Monday, August 5, 2013

The Home Beautiful: The Honourable Society Punch Bowl, 1800

The Honourable Society Punch Bowl
Liverpool, 1800
The Victoria & Albert Museum

On Thursday, August 8, I'll be sharing this week's "Treat of the Week," a delectable dinner in honor of my father's birthday.  Today, let's begin the celebration with a cup of punch.

In the 1700s, the new hot drink known as “punch,” was the height of fashion, and fancy ways to serve the beverage were soon devised on a variety of social levels. Though punch first appeared in England around 1680, the drink steadily rose in popularity over a century, and by the 1800s no party was complete without it.

The first punchbowls were made of delftware (tin-glazed earthenware). Later, white or brown stoneware was the material of choice, replaced in a few decades with creamware and Pearlware (two types of light-colored pottery).

Heavy cut glass bowls were occasionally used, however, since the beverage was initially served hot, these proved to be unsuitable. By 1800, punch aficionados concluded that the ideal material for punch bowls was Chinese porcelain. However, that was a rather expensive proposition for most families. So, creamware remained the most popular choice.

Here, we see an enormous creamware bowl. It is, indeed, one of the largest earthenware examples to survive. Though we can’t be certain, the punch bowl has been attributed to the Herculaneum factory at Liverpool, which made large examples in both crearmware and stoneware.

The bowl’s decoration is something of a mystery. Clearly, the inscription of “THE HONOURABLE SOCIETY, PRO MATRIA,” has some political significance. Still, historians debate the allegiance of the group. Whig? Tory? One of the secret Jacobite clubs who supported the exiled Stuart pretenders to the throne? Men’s drinking clubs often had allegiances to specific groups. They would often keep their alliances private, leaving clues on objects such as this. Perhaps it was used by a group of men who were united by a similar profession.

Let’s look at it more closely. Inside is painted a seated cat. Outside are four detached prints representing Pyramus and Thisbe, lovers under a tree and a man with a cudgel coming up behind them, Narcissus gazing into a pool, and two lovers consisting of a man kneeling to a protesting woman.

We’ll never know, I suppose. Still, you can imagine a group of ruddy-faced early Nineteenth-Century Englishmen dipping their cups into this bowl and talking excitedly about something. I like to think they were just a group of drunk cat fanciers.

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