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.

William Adams – Blue and White China

Blue-white-china-shelfIt 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.

William-Adams-chinese-bird

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.

William Adams
William Adams pottery mark – 1913 +

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.

Chinese Gentleman blue and white china
The Chinese Gentleman

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.

William Adams 'Chinese Bird'
Some surviving William Adams ‘Chinese Bird’ pieces from my Grandmother’s collection.

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.

blue and white china collection
Blue and white china a popular choice for over 200 years for English collectors.

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).