Here’s a Strange Coincidence. The day before yesterday (Monday) I was looking online at a painting by Johan Zoffany that I hadn’t seen before. Yesterday (Tuesday), I saw the same picture again in a television programme. You go 71 years without being aware of a picture, and then you see it twice in consecutive days. I think that’s a bit strange, but you, Random Treasure blog readers, might think “so what?”.
Your indifference isn’t going to stop me from telling the whole story. It begins four days ago (last Saturday), when I made a successful bid of £14 at one of my local salerooms for a lot comprising three pieces of pottery: a small pearlware oval tureen stand, a canary-yellow-and-silver-lustre side plate, and a blue-and-white transfer-printed soup bowl.
In the last paragraph I placed the three items in the lot in descending order of desirability. The only one I wanted to own was the little pearlware stand, which is from the Spode Caramanian series from around 1809, and features a splendid oriental scene and a border with rather incongruous wild animals including a rhinoceros. The other two pieces were in the same lot and I didn’t have any choice but to bring them home too.
The yellow and silver plate is from around 1810-1820 and is quite interesting as the first piece of “canaryware” that I have handled. The brief period between its acquisition and its consignment to the charity shop box will give me opportunity to do a little research into this unusual and showy type of decoration from the Regency period.
The third item is the blue soup bowl. One of the amazing experts on the Facebook British Pottery and Porcelain discussion group  tells me that it was made around 1800, that the transfer pattern is known as “The Conversation”, and that the potter might be John Harrison of Stoke-on-Trent. Despite having been told these details, I’m afraid I find the bowl unexciting in almost every way. Except that on its underside, in a shaky late Victorian hand, using some kind of indelible ink, someone has written the following inscription: “Belong to Sir Charles Lorain, Kirkharle Hall”.
Intriguing. Much as I don’t want to keep the bowl, I couldn’t get rid of it, could I, without first trying to find out about Sir Charles Lorain of Kirkharle? As so often, I turned to my friend Google, who was helpful, but on this occasion perhaps too helpful. Because Google revealed three possible candidates for soup bowl ownership:
- Charles Loraine (later Charles Loraine Smith) (1751-1835), the second son of the 3rd baronet of Kirk Harle in Northumberland, and uncle of the 5th baronet (see (2) below). He was a “sportsman, artist and politician” .
- Sir Charles Loraine of Kirk Harle, 5th Baronet (1779-1833), appointed High Sheriff of Northumberland in 1814. I can discover nothing interesting about him other than that he was a not-very-successful banker whose failure brought the family into a state of financial distress. This led to Kirkharle Hall and its contents being sold off in 1834 by his eldest son William the 6th Baronet, shortly after his father’s death.
- Sir Charles Vincent Loraine of Kirk Harle, 7th Baronet (1807-1850), the second son of Sir Charles, the 5th baronet (see (2) above), and younger brother of Sir William, the 6th He’s very slightly more interesting than his father in that: “he married, about 1842, a wife some two years older than himself, who was not recognised by the family, and by this ill-assorted union had one child who died young. Soon after the marriage he appears to have gone to Calais, and to have fallen into some trouble there” . Sir Charles Vincent only held the title for a period of 15 months until his death.
If we have to pick one of these three Charleses as the owner of the blue-and-white soup bowl, we can almost certainly discount (1) Charles Loraine Smith, who wasn’t a baronet at all and so didn’t qualify for the title Sir, who didn’t live at Kirkharle, and who was much too colourful to own such a cheap and boring object. As for (3) Sir Charles Vincent, he was the 7th baronet for just a little over a year, and appears to have lived a somewhat rickety-rackety existence, so we can probably discount him too.
That only leaves (2) the 5th baronet, the failed banker who might just possibly have been the sort of person to be memorialised – perhaps by a former family retainer – on the reverse of a soup bowl lately in his possession. So I guess the bowl was his.
However, even if this Charles is indeed the Charles of the Soup Bowl, it is disappointing to report that he is not the Charles of the Strange Coincidence.
That singular honour goes to (1) Charles Loraine Smith, painter and sportsman. At an early age and despite his status as the second son, he was fortunate enough to inherit a large estate at Enderby, Leicestershire, from a great-uncle. Aged 11 he added Smith to his name in honour of his benefactor, whereafter, as a rich landowner in his own right, he appears to have been spared the financial embarrassments into which other members of his Kirkharle family fell.
His education and development included, of course, the Grand Tour, a sine qua non for young gentlemen in the later 18th century. In the 1770s, Charles Loraine Smith spent some time in Italy.
It was while trying to identify which of the Loraines was the owner of the soup bowl that I came upon the Zoffany painting of the Tribuna of the Uffizi for the very first time. It is reproduced on Charles Loraine Smith’s Wikipedia page. And why is it there? Because, while staying in Florence, Charles was one of a group of fellow grand tourists who posed for Johan Zoffany’s composition in the picture.
Then (and this is the Strange Coincidence) the very next day after seeing the picture on Wikipedia, it appeared on TV! I was watching the first of Professor Mary Beard’s excellent new BBC2 documentary films Shock of the Nude , and there it was again! What were the chances?
Perhaps we should have a closer look at the painting to find out what it was doing in a documentary about the nude in art. It was commissioned by Queen Charlotte from Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) the highly-fashionable London-based German painter, and hangs today in Windsor Castle.
The Tribuna is the octagonal central hall of the Uffizi Gallery, where many of its most celebrated works were and still are displayed. It looks very much the same today, minus the blokes in powdered wigs.
As you can see, a bunch of these gents, some young and some not-so-young, are clustered around the various artworks looking closely, sometimes very closely, sometimes openly leering, at nudes of both sexes in a variety of more or less erotic poses. The Wikipedia entry  identifies no fewer than 80 paintings and sculptures accurately depicted by the painter, and 22 gentleman connoisseurs studying (or leering at) the artworks.
Professor Beard says that in this picture Zoffany is “trying to give us quite literally an image of the male gaze”. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term “male gaze”, it was first coined by the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975, and can be described as follows:
“The phrase “male gaze” refers to the frequent framing of objects of visual art so that the viewer is situated in a “masculine” position of appreciation. By interpreting objects of art as diverse as paintings of the nude and Hollywood films, these theorists have concluded that women depicted in art are standardly placed as objects of attraction … and that the more active role of looking assumes a counterpart masculine position. As Laura Mulvey puts it, women are assigned the passive status of being looked-at, whereas men are the active subjects who look” .
Whatever you might think about the concept of the male gaze, there can be no doubt that in Zoffany’s painting of the Tribuna of the Uffizi, there’s one hell of a lot of male gazing going on.
In her film, Mary Beard says (at 14’45”): “one of my favourite scenes is this group here: there’s young milord carefully drawing this erotic sculpture here; [and] this lad is looking over his shoulder to see what he’s doing…”.
This particular young milord can be identified as none other than Charles Loraine Smith, male-gazer-in-chief and uncle of Charles of the Soup Bowl.
Unlike his nephew the 5th Baronet (died age 53) and his great-nephew the 7th Baronet (died age 47), the young milord Charles Loraine Smith went on to live to a ripe, healthy old age. He was Member of Parliament for Leicester and High Sheriff of Leicestershire, a noted painter of serious and satirical sporting pictures, a celebrated foxhunter, a successful horse dealer, and, apparently, a prodigious boozer. According to his Wikipedia entry, he was also mentioned in a divorce case and met the Pope. He died at the age of 85, a well-respected, talented and archetypal example of a country gentleman of business and leisure, a squire who could have stepped directly out of the pages of a novel by Anthony Trollope.
How delighted I would have been to be able to attribute ownership of my soup bowl to Charles Loraine Smith and not to his dull-as-ditchwater nephew the 5th Baronet. But these are my findings and this blog deals in truth, not fiction.
Be that as it may, I have rather enjoyed writing this piece about my Strange Coincidence, which has taken me on an unexpected journey starting from a boring old soup bowl, through the Uffizi Gallery, around the lower ranks of the British aristocracy, into Windsor Castle and the BBC, and then gingerly into the unfamiliar ground of feminist aesthetic theory. I hope you have enjoyed the ride.