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.
Sometimes you visit a local museum and you find a small, interesting display that appears to have nothing to do with the locality of the museum at all. Ipswich Museum has several sections which at first glance have no obvious connection with Suffolk let alone Ipswich. Then you stoop to read the appended information and find that a small collection or special item was donated by an Ipswich or Suffolk resident.
These types of display sprung to mind when last month I was reading about Ipswich Museum and saw a comment querying the relevance of non-local content. I know it is usual for a town’s local museum to focus on exhibits that have local connections especially any that can be spun for a local audience.
However, we don’t simply visit museums for ‘home’ histories, but also to find how our town connects to the wider world. And, Ipswich has been a port since the 8th century and a trading site for nearly 1,500 years.
Despite neither being produced nor discovered in Ipswich this cabinet of Islamic calligraphy and decorative ceramics is both interesting and beautiful, and provides the visitor with a display of another culture’s creative expression.
The exhibits may well have come to the museum as part of a donation from a local Victorian ethnographer, or, a passionate 20th-century collector obsessed with the history of ceramics and that in itself is of interest.
Nevertheless, however these pieces came to be in Ipswich I have found them an excellent source of inspiration. I have particularly admired this fine twisted serrated leaf entwined with flowers, known as the ‘saz’ motif, which I have used for a face mask or two.
As I wrote last week I will be at Blackthorpe Barn for the British Crafts this weekend. Obviously there has been publicity in the local press and for Suffolk that means a splash in the East Anglian Daily Times.
But the really good news is that the pre-eminent organisation, The Craft Council, has also recommended the British Crafts event in their list of the best eight Christmas Craft events across the UK.
I don’t actually take the Crafts Magazine myself, but I looked at their online listing and found this engaging photograph showing Margaret Gardiner presenting once of her beautiful pieces accompanying the listing for Blackthorpe Barn.
I think it is quite a coup for Blackthorpe Barn to be included in this feature and my fingers are crossed that all my fellow crafters will do well especially during these uncertain times.
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.
The beautiful peacock blue tiles by William De Morgan line the Narcissus Hall.
Looking up at the rich detail of the 16th and 17th century Islamic tiles that decorate the Arab Hall.
Leighton House Museum in Kensington, London, is a sharp reminder that bling and an overt display of conspicuous consumption is certainly not a 21st-century phenomenon. This glorious, ornate house was the private home and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-96). Leighton was a painter, sculptor and illustrator, and a leading Victorian neoclassicist who was so successful during his lifetime he was knighted in 1886 and then ennobled in 1896 by Queen Victoria.
Daybed/ottoman in front of fretwork shutters in the Arab Hall.
Original 16th and 17th-century Islamic tiles (mainly from Damascus) and columns with carved capitals by the sculptor Edgar Boehm.
His home, the house at 12 Holland Park Road, was designed and built by George Aitchison under Leighton’s personal direction and was to reflect his, Leighton’s, premier status as arbiter of taste. And, at the same time the house was to augment his successful career as an artist.
Art historically he is known as a neoclassicist however he did associate with some of the other famous Victorian ‘art celebrities’ of the period such as the Pre-Raphaelites Rossetti, Millais and Burne-Jones. Walking round the Arab Hall, the Narcissus Hall, the drawing room, the Silk Room and the studio you can imagine how sensational it must have been to have attended a social gathering hosted by Sir Frederic Leighton.
The current exhibition ‘A Victorian Obsession’ (ending on Monday, 6 April 2015) is comprised of 52 paintings that have been collected over the past 20 years by the Spanish born, Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, one of Mexico’s most successful businessmen. The art, mostly by Leighton and Alma-Tadema with a few canvasses from other artists of the same period, is displayed throughout the house. In my opinion hanging such an exhibition in this rich, original interior enhances the viewing experience and also provides the essential context for looking at paintings that are often viewed as saccharin and distant from our contemporary ‘less is more’ taste.
After Christmas and the New Year we are all encouraged to turn our attention to holidays. During the Victorian era with the coming of the railways more and more people could afford to take a holiday. And, a stay at the seaside became a family treat. Great Yarmouth on the east coast of Norfolk with its beautiful long sandy beach rapidly developed to attract the ‘new’ holidaymaker. Naturally, at the end of their visit people wanted to buy souvenirs as little reminders of their stay, and a porcelain plate decorated with pictures of various seaside attractions made the perfect keepsake.
Plates, cups and saucers, mugs, jugs, and unusually, ceramic shoes were decorated with an appropriate topographical scene transferred on to white porcelain or earthenware. Coloured glazes then finished off the pieces. Glazes of pale blue and green were used, but pink was the most popular colour towards the end of the 19th century.
However, a visitor didn’t have to buy the standard view of the seaside pier, they could always choose a ceramic adorned with the ever popular theme pictures of children.
The above pieces sum up in three objects so much about how we, in the 21st century, view the everyday Victorian and their questionable taste, but pause a moment and note that pink kitsch is alive and kicking today – not least in this pair of pink resin reindeers.
It is strange, but my Grandmother died over 20 years ago and I’ve wrapped and unwrapped her blue and white china at least seven times since then as I’ve moved around. And, until now I’d not properly examined it.
It is from the company of William Adams and the printed mark and registration number (clearly decipherable, 623294) dates from about 1913.
This Pattern was introduced by William Adams in 1780 being a copy of a Chinese & one of the first of its style produced in English pottery.
This pattern was called ‘Chinese Bird’ and continued to be popular through the 1920s and 1930s. It consists of pictorial lozenge panels featuring either asiatic birds or oriental gentlemen surrounded by a blue and white mosaic style pattern. The origin of this pattern of decoration and its longevity is proudly stamped on the bottom of the base of each piece. A kind of promotional strapline, a little puff and a glimpse of 19th-century marketing as mass production took off.
The Adams family of potters had been active working with the kilns of Staffordshire probably since 1650, but by the beginning of the twentieth century ‘William Adams’ was a brand. The original William Adams (1745-1805) had worked for Josiah Wedgwood during the eighteenth century and then successfully launched his own company William Adams, of Greengate, Tunstall, Staffordshire. This business was passed on to his son in 1805, but then sold out of the family to John Meir another Tunstall potter in 1822.
The name does not end there as there were other cousins and relations, one Edward Adams, and another three William Adams who made Staffordshire ceramics in the Potteries during the 19th century. W. Adams, Adams, Adams & Co, Adams Warranted Staffordshire, W Adams & Sons, W A & S, Wm Adams & Co, ADAMS, W Adams & Co Tunstall were used through the 19th and 20th centuries until the business became part of the Wedgwood Group in 1966.
And, spool forwards to December 2016 and I’ve worked the blue and white look to create a hand painted silk scarf (now sold, but other scarves available).
In Britain towards the end of the 18th century the fad for ‘bathing in the sea’ gripped the wealthy and adventurous. At the same time travelling for pleasure instead of travelling for necessity or duty, became more affordable and accessible. The fashion for visiting the seaside, healthy promenading and sea bathing developed as a popular extension to the pastime of attending a spa town and taking the waters. As early as 1730, one, John Atkins, wrote about the benefits of ‘Sea Bathing’ in his book, ‘A Compendious Treatise on the Contents, Virtues, and Uses of Cold and Hot Mineral Springs in general.’
Wealthy people travelling by coach and horses began visiting coastal towns. On the east coast of Norfolk, Great Yarmouth, with a gentle, sandy beach became more than a fishing port and offered the early tourist perfect access to the sea to indulge in the latest health craze. No tourist was going to return home empty-handed and a selection of seaside mementos were available. Some early pieces have survived such as this cylindrical mug ‘A Trifle from Yarmouth’ or this jug ‘A Present from Yarmouth’. The jug shows the Parish Church of St Nicholas, Yarmouth, as it would have been before it was heavily renovated by the Victorians and then completely bombed out in 1942 by the Luftwaffe.
With the coming of the railway to Great Yarmouth in 1844, more and more people visited the seaside and town, and more and more merchandise of varying quality was made and sold. As with many items found in museums it is not always the quality, but often just the scarcity of a piece that gains it shelf space. But these little ceramics still impart some essence of the past. The verse on this early-19th-century bowl reads,
In every state
May you most happy be
And when far distant
Oft times think on me.
Pots have been objects of cultural expression across many centuries and cultures. Although not as resilient as stone, but less ephemeral than textiles and books, ceramic works have been collected and cherished by all kinds of us. Lustreware, the use of metallic glazes on ceramics, dates from about the ninth century with the earliest surviving examples showing lustre glazes decorating glass vessels.
The Ceramics Department at the V&A Museum in London is always worth a visit and recently I saw these beautiful examples of Wedgwood Fairyland Lustreware. They are the work of one of Wedgwood’s painter/designers called Daisy Makeig-Jones (1881-1945) who joined the firm in 1909. These charming pieces are bone china, printed and painted in underglaze colours with gold and lustre and are thought to date from about 1923.
As with many fine, expensive pieces they are some of the best examples of lustreware which had been popular throughout the nineteenth century following the introduction of pink and white lustreware in 1805 by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons. This spawned a whole number of lesser, but more affordable versions of pottery lustreware.
Some 150 years later my great-aunt received this version as a wedding gift. A Staffordshire Potteries much diluted version of the pink ‘Moonlight’ lustreware of Wedgwood.
This pink jug has an iridescent sheen created by adding a metallic film over brush marked glazing. It was made by the Kensington Pottery Ltd (1922-61) sometime after 1937 when the company changed their mark from KPH to KPB.