Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: A Figure of "Africa," 1780

Derby Porcelain Factory, 1780
The Victoria & Albert Museum

As we’ve discussed before, in Eighteenth Century France, porcelain figures were used to adorn the dinner tables of the wealthy and aristocratic—being brought out with the dessert course as table ornaments which were set at each place setting.  These figures were intended as expressions of dynastic power and to visually celebrate political allegiances.  The figures often depicted allegorical themes, but by the late Eighteenth Century, they were usually just purely decorative.

Here we see an example from a set which was made in 1780.  During this time, the continents were depicted as women.  This convention came about as early as the Counter-Reformation to symbolize the worldwide spread of Catholicism—at this time, there were thought to be four continents.   By the time this figure and its brethren were made, folks were aware that there were more than four continents and artists had begun to depict them as men, or, as seen in this case, children.

Here, we see a figure representing Africa.  This is from a set of Continents, in soft-paste porcelain which was luxuriously painted in enamels and gilded. The figure of an African boy, he  stands on a circular mound of elaborately pierced scrollwork and adorned with “Africa” in golt lettering. He stands on one leg, with one knee resting on the head of a lion—as one does. He is regally attired with a coral necklace and a pink and turquoise robe which hangs loosely about the hips.  In one hand, he holds a lobster—as one does, and under his other arm,  a cornucopia full of corn.  His hat is in the form of an elephant's head.  

Surprisingly, this piece and the set were not made in France!
  These come from the Derby Porcelain Factory in Derby, England.  By the late Eighteenth Century, the English had adopted the French affectation of displaying these porcelain figures during the dessert course.  I wonder how many people tried to eat them.

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