This blog piece features the death of a beloved pet dog. My last blog piece featured the death of a beloved pet cat. I hope readers will believe me when I say that this is entirely coincidental. On reflection, I suppose it’s quite possible that a blog themed around the demise of domestic animals might have a certain attraction to a particular type of readership. Such a blog might, indeed, get more hits than my blog. But for the avoidance of doubt, be it known that my blog is and will continue to be about antiques and auctions and not about dead pets.
This piece also continues another motif in my blog: pottery and poetry. But this time it’s poetry on pottery.
The dead-dog-related auction-acquired poetic antique which is the subject of this posting came home with me recently from my regular local saleroom. It was part of a lot which also included a charming lustre-decorated porcelain cup and saucer from around 1830, a pretty blue-and-white transferware pin dish, also from the 1830s, plus a couple of nondescript items which went directly into the charity box. The hammer price for the whole collection was £14.
It’s a small plate made of off-white earthenware, 18.7 cms in diameter, slightly battered, with a finely-crackled and discoloured pearlware glaze. It is transfer-decorated in manganese red, with the pattern touched in with clumsily hand-painted overglaze enamels in red, blue, green and yellow. Most likely made during the 1820s at any one of a thousand or more small potteries, and sold cheaply, it’s apparently a thing of not much interest and not much beauty – except that in several respects it is a very interesting and very remarkable item indeed.
Back in pre-plastic days, children ate their meals from the same types of plates as used by grown-ups. The poorest households might have had a few wooden or crude pottery or pewter plates, and the richest might have had porcelain or maiolica or delft or even silver and gold.
From the early nineteenth century, special ranges of pottery for use by children were designed and made in the new mass-production pottery factories in Staffordshire and other industrial areas. This development was a result of a large number of interwoven factors which an historian, an economist, a sociologist and/or an anthropologist could explain much better than I can. These factors included a very rapid increase in population and demand, the rise of an urbanised industrial working class and a professional middle class, a more general availability of a little spending money over and above the basic subsistence level, an improvement in education among the general population, an explosion in product marketing and differentiation, and the development of a view of children as special individuals who required to be nurtured, as opposed to rather annoying small adults who were there to be tolerated or preferably exploited.
Nursery ware was cheap and cheerful and mass-produced. Plates and mugs were often printed or impressed with useful educational or religious messages of an Improving nature. You see items showing the alphabet, pictures of animals, poems and religious texts. There are lots of examples illustrated online at https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/469007748678392483/?lp=true.
Hundreds of thousands of plates must have been made in myriad different patterns. But children and crockery don’t always mix well, and it’s probable that the vast majority of pieces of Victorian nursery ware didn’t survive the depredations of their small destructive users. As a result, nursery plates are quite scarce today. Classes of object which are old, attractive, scarce, cute, and findable in a very wide range of varieties are just the kinds of things that appeal to collectors.
My new plate is a fine example of this genre. At first glance it shows a nice picture of a small girl standing next to a lady in front of some fruit-laden trees and a cottage. The child’s pet dog lies sleeping beside her, and a horse-drawn coach is just visible in the background. Charming!
But then you read the verse printed above and below the image, and whole stark actuality of the situation comes suddenly into focus. Here’s the verse:
Who took me in a Coach to ride
Because I griev’d when Puggy died
And bought me Sugar plums beside
That dog isn’t sleeping at all. It’s dead. The grandmother has compensated the child for its death by providing a ride in her coach and by the gift of some sugar plums which she picks from the tree behind her, and which appear to leave the tree ready-sugared, without the necessity to undergo any confectionery processes. The granddaughter has quickly mastered her grief at the loss of the beloved lapdog and is overcome with gratitude to her Grandmother. And all this before poor Puggy has even been given a decent Christian burial. Do we, I wonder, still find it quite so charming?
Thus, an innocent-seeming image contains, on further inspection, a startling mixture of sentimentality with brutality, of mawkishness with callousness. In our sensitive, inclusive, child-friendly 21st-century times this is a difficult message for us to appreciate. What, I wonder, can we find out about its 200-years-ago verse-writer, designer, maker, purchaser and user?
First, the source of the verse. The poem (if you could call it a poem) uses a verse form originated by the poet William Cowper (1731-1800), who wrote a poem to his dying friend Mary Unwin. Here is a sample stanza from My Mary:
Thy silver locks, once auburn bright,
Are still more lovely in my sight
Than golden beams of orient light,
Cowper’s verse form was widely imitated and parodied. Lord Byron used it in a jokey poem My Murray to his publisher John Murray:
Along thy sprucest bookshelves shine
The works thou deemest most divine—
The “Art of Cookery,” and mine,
Ann Taylor, later Mrs Gilbert (1782-1866), a prolific writer of children’s verse, who, together with her sister Jane wrote the unforgettable lyrics to Twinkle, twinkle little star, used the form for her poem My Mother.
And inevitably, the bandwagon trundled on. Another children’s poet Mary Belson Elliott wrote My Father, and then William Upton, a minor poet even more minor than the Taylor sisters and Mary Elliott, produced My Grandmother and its companion piece My Grandfather. He also wrote one called My Childhood. For all I know, there might also be My Brother, Sister, Aunt, Uncle, Cousin and Second-Cousin-Once-Removed, although the last one is doubtful because of likely difficulties with scansion in line 4 of the stanza.
My Grandmother was published in 1812 in the form of a printed sheet by William Darton, a London publisher of books and pictures for children. There were six stanzas on the sheet, each with an engraved picture to illustrate the verse, and the sheets were sold cheaply for children to colour-in. Some were pasted to boards and cut into jig-saw puzzles, some might have been cut and folded together into a flimsy paper-covered book. I haven’t seen an image of the whole sheet, but I have found another verse from the poem, preserved on a plate similar to mine, which reads as follows: “Who came to see me far and near/ With cakes and toys throughout the year/ And called me her sweet little dear?/ MY GRANDMOTHER”. The fact that it’s a little easier to find the images printed on pottery than on paper is an unsurprising commentary on the longevity of ceramics as evidence to history.
And who drew the pictures to go with the verses? The story gets a little hazy here. Ann Taylor (famous for My Mother) was a member of a large family of writers, poets, artists and engravers  whose home at Ongar in Essex operated as a veritable cottage industry for the production of children’s verses together with copper-plate engravings to accompany them. Ann was herself an engraver of her own poems, and her father and brother (both called Isaac) also engraved not only their own pictures but also work outsourced to them from the publisher William Darton.
So it’s possible (although I haven’t found any evidence to prove it) that the images to illustrate My Grandmother came from the studio of the Taylors of Ongar. It would be interesting to know what Ann Taylor might have thought about her poem being copied or parodied or pastiched by William Upton. However, since she herself had borrowed so heavily from William Cowper, perhaps she might not have objected too strongly.
The next question to be answered is: how did the verse and image come to be translated from a printed sheet to a ceramic plate? Someone in a pottery factory somewhere – probably but not definitely in or near Stoke-on-Trent – must have perceived a demand from the buying public for plates printed with the My Grandmother verses, and then arranged for them to be put into production. Since we know of two stanzas having been immortalised in earthenware, it’s reasonable to assume that the full series of six images was produced. It would be an interesting but probably impossible challenge to collect all six of them.
The larger of the pottery factories employed in-house designers for their transfer wares, but in the principal production centres (such as the Stoke-on-Trent area) it appears that there were also some independent businesses which specialised in the design and engraving of copper plates for the pottery industry. The designers would either copy from a source – for example from an illustration in a published book, or from a picture seen in a gallery – or they would exercise their own imagination and make something up. In the factory, the copper plates were inked and pressed onto paper transfers, which were then used to apply decoration to the wares before glazing and firing. Note: The images above of an engraver at work, a finished copper plate and the process of inking a paper transfer are all borrowed from the excellent website of the Transferware Collectors’ Club at https://www.transcollectorsclub.org/annex/image-gallery/processes/
In the case of My Grandmother, the copper plates used for making transfers could have been engraved in-house by the factory’s own employees, or procured from an independent firm. I don’t know if the images were copies (made legitimately or otherwise) from the published illustrations, or if perhaps the copper plates were bought directly from their original designers and engravers, maybe from the Taylors of Ongar themselves. Or it might be that the factory re-used second-hand copper plates acquired from the publisher Darton.
These are the kinds of questions which specialist art historians like not only to ask but also to answer. They can learn a lot about the life and ongoing reputation of Old Masters such as Durer or Rembrandt by studying the various states of the plates used during and after their lifetimes to produce editions of their prints and etchings. By examining the published prints by the artists and comparing them line by engraved line with each other, they can tell when a print was made, the condition and wear of the copper plate at that time, whether it had been re-worked by the artist or by someone else, and much other information. I daresay an art historian could do something similar in the case of My Grandmother by comparing the image which appears on the paper sheet printed by Darton with the image transferred onto my earthenware plate by the pottery factory. However, it won’t be me who’s doing this comparison. If it’s an exercise worth doing, then it’s work for an academic writing a thesis and not for a dilettante blogger.
We have established so far that the image and verse depicting the demise of poor Puggy is one of a set of six illustrations for My Grandmother, a poem by William Upton. They were copied from printed sheets and transferred on to ceramic plates. We can assume that in the normal course of commerce the ware was then sold by the factory to a retailer.
But what happens then? Who buys it?
Clearly the end user is a child. It’s almost impossible to believe that a child in the 1820s would pop along to the local china shop or hardware store and buy a pretty plate for itself. So it seems logical that nursery ware plates would normally have been bought as presents for children. If you’re buying a decorative plate as a gift for a child, you don’t, I submit, buy it the whole set. No, you choose the one from which you think the child will derive the most pleasure (or perhaps the most Improvement). And then you give it to the child. In this particular case, you have chosen the plate with the picture of a dead dog on it. You might of course buy more than one plate in the series if there is more than one child in the family for which you are buying the presents. In this case, you have to decide: which child gets Puggy?
In the last paragraph I switched briefly to the second-person mode, addressing my blog reader, you, directly as a potential buyer of my plate. I sent you back to the 1820s and conducted you into a shop where, displayed on a shelf, there’s a set of six My Grandmother plates from which you are about to buy one or more as a gift for one or more children. But in the circumstances, I wonder now if employing this touch of stylistic variation in my narrative was an unfair imposition on my 21st century readers? If you are the potential buyer, who are you?
Are you, for example, the child’s grandmother? If you are the grandmother, just think how nauseatingly self-congratulatory it would be to buy a plate for your grandchild which sets out explicitly to show just how wonderful a grandmother is. It is somehow inappropriate. So I don’t think it’s a plate that a granny would buy.
Or are you the grandfather, buying the plate with a view simultaneously to pleasing the child and currying favour with your wife? This sounds feasible because it might be characteristic of a stereotypical grandfather’s insensitivity for him to select the one with a dead dog on it. But somehow I can’t envisage an elderly man in the 1820s being the buyer of such a sentimental gewgaw as this.
A servant? Your elderly mistress gives you sixpence to go to the china shop to buy a suitable present for little Sophia’s birthday. You don’t really think about what it says on the plate. Or maybe you are illiterate and can’t read the verse, but you like the pretty picture with a lady and a girl child and a snoozing dog. I quite like this explanation – but the flaw in it is that my earthenware plate is a very cheap product and it’s probable that if you could afford to have a servant you would be in a position to buy a better quality present for your grandchild.
Or you might be one of the child’s parents. The gift of a My Grandmother plate would have a triple benefit: to please the child, to teach the child to appreciate its grandmother, and to get a few extra brownie points with Granny the next time she comes to visit.
If you’re the child’s aunt or uncle, the benefit becomes quadruple: delight the child, educate the child, gain credit with Granny, and please the parents.
You might be anyone. But whoever you are, you operate in the 1820s and you don’t share to-day’s exquisite sensibilities. It doesn’t make you feel queasy to think about the child seeing poor Puggy’s corpse lying there in the foreground of the picture from which she is scoffing her breakfast. Your children know well that dogs die all the time. It’s probable they also know from personal experience that siblings die all the time too. Life is harder, more brutal. Death is a reality. It’s matter-of-fact. It can be put right by a ride in a coach and a handful of sugar plums. The term snowflake won’t be coined for another two centuries.
Enough of this musing! It’s only an old nursery ware plate. We don’t know who made it, who bought it, or who ate from it. It’s not very beautiful or very interesting. But, my goodness, it’s fascinating!
 This information is taken from Judie Siddall’s very interesting blog at http://dishynews.blogspot.com/2013/05/happy-mothers-day.html
 Image used from https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw06207/The-Taylor-Family-Martin-Taylor-Ann-Taylor-Jefferys-Taylor-Isaac-Taylor-Isaac-Taylor-Jane-Taylor-Ann-Taylor? under Creative Commons licence