Thursday, April 5, 2018

Idealized Scenes from Life

QUESTION: I’ve grown to love the scenes on English transferware. I’ve got a small collection that I add to from time to time. How did the makers of these wares know what sort of scenes to use to decorate their wares? Were they trying to illustrate stories or myths? Nearly all of the scenes on my pieces are rural. Is there a reason for that?

These are all good questions. The Victorians had a method to their madness, as the old saying goes. As it turns out, the scenes on your Staffordshire transferware pieces were a direct result of historic events and the lifestyles that people led at the time.

During the 19th century, Victorians began exploring the world around them.  Technological advances enabled them to make more ambitious voyages of discovery. And as they journeyed farther from home, their views of the natural world changed. This changing perspective reflected in the decorations of 19th-century ceramics ranging from early historical and romantic Staffordshire transfer printed wares to late 19th-century majolica. Idealized wilderness and pastoral scenes could be found on all types of vessels and dishes.

By this time Americans had begun to develop a different view of the land. To the Puritans, wilderness had been considered a land of devils and demons, a domain to be feared. But the Victorians reveled in the beauty of nature.

The American frontier had been pushed westward. Following this trend, Staffordshire potteries began producing transfer printed landscapes illustrating the popular, romantic ideal of nature. Favorite spots such as Niagara Falls and Newport, Rhode Island, began to accommodate sightseers. And the Romantic Movement of the first half of the 19th century influenced the images on ceramics, from country scenes to floral motifs.

The Victorians developed a passion for natural history. They chronicled what they found in journals--the world's flora, fauna, and sea life—and created museums for their discoveries, erecting home conservatories, and published illustrated volumes on the natural sciences. Staffordshire artists thumbed through botany texts and visited botanical gardens and zoos, sketch-pads in hand, for inspiration. Some of this fascination may be seen in the border designs created by several of the potters of  Staffordshire wares and the floral motifs seen in Flow Blue.

Another reason for the popularity of a romanticized image of woodlands, mountains, sandy shores, and even idyllically situated American towns may be traced to the actual dirtiness and difficulty of life in both rural and urban landscapes.

Scenes on dinnerware were pristine by comparison. Several of the city views do show cattle and sheep in the foreground, but the cleanliness even of those scenes provided at least temporary escape from the dirtiness of the real world.

Another result of the Victorians’ fascination with nature, plus the Victorians’ obsession with death, was the Garden Cemetery Movement, born in Boston. In 1832, a group created the Auburn Cemetery, a large rural cemetery in rolling countryside with plenty of room for adequate burials. The site was also far enough away from the city to make grave robbery difficult. They adorned the  garden cemetery landscape with sculptures and artful groupings of trees and flowers to combine a necessity for more burial land with a desire to revel in nature.

The sylvan burial plots brought families to the large, rural cemeteries on picnics. Young couples took long strolls and individuals wandered among sepulchers and statuary to seek out moral lessons and inspiration. In essence, the new cemeteries became the first American public parks—places to commune both with nature and the dearly departed.

This combination of movements explains several unusual historical Staffordshire prints. Neither George Washington nor Benjamin Franklin would have ever expected anyone to spend time ruminating over his grave. Yet Enoch Wood & Son in both the illustrations of “Franklin's Tomb” and `Washington's Tomb” depict General Lafayette reclining by urn-capped tombs drawing inspiration from the resting places of his departed allies. Edward and George Phillips, two other noted artists of the time, show a young couple gazing at a tomb in an open glade in their print “Franklin.” This example appeared on a handless tea cup. Enoch Wood & Sons produced the most unusual print and the one that illustrates romantic death, titled “Washington Standing by His Own Tomb With a Scroll in His Hand.”

So the illustrations on pieces of Staffordshire aren’t random but related to the everyday lives of the people who used those dishes and other ceramic vessels.

Learn more about the Victorian obsession with death by reading "When Death Came A-Calling" in The Antiques Almanac.

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