Armorial Porcelain Case Study: Designing the service

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Figure 7. Plate from armorial Chinese porcelain service, c.1765-70, Basildon Park, National Trust. Image courtesy of Kate Smith.

Designing the service

It was not only a question of the spaces and systems through which individuals purchased ceramics, of course, but also what they bought. Although men who enjoyed purchasing ceramic goods may have ‘regarded it as a slightly female, perhaps even deliciously feminine preoccupation’, the question of how and what was purchased is important.[1] Examples exist of men and women purchasing dynastic items, yet it was largely men who involved themselves in the purchase of large dynastic and/or expensive items, such as dinner services.[2] Hence purchasing certain types of ceramics, such as dinner services, may not have been regarded as ‘deliciously feminine’ but rather as a distinctly masculine pursuit. Armorial services were particularly dynastic items, not only due to their expense and size but also because they bore coats of arms and thus familial identities.  For example, the Basildon porcelain service features decorative motifs rendered in the famille rose colour palette and combines flowers and butterflies with colourful birds.[3] At the top of the plate the Sykes coat of arms is included (see figure 7). The College of Arms granted Francis Sykes his arms in 1763, eighteen years prior to his being created baronet in 1781. 

The tradition of arms originated on the battlefields of medieval Europe as men in full armour sought to challenge their enemies. Unable to recognize friend from foe amidst the legions of plated metal, men took to wearing distinctive coats over their armour to ease identification. The colours and patterns that made up these ‘coats of arms’ then came to be displayed in other ways, both on the battlefield in flags and shields and away from the battlefield upon the clothes and accessories of civil life.[4] Coats of arms bred their own distinctive heraldic language, communicating lineage and affiliations. These symbols came to include a shield often adorned with a helmet and crest above.

Coat of Arms from Grant 1763

Figure 8. Detail of coat of arms from original grant of arms. 1763. Image courtesy of Sir John Sykes.

The arms displayed on the Sykes armorial service can be deciphered through the rules of arms and heraldry: (The design of the arms can be understood more clearly from viewing the original grant of arms featured in figure 5). The centre of the arms is occupied by a ‘shield’, which features an argent (an eagle with wings outstretched – possibly an allusion to Sykes’s meritocratic rise) between two ‘syke’s’ (the heraldic form of fountain), which are the blue and white circles. On the left the ‘canton gules’ (the red-coloured square) features a caduceus (Mercury’s wand with two serpents and wings, emblem of merchants among others). Above the ‘shield’ sits a helmet (not depicted in the service) and above that a mantling (represented by the wreath of silk), which is adorned with a ‘crest’, in this case a woman dressed in head scarf, robes and beads and holding a rose. Significantly this female figure was described as “A demy lady of Bengal in the compleat dress of that kingdom, holding in the dexter hand a rose”.[5] The motto included on a ribbon banner beneath the shield reads ‘He is wise who is industrious’.

The service affirmed (as did Basildon Park itself) Francis Sykes’s newfound social status on returning to England. It did so through embodying Sykes’s recently granted arms and thus the Sykes family’s legitimate place within the established elite.  Naming and asserting a family name were powerful acts, but they were not solely male acts. In her studies of eighteenth-century New England material culture, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich reminds us of the often-complex ways in which names, objects and property came to be inherited in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.[6] In this context women, such as Hannah Barnard and her descendants were able to establish matrilineal descent through bequeathing a cupboard bearing Hannah’s maiden name.[7] Similarly, while coats of arms may be understood solely as a male preserve, it is important to remember that marriages to women who carried the family name could be and were represented upon the arms (see figure 1). When men took their wife’s family name, such alliances allowed family names and fortunes to continue. Despite these strategies, however, coats of arms were (and are) primarily considered a male preserve, highlighting as they do the ideal of patrimony. The designs decorated onto armorial wares thus marked them as distinctly masculine, an identity that was further reaffirmed through use.

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[1]Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (Yale University Press: New Haven & London, 2009), p. 277.

[2]M. Finn, ‘Men’s Things: Masculine Possession in the Consumer Revolution’, Social History, 25:2, 2000, p. 142; Vickery, Behind Closed Doors, p. 278.

[3]Famille’ is a French term to describe the palette of enamel colours used on Chinese porcelain. Famille rose colours (as opposed to famille verte colours) came into common use in the early 1720s and remained popular throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Early eighteenth-century wares can often be dated by observing the distinction between famille verte and famille rose. As the name suggests, famille rose colours contained hues of pink and allowed for more intricate designs to be painted.

[4]Iain Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger, Simple Heraldry (Edinburgh and London: John Bartholomew and Son Limited, 1978), p. 10.

[6]See for exampleLaurel Thatcher Ulrich, ‘Hannah Barnard’s cupboard: female property and identity in eighteenth-century New England’, in Ronald Hoffman, Mechal Sobel and Fredrika J. Teute, Through a glass darkly: reflections on personal identity in early America (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p. 263.

[7]Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of An American Myth (Vintage Books: New York, 2002), p.141.