By Sarah Nichols
In recent years the annual Antiques Show at The Carnegie has regularly provided the Decorative Arts Department of the Carnegie Museum of Art with an opportunity to add to its collections, particularly in the area of ceramics. Several objects acquired over the last three years reveal intriguing ties to English public affairs of the past. These objects include a salt-glazed stoneware tankard, c. 1740, a Chinese export porcelain punch bowl from c. 1770, and an earthenware coin bank from Staffordshire in the form of a country house from c. 1813. While the stoneware tankard and the export punchbowl are overtly political, the earthenware bank offers an indirect comment on old tax laws.
The 1740 tankard has finely detailed molded decoration commemorating Admiral Edward Vernon's victory over the Spanish at Portobello, Panama, in 1739. An outspoken military and political leader who criticized Spanish colonial policy in the 18th century, when the British empire was expanding its influence, Vernon boasted that he could capture Spain's rich outpost at Portobello, which was Spain's Caribbean port for the shipment of riches from the New World and the Pacific islands to the Spanish Crown. This he accomplished with the loss of very few seamen.
He returned to England a national hero and the Staffordshire potteries lost no time in producing souvenirs to celebrate his exploits. This large tankard with its three panels shows the port of Portobello, the royal coat of arms, and a head-to- toe portrait of Vernon. Vernon's fame was various: he was called "Old Grog" by sailors for his practice of reducing drunkenness by mixing water with the sailor's ration of rum (a policy later adopted by the navy), and he lives on in American history through the naming of Mount Vernon, George Washington's home in Virginia. Washington's half brother, Lawrence, served under Admiral Vernon, and named the family estate after him
This 1740 tankard is important in the history of ceramics in England. The refined detailing of its design could only be achieved by the technique of slip casting using porous plaster of Paris molds. By this technique the slip (i.e.,watered clay) was introduced into plaster of Paris molds which absorbed the water from the clay, leaving a fine surface for firing. This technique seems to have been introduced in Staffordshire in 1740, exactly at the same time that Vernon was at the height of his popularity. The Portobello pieces are considered one of the earliest documented examples of the use of this technique.
Made in China several decades after the tankard, the Chinese export porcelain punch bowl was created specifically for the English and American markets. The bowl features a picture of the English political radical John Wilkes, who supported economic and parliamentary reform and the independence of America. His figure is on the left, and on the right-flanked by Satan, chains, a serpent and the inscription "justice sans pitie"-is Judge Mansfield, his adjudicator. In 1763 the outspoken Wilkes offended the King with a critical article in his paper, North Briton, and was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. He was later released, but he was found guilty of libel, and to escape further imprisonment he fled to France and Italy. In 1768 he returned to England and was again elected to Parliament by a large majority. His popularity was undiminished, although he was expelled from the House of Commons and not allowed to take his seat. The decoration on this bowl was copied in China from a printed broadsheet issued in London in June of 1768. The impending conflict between Britain and America, and Wilkes's renewed electoral struggles in 1772, heightened the popularity of these bowls on both sides of the Atlantic. They were prized by those who hailed Wilkes as a champion of liberty.
Third in this series of commemorative English ceramics is a large earthenware coin bank, dating some four decades after the porcelain punch bowl. The bank has two slits for depositing money on the back of the roof, and closely resembles one inscribed "New Hall China Manufactory Staffordshire 1813." This factory was based at Shelton Hall near Hanley in Staffordshire, and the form of this bank may derive from that building. Later the house and therefore the factory acquired the name "New Hall" to distinguish it from the two other Shelton Halls in its vicinity. This model is particularly large for use as a ceramic bank, suggesting that it was clearly ceremonial rather than functional, and was probably produced in 1813 to celebrate an important occasion in the factory's history. The only way to retrieve coins from the bank is to break it.
The blocked-up windows on the ground floor of the house are significant. Why bother to reproduce blocked windows in a ceramic model, unless they were truly characteristic of the house? One explanation is that in this house-turned-factory the ground floor was used for manufacturing, hence the ground floor windows were permanently blocked. But another explanation is that, since in 18th-century England glass windows were taxed as evidence of wealth, the blocked windows reduced the owner's taxes. Whatever the explanation, the closed windows are seen on every example of this large earthenware bank.
Knowledge of 200-year-old public events can add interest to fine ceramics such as these, but is simply one of many reasons why collectors and curators enjoy the antiques show at The Carnegie. More than 40 dealers who exhibit have antiques for all tastes and all budgets, not only the Museum's. Curators who patronize the show have an ongoing competition to find the least expensive object for sale-a record currently held by a silver teaspoon priced at six dollars. The teaspoon was quickly snapped up. The show is also a wonderful opportunity to browse, enjoy the spectacular setting and acquire new decorating ideas. For those who want first choice of what is offered, the preview party on the evening before the opening is a must. Expect the curators of the Decorative Arts Department to be there, searching for new treasures for the collection.
Sarah Nichols is curator of the Department of Decorative Arts at the Carnegie Museum of Art