Many can relate to the joy of peering into the cabinets at the Victoria & Albert Museum – I suppose we’re all just very nosy…
Being raised on the Antique’s Roadshow and a good dose of admiring what’s kept behind glass, it’s not the cash in the attic that has an appeal but rather, the revelation. Celebrating history is all about venerating the detail – finding that which speaks to you and mapping a particular time and place. It feels like we’re being let into a secret. As far as being a magpie goes, I’m drawn to the little things that are left behind. Such fragments are wonderful – they’re the best storytellers as they don’t give much away. Where on earth to begin though? Let’s start with a teacup.
Tea has a checkered history and its surrounding rituals conjure up many of life’s social mysteries. To many extents mystifying, I’ve a fondness for porcelain –especially surviving porcelain belonging to a century or so ago. That providence would have it not break, that fate would see it all in one piece, delivered safely into my hands from some obscure parlour or otherwise, utterly fascinates me. Here, we’re dealing with material culture, the artefacts and curiosities that haven’t gone to waste. You can thank grandmothers the world over (and our lucky stars) for insisting on keeping the best china stowed away in cabinets, or, even better, boxed in attics for a later date. Thanks to basic preservation, jam-making, if you will and the worthy school of keepsakes, we’re able to encounter objects from the world over, set apart by chronology but united by the human element.
The teacup and saucer shown in figure 1 has a heritage in a long line of similarly produced porcelain in mid-Victorian England: it boasts a transfer design on soft paste porcelain and hails from Staffordshire – the factories of which were capable of producing such designs in their thousands. At first innocent enough, vignettes of young women appear to be striking Grecian ‘attitudes’ – these were the poses in a mimicking classical figures staged in parlours and alluding to notable worthies that would have been recognised by fellow guests (think mythological, allegorical and biblical figures). On the saucer we have Charity and on the teacup we have Hope and sister Faith. How Victorian. Visions of Jane Eyre and the Lowood Institute can immediately be translated into questions: why the morally edifying subject matter? Why faith, hope and charity? Why a teacup and why a saucer? Before these reach boiling point we can say without quibble that the Victorians loved a sermon – which, in short, were lessons learnt from your respectable parish clergyman who had a touching concern for the health of your mortal soul.
As lovely as this sentiment is, why are we being reminded of it on a tea cup? There’s the twee notion of Victoriana which pertains to such decoration – ticking all the boxes for sweetness and light but we can unpack this set further to pull out: The Temperance Movement. Up there with high and mighty moralist concerns, social campaign is no isolated phenomenon, especially when it comes to England’s taste for a tipple. Licensed as a safer alternative to dingy water, drinking beer had been established as worker’s fuel – fortifying, cheap and readily available. However, the behaviour associated with inebriation (namely crime and social disorder) became something to tackle in Victorian England from around 1830. Starting as a whisper, the call for total abstinence became a shout and this rallying cry, from figures such as John Edgar (1798 – 1866), Joseph Livesey (1794 – 1884) and Richard (Dickie) Turner drew greatly on theology. Hence, charity, hope and faith become a part of a wider philanthropic scheme: a message in visual and material culture to promote morality, with religion as the leverage. In order to trace the associated imagery, we first need to take a peek at what had been happening prior to this period.
In the 18th century, gin had been the devil’s drink. Let’s take a walk down Gin Lane of Hogarth’s London – you may well want to cover your eyes. What we have here is a dark pantomime, its caricatures a grim chorus line of St Giles unfortunates: slumming it are a sore-ridden prostitute, pawners and alcoholics on gin by the bottle. If the corpses, hung barber and black dog didn’t serve as warning enough, a baby is about to fall to its death, from the lap of its inebriated mother. With imperilled innocents and hellhounds in the equation, Hogarth wasn’t messing around. As for the remedy to this unruly mob?
A hop, skip and a jump away is the positively saintly (by Georgian standards) Beer Street – a Westminster haven. Note the labourers, merrily going about their business, some swigging a leisurely ale. National paradise! Hogarth coined the “modern moral subject” in a bid to improve the nation’s moral character, producing hot-of-the-press engravings that could be bought up for a guinea apiece, apropos the print trade. Taking on Mother’s Ruin, beer, the drink of the everyman – good and honest beer – was sanctified. The hammer came down on the Gin Act of 1751, to the delight of the campaigner’s cause.
In the 19th century, the rhetoric remains the same: combatting the drunk and disorderly. Society was still receiving a moral schooling through its visual culture, however, the education of Victorian England differed somewhat. Rather than enticing punters to put down their foreign (therefore offensive) gin in favour of a good old fashioned English ale, temperance was the sobering order of the day. Teetotalism enlisted the help of its devout apostles to spread the good word: the propaganda machine worked to dissuade lethargy and bolster industry through the merits of civil behaviour and, what could possibly be more civilised than drinking tea? Hence the receptacle in question can be filled to the brim with a healthy dose of social history.
A teacup is the perfect tool through which to promote the teetotal agenda. Hogarth showed us how engraving could provide a formidable social force in the cause for change and, in this instance, design by transfer operates on the same principle for porcelain. Not only this, but, the act of tea-drinking itself flew in the face of picking up the bottle. Tea won over the imagination of those looking to keep a handle on the industrial urban population. In an effort to re-brand the nation’s social character, the merits of tea were sung high and low (quite literally, given the existence of many an ode to the beverage) and it became the very mark of respectability. Religious leaders and followers of the temperance movement saw it as their civic duty to peddle tea leaves and boiled water over the working men’s club alternative, with just a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down…
By drinking tea from your promotional cup, you were engaging in a rather canny type of propaganda – the indoctrination happening within your newly respectable home. Coming back to the decoration of the porcelain we can associate with temperance, as benign as it may first appear, the iconographical agenda of such objects is fascinating! There’s a pseudo-biblical-mythological spin to the personified figures of Faith, Hope and Charity whose appearance and representation in material culture is telling once identified. We can trace the trio back to early Christianity in Roman Martyrology. As sisters named after the virtues, it seems convenient that we can ascribe a female figure to each. Beyond commemoration for the martyrs though, Faith, Hope and Charity also refer to the standalone Christian virtues and how they were represented in art.
Citing this allegory, theology incited the need create symbols – visual signifiers which people could pick up on in a decorative language. Not only featuring on tea cups and saucers, these particular three virtues were popularised in sentimental works of art and can be identified accordingly:
Faith is easily picked up on by a girl holding the crucifix. This cross is prominent as it is usually clutched close to her heart or held as a shepherd might hold its crook, therefore an emblem for the love of faith. You can also detect a sense of security from the way in which the girl wields the cross to her chest or side, remaining at peace in the picturesque setting as all evil has been warded off. Rather in-vogue during the 19th century, crosses began to crop up as charms, tokens and motifs – something to reflect the resurgence of Christian values in a form of visual commitment and not so subtle reminders of piety (if you were sat in church fiddling with your rosary, you were doing the right thing).
Hope has a naval origin: what with the Napoleonic wars, smuggling, ill-fated voyages and shipwrecks, many a woman could relate to seeing off their seafaring husbands and lovers, wondering whether they would ever see them again. On etchings, the ship passing by the horizon is recalling this tradition, representing the ‘hope’ for safe passage and harbours.
The vignette for charity speaks to mother’s everywhere: a woman benevolently looks over three dependents, her children. This act was perceived to be selfless and became a firm favourite in the visual rhetoric.
Transfer ware pottery sets, such as the Staffordshire example mentioned at the beginning of this article and relating to temperance were often printed with the figures for faith, hope and charity – with the tea cup in figure 1 depicting charity. So, social history has a lot to owe to the humble tea cup and saucer, something that, in its time, was capable of providing a concise education pictorially and, not to mention sway the tide of public drinking. Not too shabby for porcelain.
Read about Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles here…
Find out about Benvenuto Cellini’s famed salt cellar here here…
Fancy a change of scenery? Explore the comb in Medieval and Renaissance Europe here…
Burns, K.L., (2016). The Awakening Conscience: Christian Sentiment, Salvation, and Spectatorship in Mid-Victorian Britain. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. 2016(23). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.769.
Allister, Annemarie. “On the Temperance Movement.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web.