This week's blog post comes from collections intern Anne Lutun. As one of her research projects we asked her to look into our ceramic figurines of Milton & Shakespeare; little did we realize how complicated that could turn out to be.
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Since next year will mark the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth and 2016 will be the 400th of his death, we thought we would try to find out more about one particular piece of Shakespeareana from our collections, pictured below.
|Derby Porcelain factory, figure of Shakespeare. Soft paste porcelain. ca 1780-1810. Rosenbach Museum & Library. 1954.2109|
This glazed and gilt soft-paste porcelain figurine, ten inches tall, forms a pair with a similar effigy of Milton, also in our collections. Our research indicates that they are examples of late eighteenth-century British porcelain, most likely produced in the Derby factory sometime between 1780 and 1810, but possibly as late as the 1830s.
|Derby Porcelain factory, figures of Milton and Shakespeare. Soft paste porcelain. ca 1780-1810. Rosenbach Museum & Library. 1954.2109 &2110|
Derby had started producing Shakespeare figurines in the late 1750s, due to the growing demand on the part of the public for reproductions of the monument in the Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, designed by William Kent and executed by Peter Scheemakers in 1740.
South Transept and Poet's Corner,Westminster Abbey London. Image scanned by Nathalie Chevalier. http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/feist/21.html
Over the years the factory issued several versions of the figurine: while the first had a simple square base, it was soon replaced in the 1760s by a Rococo variant on an elaborately scrolled base (which you can see in the V & A collection), itself phased out in the 1780s in favor of the Neoclassical version – on a rectangular base with chamfered corners and fluted edges – that we see here. The Derby company offered the Neoclassical version in at least three different sizes, and a choice of either enameled porcelain or unglazed biscuit porcelain.The base of ours is incised "No. 305," which seems to refer to the 10 1/2" tall Derby model.
Naturally the color scheme may differ on any two given copies of the enameled version, but by comparing our Shakespeare with its counterparts in other museums we found further individual differences. In all copies Shakespeare wears eighteenth-century style breeches and a cloak, but the details of his jacket, such as the number and size of the buttons as well as the ornamental sleeve caps, vary.
|Derby Porcelain factory, figure of Shakespeare. Soft paste porcelain. ca 1780-1810.Rosenbach Museum & Library 1954.2109|
In addition, his left hand holds the scroll at a slightly different angle:
Finally, while Will always rests his right elbow on a stack
of three books, the size and arrangement of the tomes, spine facing outward or
inward, differs from copy to copy. In ours, the top volume has its spine facing forward, which is a different orientation than this example from the V&A (which also features larger buttons than ours).
|Derby Porcelain factory, figure of Shakespeare. Soft paste porcelain. ca 1780-1810. Rosenbach Museum & Library 1954.2109|
We're not sure why there are so many variations; one possibility is that the variations correspond to the different sizes that were offered. If you know of other Shakespeare porcelains that we should look at as we delve into this puzzle, please let us know!
Anne Lutun is working on her dissertation in architectural history at the University of Pennsylvania. She is thrilled to be part of the Rosenbach team and is thoroughly enjoying the "sleuthing" type of research she is doing as part of her internship.