Recent research on the 208-piece Qianlong-period porcelain dinner service brought to England by Commodore George, later Lord Anson (1697-1762) in 1744 and now housed at the Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire, challenges the different ways in which previous historians have envisaged armorial services. Traditionally the Shugborough dinner service has been understood as having been presented to George Anson by European merchants in Canton in recognition for his and his crew’s courageous involvement in extinguishing a fire that threatened to engulf the city in 1743. In this interpretation the dinner service has come to represent ‘the ultimate triumph of this level-headed, courageous and determined commodore over the dithering, deceitful and obstructive Chinese mandarins, as well as the gratitude of the European merchants towards their champion’. Stephen McDowall’s research demonstrates the inaccuracy of this depiction of Anson’s time at Canton, recognizing it as a partial reading of what was ‘in reality, a highly contested episode’. Contemporary accounts also call into question the idea that Anson acquired the service while in Canton, as a gift from European merchants. It seems more likely that, like other British officers, Anson commissioned and purchased the service while at Whampoa between July and September 1743. Rather than emerging from accounts penned by eighteenth-century writers, it seems that the incorrect link between the Canton episode and the dinner service first emerged in a series of articles published in Country Life in 1954.
While McDowall’s research is of interest in substantially changing traditional interpretations of the Shugborough service particularly, and Sino-British relations in the mid-eighteenth century more generally, what is of more interest here is that the story of the service as a gift given by oppressed European merchants to their champion was compelling to twentieth-century audiences and remained so until McDowall’s recent reinterpretation. In the traditional account of the Shugborough service the object became intrinsically associated with a tale of imperial masculinity. That audiences were willing to invest in an interpretation, which recounted men gifting an armorial dinner service to a man as a marker of his seeming courage, fortitude and resourceful nature, tells us much about what twentieth and twenty-first-century audiences expected armorial wares might have been and done in the eighteenth century. In this rendering armorial porcelain is introduced as an object intimately tied to undertakings that reinforced conceptions of masculinity and domination, as well as homo-sociability in the eighteenth century. In this story armorial porcelain appears as the male-object par excellence.
In considering the meaning of armorial porcelain services to eighteenth-century British society, this case study has also understood these global luxury goods in distinctly masculine terms. While the material – porcelain – was primarily conflated with women and the feminine during this period, this case study has suggested that by examining the modes by which individuals acquired armorial wares, their design and their use it becomes clear that certain porcelain wares may have been associated with other gender identities. Acquired through East India Company networks maintained through rigorous adherence to certain codes of reputation, honour and connection, these wares provided contemporaries with evidence of an individual’s ability to call on others and demand service and respect. The inclusion of designs (armorials), which demonstrated a family’s name, lineage and status were also important. Finally their use in spaces primarily understood as masculine – dining rooms – further served to mark these wares as specifically gendered. While women were continually conflated with the fragile and delicate qualities of porcelain, not all porcelain wares were understood as feminine. Men acquired expensive and exclusive armorial porcelain services to perform and mark a particularly elite form of masculinity.
Stephen McDowall, ‘The Shugborough Dinner Service and its Significance for Sino-British History’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37:1 (2014), pp. 1-17.
McDowall, ‘The Shugborough Dinner Service’, p. 1.
Ibid., p. 13.
Ibid., p. 7.
Ibid., p. 13.