Would you give a home to one of these things (assuming always that you had the space)? I used to think that I wouldn’t – overblown, grotesque, quite unsuited (except in the most utilitarian terms, i.e. they have holes and hold water) to their purpose as flower vases. But I have to admit to a certain fascination for the skill of the makers and for the social history that these pieces embody.
This one, currently on display in Gallery 15 (Dutch art) of the Fitzwilliam Museum, came to the Museum from (where else?) the bequest of Dr J.W.L. Glaisher – though date- and provenance-wise it could well have been part of the Founder’s Collection, through his mother’s family. Catherine Decker (c. 1710–86) was the eldest of the four daughters of the Dutch merchant Sir Matthew Decker (1679–1749), who was naturalised in Britain in 1704.
Through banking and trading, he built an immense fortune, which survived both the vicissitudes of politics and the turmoils of finance (he was a director of the South Sea Company), thanks largely to the influence first of Robert Harley (grandson of the remarkable Brilliana, Lady Harley, but more to the point, prime minister under Queen Anne, and first earl of Oxford and Mortimer), and later of James Brydges (politician, first duke of Chandos (as in Handel’s anthems), and patron of the arts).
The ceramics in question were made in Delft in the Netherlands, of tin-glazed earthenware (which became known (and was widely imitated) as ‘delftware’ in Britain). Their characteristic colour is of course in imitation of the Chinese porcelain of which thousands of pieces were imported through the complex networks of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC. (Who now remembers the sensation of the Nanking Cargo, salvaged from the wreck of the Dutch ship Geldermalsen in 1986?)
There was a setback in the importation of this most desirable Stuff after the death in 1620 of the Wanli emperor, longest reigning (though somewhat ineffective) ruler of the Ming dynasty – chaos and a Manchu invasion put paid to export wares for the time being, and into this lacuna stepped the pottery makers of the Netherlands, which was about to enter its Golden Age.
Two disasters seem to have assisted the rise of the Delft ceramicists. The first was the Spanish Fury, the violent sack in 1576 of Antwerp (where tin-glazed pottery was already being produced under Italian influence) by mutineering Spanish troops, which caused skilled craftsmen to flee north. The second was the Delft Thunderclap of 1654, an accident waiting to happen (connected to taking uncovered torches into a gunpowder store) which devastated the city, killed the staggeringly talented painter Carel Fabritius and caused the expanding pottery trade to take over the flattened breweries where its (until then) most famous export had been produced.
The Delft potters could not make porcelain (that would take another century in the West), but they were able to develop a thin earthenware and glaze it to produce blue-and-white pots, plates and vases, many decorated in the Chinese (and later in the Japanese Imari) style (as well as their celebrated tiles, possibly 800 million of them).
As is well known, Mary Stuart, daughter of James, duke of York and princess of Orange, was very fond of Delft pottery. The poor girl, married at 15 and 5 ft 11 inches to William, aged 27, 5 ft 6 inches, with bad teeth and recurrent mistresses, seems to have taken refuge in her exile from England in needlework, improving books on divinity, card games, gardening and ceramics, not necessarily in that order, and overspent on the latter two.
On her return to England as queen in 1689, she brought her collection of Chinese porcelain, and her equally renowned collection of exotic plants, with her.
Daniel Defoe, in his Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724), comments of the queen’s ceramic collection, and the craze it led to: ‘The queen brought in the custom or humour, as I may call it, of furnishing houses with china-ware, which increased to a strange degree afterwards, piling their china upon the tops of cabinets, scrutores, and every chymney-piece, to the tops of the ceilings, and even setting up shelves for their china-ware, where they wanted such places, till it became a grievance in the expence of it, and even injurious to their families and estates. The good queen far from designing any injury to the country where she was so entirely belov’d, little thought she was in either of these laying a foundation for such fatal excesses, and would no doubt have been the first to have reform’d them had she lived to see it.’ He attributes a love of gardening, however, to the King alone.
Mary had also been commissioning Delft pottery for her new palace, Het Loo, near Appeldoorn, begun in 1684, and continued to buy when she arrived in England.
Sir Christopher Wren designed a new palace at Hampton Court for William and Mary (he would have demolished the whole of its Tudor predecessor in the process, but the money ran out), and a new garden was laid out in Continental style, though, sadly, neither Mary nor William lived to see it completed.
This startling vase, now in the Royal Collection, was made for Mary in the De Grieksche A (‘Greek A’) factory at Delft, then run by Adriaen Kocks (d. 1701). Examples of Kocks’s (clearly top-of-the-range, costly) work can also be seen at Chatsworth and at Dyrham House, near Bath.
The royal piece is recorded in inventories from Het Loo and Hampton Court as standing in fireplaces during the summer months, much as embroidered screens or flower arrangements are used today. The visual evidence for such use – perhaps surprisingly – comes not from the flower paintings of which the Dutch in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were such masters, but from embroideries like the one pictured in the fascinating article linked above. Were the painters unwilling to tackle such a complex mixture of organic and inorganic materials, or did they believe that the flowers were simply better displayed in the rather less ostentatious setting of a glass, a ‘classical’ vase or an urn?
The Hampton Court, Chatsworth and Dyrham examples are in the style of a high plinth with an obelisk above it – is this an imagined Chinese pagoda, or a very loose imitation of the ‘pyramid’ style of topiary used at Versailles and elsewhere? But the Fitzwilliam one, also made by Kocks (like a similar example at Uppark in Sussex), is a ‘real’ vase, with a detachable base, perhaps less suitable for putting in a fireplace than on a table? The section with tubes for the flowers looks almost like an afterthought, a rather grotesque stopper for an outsize jar. And while the royal and Chatsworth works have improving messages as part of the decoration – figures of the various Virtues, the lion emblems of the House of Orange, a portrait of William III himself – the Fitzwilliam vase is covered with neoclassical motifs not very different in style from earlier maiolica wares.
Unfortunately, the provenance of Glaisher’s piece, before he purchased it ‘from Mr Louis Mossel, 6 Manette Street, Charingcross Road, London, in July 1906, for £110.0.0’ (allegedly about £12,000 in today’s values), is not known. Another Grieksche A piece, ‘purchased from Mr Louis Mossel of 6 Manette Street, Charingcross Road, London on 28 January 1905 for £16’, was much smaller, a rather less lively (I was going to write ‘more anaemic’) blue, and rather more obviously a table-top item.
However, his favourite piece of Grieksche A ware was a much less ostentatious ceramic cistern with a little silver spigot, acquired through an agent at auction in Amsterdam on ‘28 November 1908 … for a total of £97.10.0 including commission and expenses’.
He remarked of it, ‘I now feel that with the pieces I already have in my collection it is quite satisfactory as representing blue delft at its apogee.’ The ‘roof’ comes off so that you can fill it with water, and it can be hung on a wall from two holes in the (undecorated) back – was it for topping up the water in the spouts of your flower vases? Or might it have been a very elaborate water pot for a bird? Fabritius’s goldfinch is shown on the tank from which it has learnt to draw water (see the description in the Mauritshuis guide): did this this piece of ‘blue delft at its apogee’ belong to a more pampered captive finch which could manipulate a silver tap? (Probably not.)