I don’t know what was up in the UK between 1750 and 1760 but it became fashionable to buy desert tureens that imitated vegetables, animals, fruit and fish. Truly the rock-n-roll decade for ceramic tableware. I just love this idea. It tickles every single bit of me that could ever wish to be tickled. A turnip tureen. A platter design based on a radish. An aubergine proffering peanuts. That to me is joyful living and surely the best way to serve the food you love to the people you love. Ever since I came across an exhibit, about vegetable-shaped dishes, at the Victoria and Albert Museum I have been keen to expand my knowledge and collection of these fetching vetches. The use of nature’s beauty as inspiration to artists, including ceramists, is centuries old but the eighteenth century seems to have been a peak moment for this art form. Thomas Whieldon, Wedgwood, Chelsea porcelain and many other 18th-century Staffordshire potters all produced these glorious fruit and vegetable dishes.
The Chelsea porcelain manufactory, established 1743-45, was one of the leading proponents of this type of work. Aimed at the aristocratic market, it garnered a faithful following. One example displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum is a Melon-shaped desert tureen dated 1756. I love it. Nearby is a soft paste teapot with pineapple mouldings by Thomas Whieldon and Josiah Wedgwood, 1760-1765. Thomas Whieldon, 1719-1795, was one of the most respected and well known English potters of his time. By 1740, he was the master of pottery at Fenton Low. In around 1780 Whieldon took Josiah Wedgwood on as a close business partner. Here is another example of their work, on display at the V&A. A luxuriant legume if ever I saw one, a plate and teapot with cauliflower mouldings, 1765-70. Josiah Wedgewood knew a good thing when he saw it and was a real champion of the ceramic cauliflower. Josiah produced rococo-style wares inspired by fruit and vegetable forms. The lower part of the cauliflower ware was crafted to closely resemble leaves and was then covered with a brilliant-green glaze. The cauliflower ‘head’ was glazed cream or yellow. Again confirming my believe that the eighteenth century Dutch folk and I would get on famously, I discovered that in the early years of development Josiah exported a great deal of what he called ‘colley-flower’ wares to Europe, particularly to Holland.
The Victorians, not ones to shun a fashion bandwagon, leapt upon the legendary legume inspired art form. It tallied perfectly with their love of the natural sciences. Pieces featured butterflies, insects, flowers, leaves, fruit, shells, animals and fish. Victorian majolica was originated by Mintons, who exhibited it at the Great Exhibition of 1851 under the name Palissy Majolica ware (I will do a follow up piece on Palissy but basically he was a sixteenth century French Huguenot potter, famous for struggling for sixteen years to imitate Chinese porcelain, and very keen on using natural plant and animal images).
The Victorians wholeheartedly bought into this whimsical china and Majolica, as it became known, enjoyed many years of popularity. This continues today with avid collectors snapping up original Victorian majolica for many thousands of pounds. But don’t fear. If a pair of eighteenth century Chelsea lettuce tureens (above) stretches beyond your budget, there are some great 21st century options. I now turn to the Portuguese legume-lover, ceramic hero, and all round good chap that is Bordallo Pinheiro.
Pinheiro was a famous cartoonist, humourist, illustrator and social and political commentator of his day. He lived from 1846-1905, so is no longer with us, but happily his legacy survives. In 1885 he founded a ceramic factory where he created many of the pottery designers. The factory is still in business and being sold all around the world today, including Divertimenti in the UK.
Some examples include the pea platter. The company asserts that ‘Peas are a perfect example on how creative non-conformity and functionality do not exclude themselves. Bordallo Pinheiro’s artistry, creates pieces where nature, humour and joy are served at the table.I am the proud owner of this fine form of a Pinheiro cabbage bowl. Pinheiro believed that cabbage, in its rough and flat form, could be used as a metaphor for Portugal’s rustic ways. And that “This was a clever way to honour it, placing it on the bourgeois’ tables, where in any other form it might not have been invited. That’s what I tell my North London dinner guests and they find me wildly amusing. Personally I have my eye on a pineapple platter and a tomato tureen.