Gorgeously Grotesque Ceramics

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 at 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.

WW One Searchlights. Blanche Georgiana Vulliamy. 1914-18. Pastels on paper.

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.

Down the rabbit hole with John Tenniel

alice-in-wonderland-and-through-the-looking-glassIt’s just over one month into the New Year and the world of politics is thrashing from one extraordinary tweet to another and here in the UK a notable Member of Parliament has even suggested some of our politicians are living in Wonderland.

mad-hatters-tea-party
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Chapter VII, A Mad Tea Party, ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll. 1898 Illustration by John Tenniel (from my grandmother’s 1905 edition)

In last week’s parliamentary debate on Brexit, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke, expressed his views on the hopes of his Pro-Brexit colleagues saying,

“Apparently you follow the rabbit down the hole and you emerge in a wonderland where suddenly countries around the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets that previously we had never been able to achieve as part of the European Union,” he said. “Nice men like President Trump and President Erdoğan are just impatient to abandon their normal protectionism and give us access. No doubt there is somewhere a Hatter holding a tea party with a dormouse.”

Flicking through my Grandmother’s copy of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, to find the famous John Tenniel illustration of the Hatter’s Tea Party, I spotted a few more delightfully grotesque images I’d forgotten.

Interestingly, there is a tradition hailing from Suffolk, that a medieval stained glass, representation of Elizabeth Talbot, wife of John de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, is the inspiration for the Duchess in John Tenniel’s illustrations found in ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’.

long-melford-elizabeth-talbot

This splendid painted glass is part of the spectacular, medieval stained glass windows of Holy Trinity, Long Melford in Suffolk. However, when digging around for further information I read that some commentators have suggested Elizabeth Talbot looks more like the Queen of Hearts. I’m not sure whether it is the headdress styles or the facial expressions depicted that have prompted such comparisons.

Of course, either way it’s a nice idea, but I think, in truth, I am more in agreement with Marilyn Roberts who, writing in ‘The Mowbray Legacy’, suggests that the well-known painting, ‘Grotesque Old Woman/The Ugly Duchess’ by Quentin Massys in the National Gallery, was more likely Tenniel’s inspiration.

ugly duchess
‘The Ugly Duchess’ or ‘Grotesque Old Woman’ by Quentin Massys. Oil on oak panel 62.4 by 45.5 cm. circa 1513 National Gallery, London.