I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Staffordshire Potteries. The history of the Six-Towns area; particularly the role of Stoke-on-Trent and the Wedgwood factories in the industrial revolution; is a fascinating subject, and one which all students of art history would do well to learn.
The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery houses a remarkable collection of pottery wares from all periods and all nations; holding such an eclectic range of pottery objects, I feel it would be entirely possible to visit the gallery every day, and always discover something new in the collection that you’d not encountered before.
A few weeks ago, my friend Joseph had spent a day browsing the gallery and had spied, in one of hundreds of display cabinets, a small porcelain figure of a British soldier:
The object’s accession in the display described the provenance as a ‘figure of a soldier, Loyal Foot Volunteers’, with no other details. The staff at the museum gave an estimated date of 1780s.
When Joseph told me of the figure I was at first struck by the curious choice of colouring for the uniform; blue coats were quite an anomaly for British infantry of the late-18th century; to my understanding, blue was a colour reserved for artillery and cavalry. The gaudy yellow breeches were also unlike any uniform I was familiar with, and I quickly concluded that the colour selected by the painter was merely a rough approximation, representative of the true colour which I would suppose to be buff or nankin. The inherent difficulties of colouring pottery in the 18th century therefore restricts us from declaring with any certainty what exact shade the object was intended to recreate.
When I returned home to Stoke over the Easter Break, I met up with Joseph and went to see the figure for myself. On closer inspection, I was able to confirm my suspicions that the officer was wearing a Tarleton-style headdress and half-gaiters; placing the date more realistically in the mid-1790s.
However the uncertainty surrounding the blue of his coat was still unresolved until later that day:
In the adjacent hall of the gallery, nestled among some nautical-themed tableware was a matching blue-coated figure, an officer; evidently of the same origins as the previous figure. Unlike the private soldier, the officer wears a hussar-style dolman jacket; with this detail we were able to identify the elusive ‘loyal foot volunteer’ regiment as the Birmingham Volunteers…
So on the face of it, there might appear to be little connection between costume and pottery. As creative forms, ceramics and textiles are seldom used alongside one-another on the grounds of practicality; and as evidence of material culture, the disparity between contemporary pottery design and contemporary dress is evident in the visual language of the Enlightenment. However, that is not to say pottery is any less important to the study and reconstruction of historical clothing as portraiture or original tailor’s notes.
The downsides of using ceramic figures as costume reference, as discussed, are the issues of colouration and fine details. However, as a three-dimensional form, to be viewed from all angles, pottery figures such as these can provide a far greater insight to cut and construction of historical clothing than a portrait, which might offer only a single, limited perspective.