Portals to the Past: British Ceramics 1675-1825

Historical objects reveal much about the people who once owned them and the culture they were produced in: the popular food and drink of the day and how they were served; the styles of the period; even which public figures were especially admired. And that’s the case with the porcelain and pottery produced in 18th-century England. The ceramics on view on these pages should be viewed not just as works of art but as portals to the past. They are windows through which we as modern-day viewers can get a glimpse of what life was like several centuries ago. And maybe, by appreciating the social and cultural significance of these historical artifacts, we will reflect more regularly on what those we live today mean to us.

Portals to the Past title wallThe Mint Museum

The Mint Museum’s renowned collection of 18th-century British pottery and porcelain includes thousands of objects—more than 200 of which are highlighted in this stunning installation at the Mint Museum Randolph location.

Déjeuner Set (circa 1775-1780) by Worcester porcelain factoryThe Mint Museum

In the mid-1600s, three exotic beverages were introduced in Britain: coffee from the Arabian Peninsula, tea from China, and chocolate from Central and South America. Initially, these beverages were great luxuries, but by the mid-1700s, they became part of the daily diet for many people. Ceramics factories invented new forms for serving the drinks and their accompaniments.

The Worcester factory’s porcelain formula included the mineral soapstone, or steatite, which allowed the factory to produce fine wares with bodies and glazes that would not crack when holding hot liquids. This set Worcester apart from other early English factories. The déjeuner set seen here—a breakfast tea service for one—is notable in part because its tray is molded with four circular depressions for holding the set’s individual components.

Coffeepot by Greatbach, WilliamThe Mint Museum

William Greatbatch (1735–1813) was a highly accomplished potter whose career lasted for over 50 years. He operated his own factory at Lower Lane, Fenton in Staffordshire from 1762 to 1782, and during this time, he had a close business association with Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795). After Greatbatch’s business failed, Wedgwood hired him to work at his Etruria factory, possibly as general manager. Greatbatch stayed there until retiring around 1807.

On each side of this coffee pot is a relief of two Chinese women, one holding a fan, standing behind an open-work fence. The figures come from plate 175 of The Ladies Amusement; Or, Whole Art of Japanning Made Easy, published by Robert Sayer (1725–1794) in London, 1762. The Ladies Amusement—a collation of artists’ prints of different subjects—was a popular, 18th-century source for engravers in the potting industries.

Pickle Stand by Bow porcelain factoryThe Mint Museum

The rococo style—initially seen in silver and engraved designs before moving to other media—was developed during the 1720s and 1730s in France. It later appeared in English decorative arts by the 1740s, and the style flourished in Britain for about 30 years. It occured in luxury and utilitarian goods alike. It has several characteristics: an exuberant use of c-scrolls and s-scrolls, often in asymmetrical arrangements; a fondness for naturalistic forms and motifs; and a rock-like and shelly substance known as rocaille. This last feature is often combined with shells and other marine life.

This stand was molded to suggest a rocky outcropping richly encrusted with seaweed, coral, and various types of shells. Bow specialized in shell-encrusted forms, but this version is rare. The stand’s exact function is unknown, but the removable cups’ pouring lips indicate that they held liquids, perhaps sauces or liqueurs.

Leaf-Shaped Tableware (1754/1757)The Mint Museum

Experimental porcelain-making began at the Longton Hall factory in Staffordshire around 1749, but it was not until two years later, when William Littler (1724–1784) joined the partnership, that production began in earnest. Littler was a former salt-glazed stoneware potter, and his experience helped make the venture commercially viable. The factory remained in business for another nine years, before ongoing financial difficulties forced it to close.

Longton Hall embraced the naturalistic aspect of the rococo style, manufacturing an assortment of tablewares with meticulously modeled overlapping cabbage or lettuce leaves. Handles were usually shaped like branches, often with applied buds or leaves..

Dish, Box with Screw Lid, and Teapot by Unkown English PotterThe Mint Museum

Like today, in the 18th century people enjoyed decorating their homes with likenesses of notable people whom they admired. Potters met this demand by depicting popular people—royal family members, prominent politicians and religious figures—as fully three-dimensional busts or surface decorations on their wares.

Here on these vessels is the likeness of John Wilkes (1725–1797), a member of the British Parliament, who in April 1763 published a column in the weekly newspaper The North Briton (issue no. 45) that protested the tyrannical actions of George III. Wilkes became an inspiration for American freedom: Wilkesboro, N.C., and Wilkes Barres, Penn. are among several American towns named after him.

Bust of Alexander I of RussiaThe Mint Museum

This nearly life-sized bust portrays Alexander I of Russia (reigned 1801–1825) in military uniform. He wears two medals: the cross of the Order of Saint George, the most important military honor in Russia, and the star of the Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry in England. He received the latter honor because of his help in defeating Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821). Bonaparte surrendered to Alexander and his troops in Paris on March 31, 1814. The French leader was exiled to the island of Elba, but eventually escaped. On June 18, 1815, his army was defeated once and for all by the British and the Prussians at the Battle of Waterloo.

Potpourri Vase by Chelsea porcelain factoryThe Mint Museum

Like many of us today, people in the 18th century would use potpourri to help mask foul-smelling odors in the home. Fashionable women would sometimes create their own mixtures of flowers, herbs, and spices, sprinkled with scented water, to find a blend that complemented their beauty. Ceramics producers supplied potpourri containers, always in the latest styles for their elegant customers.

Founded around 1745, Chelsea was the first English factory to produce commercial quantities of porcelain. Under the direction of the factory’s co-founder and manager, Nicholas Sprimont (circa 1716–1771), Chelsea specialized in finely enameled tableware, figures, and vases—always in the latest styles. Many of its wares from the 1760s were further embellished with ornate gilding. The delicately pierced patterns on this vase’s neck and lid indicate that the object held potpourri.

Plate by Unknown English (London) potterThe Mint Museum

In the 18th century, over 30 million porcelain wares were shipped from China to England and its colonies. Chinese export porcelain had a tremendous influence on English taste, and many of Britain’s more fashionable consumers—fascinated by the beauty and strangeness of these exotic wares—were eager to own them.

Many of the imported Chinese wares had been decorated before glazing and firing with a cobalt oxide that turned a rich blue in the kiln. These blue-and-white wares were especially influential among the English factories striving to compete. Many of the first blue-and-white English ceramics copied the forms and decorative motifs of their Chinese prototypes.

Tureen by Limehouse porcelain factoryThe Mint Museum

English potters eventually adapted the Chinese blue-and-white aesthetic to their own ceramic shapes and decorative patterns. Limehouse, one of the earliest English porcelain factories, was possibly the first English factory to specialize in under-glaze blue decoration, and its wares were primarily for the dinner or tea table. This tureen is a rare form for the Limehouse factory; the pastoral landscapes painted on its sides are rendered in exceptionally fine detail.

Plate from Husk Service by WedgwoodThe Mint Museum

Dining has always been an important form of socializing, but in the 1700s it was especially important for the courts, the aristocracy, and the growing professional and merchant classes. As members of polite society became more interested in how to outwardly display gracious living, hosting a splendid dinner was an excellent way to demonstrate one’s good taste and etiquette. Wealthy clients commissioned large dinner services in porcelain or silver, while middle-class consumers outfitted their tables with stoneware, earthenware, or pewter. Once Josiah Wedgwood in the early 1760s refined the cream-colored earthenware body, even the elite couldn’t resist ordering services in this material. This plate is part of the Husk Service, a dinner and dessert service commissioned by Catherine the Great of Russia (reigned 1762–1796) in 1770.

Punch BowlThe Mint Museum

Punch became a popular drink among Britain’s middle and upper classes in the 18th century. A popular recipe included brandy, claret (a type of red wine), grated nutmeg, sugar, and lemon juice. It was served in a bowl with toasted bread floating on top. A variation substituted the claret with milk.

This finely painted punchbowl was made for an affluent English patron. Its scene comes from The Pointers and Hare, a print first published in 1754 by Thomas Burford (English, circa 1710–1774) after a painting by James Seymour (English, 1702–1752). The bowl itself was made in Jingdezhen in south-central China, and it was decorated in an enameling workshop in the port city of Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) that handled special orders for the foreign market.

Vase by WedgwoodThe Mint Museum

Classical art—the art of ancient Greece and Rome—strongly influenced British art and architecture from the mid-1760s through the early 1800s. Some designers tried to create precise imitations of classical prototypes. They were helped considerably by catalogues of prestigious antiquities collections, most notably that of Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), who amassed a large collection of classical vases while serving as British envoy to Naples. Josiah Wedgwood was especially influenced by the catalogue of Hamilton’s collection. The shape of this Wedgwood vase is based on a drawing of an ancient Greek lekythos, a vessel used to hold oil or perfume, particularly in religious ceremonies.

Grief ("Dear Eliza") (1779) by Richard Champion's FactoryThe Mint Museum

This sculpture of a classically garbed woman leaning against a funerary urn was inspired by the painting Andromache and Hecuba Weeping over the Ashes of Hector by Angelika Kauffman (1741–1807). Kauffman’s painting depicts the grieving wife and mother of Hector, the Trojan warrior slain by the Greek hero Achilles in Homer’s The Iliad.

While Richard Champion’s sculpture refers to a tragic episode in classical mythology, it tells another mournful tale that is far more personal to him. The sculpture’s lengthy gilt inscription indicates that it was a memorial to Champion’s eldest daughter, Eliza, who died at 14. The text on the main section of the urn’s pedestal begins with: “We loved you, my dear Eliza, whilst you were with us. We lament you now you are departed.”

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