World War One, Blanche sketched a series of pastels featuring searchlights in the night sky. A collection now held at Christchurch Mansion.
Blanche was active from the end of the 19th century until her death in August, 1923. She bequeathed examples of her work to Ipswich Museum. I have read from old newspapers that Christchurch Mansion held an exhibition of her work in 2001. Perhaps next year, 2023, they might hold another to mark the centenary of her death.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like most people before the pandemic and the restrictions and the lockdowns, I used to go out. I went out locally as well as further afield to visit churches, museums and galleries always looking for inspiration for my work. Medieval sculptural details and the patterns painted on Victorian stained glass, so common in our parish churches, have been a great resource. However, for the time being most churches are locked and entry is not permitted.
Naturally, like many people working from home I have turned to the Internet and have found viewing online Fine and Decorative Art Sale Catalogues very worthwhile. These catalogues often have great photos with good colour showing off the beautiful detail that can be found on unusual antiques such as this Carlton Ware vase by Violet Elmer (1907-1988). (And, to my surprise, Violet had a link to Suffolk as her great-grandparents had lived in Scotland Street, Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, in the early 19th century. There is an interesting article in the East Anglian Daily Times about a couple of collectors from just outside Ipswich who have filled their home with Carlton Ware and hunted down some biographical details for Violet. She was born in Oxford in 1907 and moved to Stoke-on-Trent in 1928 to work as a designer at the Carlton Works. Sadly, for us, she stopped work in 1938 when she got married.)
This fine example of her work is vase decorated with exotic birds (disappearing round the top righthand edge), flora and foliage on a pale plum ground. I think it is both beautiful and charming and you could imagine that perhaps Violet Elmer had herself been inspired by a Victorian millefiori paperweight. The shape of those little flowers is so typical of millefiori.
Inspired by or maybe stealing from artists from the past has a long tradition and I am happy to join in and make my own reinterpretation in a different medium.
It is just a pity that the silk I have painted was for those unglamorous, yet currently necessary, face coverings.
PS – I actually painted these silk pieces during the second lockdown and have only just made them up into masks. Lockdowns have seemed to roll one into another. Sigh. And, now I hear they’ve cancelled Glastonbury and UEFA are also proposing this summer’s tournament to only take place in one country (and I have tickets for a game in Glasgow) and, well, Easter? 🤞🏻 Who knows!
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.
At the Wallace Collection, located a few streets north of Selfridges in London, there are fine displays of Old Master paintings, 18th-century French art, arms and armour and a treasure trove of Sèvres 18th-century porcelain.
The Wallace Collection is a national museum, but as these artworks are held and displayed in a majestic, London town house, the exhibits are enhanced by being placed within elegant, well-proportioned rooms.
In particular, the extensive world-renowned collection of French 18th-century Sèvres porcelain benefits from being displayed within these rich domestic interiors of a former private residence.
This porcelain is known as Sèvres as Sèvres, Hauts-de-Seine, France is where the royal factory was relocated to in 1756 and where it remains to this day. Although originally the factory had been founded and supported by King Louis XV in Vincennes in 1740 to produce china in direct competition with Meissen porcelain produced in Saxony.
Sèvres porcelain cup and saucer, 1760. Pale turquoise blue ground overlaid with a trellis pattern, painted with flowers by François Le Vavasseur. Acquired by 1842.
Sèvres cup and saucer decorated with bucolic scene.
Sèvres china is made from soft-paste porcelain which is extremely fragile in the kiln. Many of these pieces have been fired five or more times depending on the complexity of the glazing, the painted decoration and their final gilding.
The displays include the expected tea wares as well also porcelain vases, candelabra, the odd inkstand and even an ice-cream cooler, but it was specifically the beautiful, delicate cups and saucers that I found most charming. Originally they would have been used for tea, coffee or chocolate and what a delightful treat to have sipped a thick sweet chocolate from one of these.
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.
Recently I noticed a display of blue and white china in a local store and mused how we use the word ‘china’ interchangeably with ‘porcelain’. Of course ‘china’ was commonly used to mean from China when referring to dinnerware and tea sets as until the mid-eighteenth century porcelain only came from China.
However, during the 18th century experimentation saw the creation of the first European porcelain pieces, as shown in the photograph below. This roughly finished dish was made in Holland with the year 1739 painted into its design. Produced with a poor, pitted glaze finish it is clearly a lesser version of any similar contemporary Chinese porcelain.
Interestingly, one of the places in Europe where blue and white soft paste porcelain was successfully produced by the 1750s was Lowestoft, a fishing port on the Suffolk coast of East Anglia. The Lowestoft factory produced domestic items from 1757-1801.
Their ceramic range included teapots, teabowls and saucers, mugs, jugs and creamboats decorated with various blue underglaze patterns in a Chinese style.
Lowestoft porcelain saucer. c1770-80. Decorated with wavy bands and sprays of flowers in blue. This is known as the Robert Brown pattern. Robert Brown was one of the owners of the Lowestoft factory.
Blue and white Lowestoft porcelain 1768. Feeding cup also known as a sick-cup decorated with flower sprays and a butterfly.
Although the Lowestoft china business was small compared to Staffordshire or London, enough authentic pieces still survive to support a devoted group of mostly East Anglian collectors. A small saucer may be acquired for about £100, whereas the record price for a rare, 14 cm tall, flask is £24,000 achieved at Bonhams in 2010.
I certainly don’t have a spare £24,000 for this beautifully painted flask, but I do find the old Lowestoft factory’s interpretation of the classic ‘blue and white’ aesthetic pleasingly inspirational.
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’.
The English famously cut off the head of a king over 350 years ago, but assassinating Prime Ministers has not been the British way, except once, in 1812. During that momentous year Napoleon invaded Russia and the USA declared war on Britain and on this day, 11 May 1812, a lone, disgruntled merchant, John Bellingham shot and killed Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister. Perceval’s last words, according to the UK Government’s ‘History of Past Prime Ministers‘ were ‘Oh, I have been murdered’.
Prime Minister Spencer Perceval by Joseph Nollekens. Marble bust (stamped 1813) modelled from death mask taken by Nollekens in May 1812.
Prime Minister from 1809 until his assassination, Perceval was in office through turbulent times with the Napoleonic Wars unsettling the British and the Industrial Revolution gaining momentum spawning the ‘Luddite’ riots. There was also an on-going issue of the national debt – sounds somewhat familiar?
Make of the Gillray what you like, I couldn’t possibly comment. But instead we could take a break from all the gloom, and now as then, have a nice cup of tea – very British!
A week today in the UK there’s a little event called ‘The General Election’ and with some savvy timing the James Hyman Gallery in London has put on an exhibition of photographs called ‘Spitting’. The exhibition features photographs of the original puppets from the 1980s and 1990s satirical series ‘Spitting Image’ which regularly lampooned the contemporary gang of politicians. The life-sized puppets are part of James Hyman’s private art collection and photographers Andrew Bruce and Anna Fox have clearly relished capturing the ferocious, savage puppet caricatures.
The TV series was the work of Peter Fluck and Roger Law. They designed the life-sized puppets and also made pots and teapots of their caricatures. Some of the more popular pieces from Luck and Flaw Productions were made into a stoneware collection by Carlton Ware. This ‘Mrs T’ (Margaret Thatcher) teapot is displayed in The Twining Teapot Gallery at the Norwich Castle Museum.
Margaret Thatcher teapot based on the ‘Spitting Image’ puppet. Luck and Flaw. Stoneware by Carlton Ware. c.1985
Margaret Thatcher teapot based on the ‘Spitting Image’ puppet. Luck and Flaw. Stoneware by Carlton Ware. c.1985
Although no longer in production a Mrs T teapot can be bought from between £70-£80 and a Mrs T jug from between £50-£60 from various shops selling collectible ceramics.
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.