Recently, a small plate which hung on the wall of the drawing room came to an untimely end through a brief encounter with a log basket.
Now, before you think I am lamenting anyone’s clumsiness or casting blame, let me be perfectly clear. It was, if truth be told, a rather ugly plate. Though its date of origin was 1810 or thereabouts.
Nor was I particularly fond of it. I wasn’t.
(I have several others from a similar date, and they’re much more garish and/or attractive…)
But I kept it because it served the purpose of reminding me that in 1810, china pottery, ceramic plates, tea services et al. were all new innovations, the result of the new technology of the Industrial Revolution.
Because you see, when writing of this period as I do, it’s vital to realise that life circa 1812 was not a BBC dramatic production. They didn’t have all the amenities or even all the tableware that we think normal or even quotidienne. Not at all.
Most or many households would still have been eating their meals off pewter. The new ‘china’ though very desirable and a must-have for those on the up, was breakable, impermanent and thus an unaffordable or even wasteful luxury for many.
The most recent ITV production of Persuasion rightly had the characters drinking out of pewter cups when dining in Lyme–both privately and at the inn. Because in all but the richest households, that’s what they continued to use–particularly if the family might have been semi-mobile, as a naval family might have expected to be.
I have among my collection of odd ‘artefacts’ several plates and cups from a tea service, purporting to shew scenes of Oriental life, though all were made in the Stoke on Trent area, by English potteries.
(Recall that at this time, the finer porcelein–Limoges or Meissen–was wholly inaccessible due to Napoleon’s Continental Blockade.)
The craze for Oriental and Chinese scenes on their tea services was huge at this time, but as most of the artisans producing these goods had never been to China, nor perhaps even seen a Chinese, they painted what they assumed they must look like: the scenes are ‘Oriental’ garden scenes, and the figures are all dressed in the latest colours and fashions of 1812 London.
Yet beyond the wry amusement or even modern smugness at how wrong they got it, these serve to remind me that life in 1812 wasn’t put together by the BBC Set department–it wasn’t uniform, it was odd, it was ill-informed, frequently uneducated and naive. These were the new technologies–and they hadn’t quite worked out all the wrinkles yet.
And they didn’t have even half the amenities we take for granted today. And I do like remembering that.