Armorial Porcelain Case Study: Acquisition

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Figure 6. Plate with cut edges from armorial Chinese porcelain service, Qianlong reign (1736-96), c.1765-70. Basildon Park, National Trust. Image courtesy of Kate Smith.


How did Francis Sykes originally acquire this service and how did those modes of acquisition mark these objects out as distinctly different from more feminized goods? As examined above, eighteenth-century Britons routinely conflated women with porcelain. In such conflations commentators made much of the modes of acquisition – the worryingly public act of shopping. Entering the marketplace to purchase ceramic objects meant engaging in increasingly complex shopping practices staged in specialized, enclosed spaces. Ceramic and glassware dealers invited shoppers to enter their shops (rather than haggle at a window), browse their displays, and socialize with shop assistants who would readily produce a further selection of wares for their perusal.[1]  Nevertheless it must be remembered that it was not women alone who enacted these practices in these public retail environments. Both women and men participated in shopping practices, suggesting that both women and men were skillful shoppers and perhaps enjoyed shopping as a particular pursuit. Men certainly took advantage of new practices of browsing, which allowed shoppers to peruse certain goods, often with no purchase. For example, in his 1796 Scarborough Guide James Schofield described how ‘Shopping, especially for articles of foreign elegance, is a very usual amusement among the ladies, who are not unfrequently [sic] attended by the gentlemen’.[2] In 1791, Charles Bowden Topham also delighted in the experiences of shopping and noted that Mr Kennedy’s shop in London ‘entertained me for an hour’.[3] Yet despite men’s enjoyment in shopping and browsing, it was women out a-shopping on whom commentators focused.[4] Troublingly present in city streets and ceramic shops, women engaged with and interrupted the ‘real’ (male) business of the market.

In contrast to purchasing through retailers, individuals acquired armorial porcelains through commissioning processes that required contacts and patience. Armorial porcelain services could be commissioned in England through connections to supercargos involved in trade with China or in India by East India Company officials with access to country trade and thus access to merchants in Canton. In placing a commission the supercargo or merchant would pass on instructions to Chinese decorators often based in Canton, who would then paint the necessary armorial design onto a series of porcelain forms obtained from the ceramic factories in Jingdezhen. The commissioning process marked armorial wares as distinctly different to those purchased in shops. Even individuals who placed commissions with British manufacturers such as Wedgwood did not have to engage in the extended processes demanded for armorial wares.[5] Rather than the instant gratification of a shop purchase, families who wanted to purchase Chinese armorial wares had to meet elite masculine ideals by displaying self control, patiently waiting for up to three years. In commissioning such wares it was also necessary to possess the correct reputation and be able to call on business and political contacts.

The material record of the Sykes service – the pieces now situated at Basildon Park – remind us that the commissioning of these items was likely more complex than most. For instance, while some of the plates have scalloped edges possibly created through press-moulding (see figure 5), others have cut octagonal edges (see figure 6). These differences in form suggest that Sykes commissioned the service in two distinct stages. It is possible then that while he commissioned the first part of the service during his time in India, he may have completed the second commission once returned to Britain. If Francis Sykes commissioned the first part of the service through country trade, he would have used one of the two ships that traded between Bengal and China each year.[6] Alternatively he might have used another contact who was well connected with the China trade. During his later period in Bengal (1764-9) Francis Sykes had men in his employ, such as the son of Thomas Pattle, who had such connections. Thomas Pattle had worked on board East India Company ships as 3rd and 2nd mate during the 1730s and by the 1760s was wealthy enough to act as Principal Managing Owner to the Speke, which travelled to both China and India in the late 1760s. Perhaps Sykes ordered the services through Thomas Pattle? It is difficult to identify how exactly Sykes acquired these wares as his bank records, which might highlight payments to particular individuals, only begin in 11 November 1769 when he began to bank with Goslings. Nevertheless, despite such ambiguity in the historical record, the modes of acquisition required to purchase armorial wares marked these pieces out to contemporaries as distinct from other porcelain wares on the market and I suggest marked them as distinctly male. Commissioned by men from men, these wares were linked to the homo-social ideals of the East India Company and eighteenth-century trade.     

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[1]Claire Walsh, ‘Shop Design and the Display of Goods’, Journal of Design History, 8:2, (1995), p. 172.

[2] J. Schofield, The Scarborough Guide, 2nd edn, Thomas Lee and Co., Hull, 1796, p. 63.

[3] C. B. Topham, A Tour Through Ireland, W. Corbet, Dublin, 1791, p. 52. Thanks to Anna Moran for pointing me to this source.

[4] Kate Smith, ‘Sensing Design and Workmanship: The Haptic Skills of Shoppers in Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of Design History, 25:1 (March 2012), p. 2.

[5]For example of this see Kate Smith, Material Goods, Moving Hands: Perceiving Production in England, 1700-1830 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming), p. 59.

[6]During this period there were never more than two ships each year that completed this trade. Many thanks to Meike Fellinger for her notes here.