I don’t like, and have never liked, pottery and porcelain figures. I admire the superb craftsmanship that went into making them, but it seems to me a terrible waste of skill and effort to produce these coy and simpering results. (It might have something to do with the coy and simpering examples of the genre in my grandmother’s house, which I found most sinister and threatening when I was very small.)
However, I find myself increasingly interested in one of the crudest manifestations of modern ceramic figures: the mid-eighteenth-century Staffordshire wares, and especially the type called ‘pew groups’, of which the Fitzwilliam Museum currently has six examples on display.
They all come from the collection of James Whitbread Lee Glaisher (1848–1928), Fellow of Trinity from 1871 (the year he graduated second wrangler) until his death, mathematician and astronomer.
J.W.L. was the son of James Glaisher (1809–1903), Greenwich astronomer, meteorologist and balloonist, and his wife Cecilia (1828–92), who was a member of the famous Greenwich ‘time-keeping’ Belville family. Cecilia was a pioneer in plant photography, famous for her pictures of ferns and her drawings of snowflakes, both visible at this online exhibition.
J.W.L. Glaisher lived in Trinity from the start of his fellowship. It is quite beyond my powers to describe what he did as a mathematician: suffice it to quote the ODNB: ‘The number of his mathematical papers amounts to nearly four hundred, few of which are of lasting interest. Mention should, however, be made of his contributions to definite integrals, differential equations, elliptic functions and their developments, and, significantly for Cambridge, to the theory of numbers particularly in connection with elliptic functions.’
His obituary in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society (above) gives the impression that, as he gradually did less work in the field of mathematics, he thought he would become a collector, and lighted on ceramics. I doubt if it was quite that simple, but he clearly got the bug: the same piece describes his rooms in Trinity as overflowing with Stuff, on every available surface, including the chairs. He loaned many items from his collection to the Fitzwilliam during his lifetime, and at his death the whole (with his archive, including his mother’s photographs, and ‘a substantial cash legacy’) was bequeathed to the museum. (Type ‘Glaisher’ into the online ‘Search the Collections’ page, and you get 5843 hits…)
Back to the ‘pew groups’. They are a type of ‘flatware’, not to be confused with metal flatware, i.e. knives, forks, etc., but so called because, although three-dimensional, they were designed to be viewed only from the front. (A bit like the more famous pairs of Staffordshire dogs which, judging by their ubiquity, must have stood on most Victorian overmantels.)
‘Pew groups’ is probably a misnomer: the figures are seated on high-backed benches (few of which have survived intact), but they are more likely to be domestic (or public house) settles rather than church pews. Dating from around 1750, they are made using the relatively new technique which mixed calcined, crushed flint into the local clay, resulting in a much stronger, cream-coloured ceramic which led the way to the later development of creamware and pearlware.
How on earth, you may ask, did the first inventor of this mixture, which involved bringing beach flints from the south coast and even from France, shipping them to Shardlow in Derbyshire along the river Trent, and then taking them into Staffordshire first by cart and then by the Trent and Mersey Canal, come by the idea? In a story apparently originating with Josiah Wedgwood (who knew him) the potter John Astbury (?1688–?1743) happened to notice an ostler blowing pulverised powder from a red-hot flintstone into the eyes of a horse as a remedy (for what???), which gave him the idea of using calcined flint in pottery. (The leap of logic is so startling it may even be true … ? )
The mineral was prepared by pounding the heated flint and then sifting it through a fine mesh – which proved very harmful to the workmen, producing a fatal lung condition called ‘potter’s rot’, a type of silicosis. (A local engineer, Thomas Benson, when applying for a patent for a wet grinding process, noted: ‘Any person ever so healthful or strong working in that business cannot probably survive above two years, occasioned by the dust sucked into his body by the air he breathes.’)
The new, pale ceramics became very popular, and a whole range of purely decorative models was rapidly produced. Moulded figures such as this one of Dr Henry Sacheverell (1674-1724), the high-church Tory controversialist and preacher, show the characteristics shared with the ‘pew groups’: elaborate details in the wig and clothing, but crude features delineated with blobs (also crude in this case) of colour.
At the same time, a line in functional fantastic beasts was developed, including this owl jug and cup (the head) and a beer jug where a bear hugs a dog in the Victoria and Albert Museum: the colour blobs are used as pure decoration as well as to mark e.g. the eyes.
The Glaisher pew groups are remarkable (I think!) for the contrast between the crudeness of the moulding of the human figures – especially the faces – and the delicacy of the depiction of the clothes and hair. The men’s wigs are a delight: an assemblage of tiny Chelsea buns interlocked on their heads, in one case topped with a jaunty tricorn.
Look at the details such as shoes and their buckles, and the buttons on the men’s coats and waistcoats; in this one, the ribbing in the musician’s worsted stockings is clearly visible.
The women mostly have coloured blobs on their faces which I thought might be fashionable patches, but apparently the intention was to depict rosy cheeks and lips (and other parts of the anatomy, presumably).
Are they just ‘merry companies’ in the manner of the Dutch genre, or is there a suggestion of courtship?
In this one (above), the man is turning towards the woman in a hopeful kind of way (having spread the skirts of his coat over two-thirds of the settle), but she is looking a bit disgruntled – perhaps because the wine bottle between them is empty. And are the grotesque faces inset into the settle back supposed to be cupids?
In this one, there are heart shapes stamped out of the back of the settle, but the atmosphere is not exactly lovey-dovey: he may be rolling his eyes, and she looks cross.
Musical instruments play a part: below, he is serenading her with (Northumbrian?) bagpipes; she, in her neatly goffered cap, is impassive, but her lapdog may be singing along.
This gentleman (above) with a bassoon may be having better luck: the lapdog may again need soothing, but the lady’s apparent décolletage may be encouraging. (Note the beautiful barley-sugar twists down the sides of the settle.)
Below, two men play the pipes and a fiddle: on the back panel, another barking dog and a horse may implicitly be criticising the performance.
Finally, Adam and Eve stand on either side of the fatal tree, round which the serpent coils. It is believed that Eve is on the right: although this figure is taller, the breasts (and, again, rosy cheeks) identify her.
The couple both have spectacular breeches made out of fig leaves, while branches of fruit and flowers from the tree decorate the arms of the settle. Very soon afterwards, the genre became more sophisticated: this couple are in a bower rather than on a settle, and the intention is clearly more romantic, if not positively improper.
I’d love to know whether the pew groups were intentionally comic, or intended to be realistic? And were they relatively cheap, the sort of ‘tawdry’ wares available for sale or as prizes in a fairground, or more costly, a status symbol for the mantelpiece of those who could afford them? Not many seem to have survived (the Fitzwilliam has one of the larger collections worldwide), which is a shame, because these rather clumsy yet touching pieces give pause for all sorts of thoughts as well as offering amusement.