Meet Marguerite

2020-05-28 16.49.14Meet Marguerite. Or perhaps you know her as Gretchen. It will depend to a large extent upon whether you have come to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s monumental poetic drama Faust via the printed page (in German, English or any other language) or via dramatic performances as a stage play or opera. She is the central female character in Part 1 of Goethe’s play and its many subsequent adaptations, sometimes called by the name Marguerite, and sometimes by the diminutive Gretchen.

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Faust meets Marguerite, by Eugene Delacroix, 1828

Whichever name you prefer, she’s about as tragic a figure as you’re likely to find in any branch of literature, theatre, music or the visual arts. We meet her as a modest, innocent teenager on her way home from church after making confession to the priest. In the street, she has the bad luck to be spotted by Faust, an elderly scholar who has made a bargain with the devil Mephistopheles. In return for a period of time during which he is granted the power to get whatever human knowledge, power and enjoyment he might desire, Faust has sold his soul to Mephistopheles for eternity. 

Faust has been transformed from a wrinkly old intellectual into a handsome young man, and is out and about looking for a bit of action. It’s all downhill for Marguerite from there on. She is seduced by Faust and becomes pregnant. She  accidentally kills her own mother. Faust abandons her. Her brother Valentin challenges Faust and is murdered. She drowns the baby in a fit of madness. She is imprisoned and condemned to death, only to be redeemed by her innocence at the last gasp.

Goethe_Faust_I_1808Goethe (1749-1832) was and remains the greatest of German literary giants. He worked for much of his life on writing and refining his masterpiece Faust, the story of which was derived from mediaeval sources and from Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus (c.1592). Part 1 of Goethe’s play was published in 1808 and Part 2 was completed in 1831 and published posthumously the following year. “Faust is considered by many to be Goethe’s magnum opus and the greatest work of German literature” [1].

faustThe play – in particular Part 1 featuring the story of Marguerite/ Gretchen – has been performed countless times in countless productions ever since first publication. But it’s probably safe to say that the name and story of Faust only became a popular cultural sensation when the verse play was adapted by Charles-Francois Gounod (1818-1893) into the grandest of French grand operas. “The opera was embraced by the public from its premiere in 1859, and by the start of the 20th century had become the most internationally popular opera that had ever been.” [2]

Aside from its catchy tunes and spectacular production values, the main attraction for mid-nineteenth century opera-goers was the vile and disgusting abuse undergone by the young innocent Marguerite at the hands of Mephistopheles through the agency of Faust. Victorian audiences loved to see their sopranos suffer terribly and, preferably, die horribly. Think of Violetta, Tosca, Mimi, Butterfly. Marguerite was right up there with them – to the extent that Gounod’s Faust has been more difficult to stage in recent decades as the behaviour of Faust and Mephistopheles has become increasingly repellent to modern audience sensibilities. You still see frequent productions of La Traviata, Tosca, La Bohème and Madame Butterfly, but these days Faust doesn’t very often get an airing.

Unsurprisingly, the character of Marguerite as immortalised in drama and then in opera, crossed over into the visual arts. She was painted many times by many artists, sometimes as an innocent, but most frequently after her seduction, in church praying to the Virgin. And she was also rendered as a statue.

Now meet Sarah Terry.   Born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire in 1840, she was the daughter of Edward Terry, master brewer. After her father’s death she lived with her mother in Richmond and then from about 1901 with her sister in Hastings, where she died in 1913. That’s all the biographical information I can find about her, except that she practised as a sculptor from about 1862 to 1881. During this period, she was one of a small minority of women artists to have her work accepted for showing in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London. She exhibited nine times, “11 works in all, a mixture of ideal works, portraits and medallions”[3]. And her terracotta statuette entitled Maidenhood was shown at the London International Exhibition of 1871.

EvangelineThe real Sarah Terry is a rather more obscure and undocumented character than the fictional Marguerite/Gretchen. I can’t find a picture of her and can trace images of just two of her sculptures. One is a figure of Evangeline, the eponymous heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s long, interminably long, narrative poem of 1847. The other is Marguerite. Whereas the latter is the archetypal fallen woman, Evangeline represents another archetype beloved of nineteenth century sentimental tastes: the woman who has lost her love and searches for a lifetime to find him. Which she does, of course, but only in old age when she has become a nun and he is on his deathbed. Inevitably, they are reunited as he dies in her arms.

As you would expect, the statue of Evangeline portrays the subject with a pure and noble look, because that is the only look available for her. But a sculptor would have a much wider range of choice of attitudes when it comes to depicting Marguerite: the ingenue, the fallen woman, the penitent, the condemned murderer. Terry chooses the first and safest of these, portraying Marguerite as she is initially encountered by Faust, returning from church, demure but not humble:

Screenshot 2020-05-28 07.37.50

Sarah Terry modelled both Evangeline and Marguerite in 1868. It isn’t clear whether she sculpted them initially for her own pleasure or as a paid-for commission, but both figures were seen as highly suited to the tastes of the art-consuming public and were rapidly put into commercial mass production for sale separately or paired together as companion pieces, for display at each end of the mahogany or faux ebony credenza in your respectable and fashionable drawing room.

The manufacturer was W T Copeland & Sons, owners of the Spode factory in Church Street, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, and the figures were produced in large quantities using a special kind of ceramic material called Statuary Porcelain or Parian.

002 02Parian was first developed in the 1840s, but there is some controversy as to which pottery factory first discovered the formula. It’s a bright white clay with a high feldspar content which can be easily moulded and takes very fine detail. When fired the resulting product comes out of the kiln with a finish that’s similar to marble – but it’s different from hand-carved marble in being infinitely reproducible and cheap. What better material could there possibly be to enable Staffordshire’s innumerable pottery factories to churn out classical and sentimentally tasteful statues by the cartload?  “It was acclaimed as the ideal material for ornamental figures and sculptures, and it became one of the great successes of Victorian ceramic art.” [4]

2020-02-06 10.04.21Parian ware was incredibly popular and fashionable among the aspiring and upwardly-mobile Victorian middle classes until the end of the nineteenth century. Many factories produced objects in all shapes and sizes, mainly in figurative and ornamental form, because the bisque (unglazed) finish is easily stained and doesn’t really lend itself to utilitarian use in vessel form. There are however some exceptions to this, for instance this jug which I recently bought in a charity shop – a parian version of  the Gipsey jug made by Samuel Alcock & Co of Burslem in the 1840s. It has a transparent glaze so it will hold water and is thus fit for use as a jug – but you probably wouldn’t use it as such. You would probably display it as a prized and precious ornament.

Parian used to be popular with collectors, but is much less so now. It is very much a Victorian taste, and the combination of highly ornamental designs with mawkish subject matter doesn’t fit in well with modern decor. So you don’t see much parian ware in the salerooms, and what little you do see doesn’t sell for high prices.

originalThe Copeland parian figure of Marguerite stands around 20 inches tall. She is modestly dressed and coiffed, and carries her prayer book in her left hand, while the right hand lifts the hem of her sweeping skirts away from the dirt of the street. It’s an attractive statuette, albeit rather stiff in the facial features, and if you like to display such things in your home, the white parian body looks just like marble but is much more accessible because it’s so cheap. 

But hold on a moment (I hear you say), that statue of Marguerite that you’re showing at the top of this post isn’t bright white parian at all. Surely it must be in patinated bronze? Aha! Well spotted! That’s just what I thought when I first saw her on view in my regular local auction room around five years ago. I looked closer and still thought she was bronze. Then I picked her up and somehow she didn’t feel like metal – just slightly warmer to the touch than you might expect. And heavier: you would expect a bronze to feel hollow but to have a weighty metal or granite base to provide stability and a low centre of gravity, but this object felt solid all through with its considerable weight evenly distributed.

Looking at the base, I quickly realised that despite the very realistic-looking lustrous bronze finish, it was a ceramic object. The information is all impressed there:Screenshot 2020-05-28 17.23.49

Hmm, yes, she’s Copeland Parian ware. But she’s brown, not white. Looks uncannily like bronze. I wonder how? I wonder why?

Of course, I had to buy it. Can’t quite remember how much I paid, but it was somewhere around £35. I could see it wasn’t in the best condition with a few chips to the folds of the skirt and the base, but I was pleased to get it because it is a fine decorative object which fits in well with the somewhat nutty Victorian vibe of my study fireplace wall.

marguerite-1868-copeland-porcelain_1_891823d30be7da5fd05ac8183c93254fI got her home and started to research her online. Marguerite must have been a very successful product line for Copeland’s, because there are plentiful private and auction sale records for pure virginal white examples. I also discovered one decorated all over in subtle, vaguely lifelike colours, and a couple of bronze ones like mine. But I couldn’t find any explanation for the differences. Did they all start out white and a few receive a touch of makeup or a coat of brown paint or from their new owners? Or did they come out of the factory in variant versions?

Seeking the answer to this query, I emailed the Spode Museum Trust, fountainhead of all knowledge about Spode and Copeland ceramics, who run a service for identification of Spode objects of all types and all ages. I had written to them in the past seeking help to identify a charming porcelain figurine bought in an auction job lot.

Spode figure 1Their response then was that my charming porcelain figurine was in fact an outrageous modern fake imported from the far east. They even put a picture of it on their website as a caution for unwary buyers of Spode figurines [5].

So I was confident of an expert answer about Marguerite from the Spode Museum Trust, and indeed a very helpful answer arrived, from the scholar and collector Janis Rodwell, who knows more about Spode than I know about everything in the world put together. Here’s part of what Janis told me:

“There are no factory records recording how many were produced, either plain or with additional decoration as your example.

“The sales brochures of the day recorded that for additional cost Parian figures could be supplied ‘tinted and gilded’.  A few figures were also coloured all over.  Each additional colour received one or two firings for the decoration and inevitably cost more to produce…  A bronze model of Marguerite would be considerably more expensive than a standard model.

“The ‘Bronze’ finish is in fact gilding, but of a different colour to that normally expected.  The gold in liquid form was painted on and then fired, possibly several times.  This bronze effect with gold was frequently used during the Spode period into the Copeland and Garrett period and on into the Copeland period often in conjunction with bright gilding to create a contrast.

“The gold used for this gilding can be brown gold or bronze gold or possibly gold/bronze lustre and is described in a 1884 Recipe Book.

“The first price recorded for the standard figure was £1/11/6d (Trade) and in 1873 it was £1/15/0d. In 1876 the retail price was £2/12/6d.”

So it’s clear that the coloured and bronzed versions of Marguerite were premium-priced de luxe models made in the factory, and that they are much more uncommon than the standard white ones. Does this then mean that my Marguerite is rare and valuable? Not really. Even if something is rare, it doesn’t have a value if there isn’t a market for it, and at present there is scarcely any market for parian ware. Especially if it’s a bit knocked about and chipped. Decorative as she is, my Marguerite seems to have little or no value.

Spode recipe book p 82But didn’t someone mention the word gold? Yes indeed, according to page 82 of the Spode recipe book, the bronze gilding is made with real gold. Could it be that my Marguerite is so extraordinarily heavy (around 7 kg) because she contains a vast amount of gold?

I guess if I were in possession of a bare white parian Marguerite I could weigh the two statues in order to calculate the extra golden weight of the bronze version, but frankly I doubt if there is in fact much of a difference between the two models.  Nevertheless it is undoubtedly the case that the gilding must have an appreciable weight, and you don’t need very much pure gold to generate a substantial cash value. So how might we work out what the value of the gold content might be?

2020-05-23 14.19.22If you look closely at one of the chips in the drapery at the back of the skirt you can see that the bronze coating over the white parian body is perhaps 1 mm thick. And you can also see from the ingredients given in Spode’s Bronze Gold recipe that 2½ parts out of the 5¾-part formula comprise gold. That means 43.5% of the gilt coating is gold, the remainder being mostly copper and mercury.

Unfortunately I don’t know a mathematical method to calculate the weight of a 1 mm thick layer covering the surface of an object of highly irregular shape. I don’t even know if such a method exists. As so often occurs in the imprecise and unacademic world of blogging, I’m content to rely upon an approximation based on wild, unsubstantiated guesswork.

Let’s guess (wildly) that the weight of the 1 mm thick gilt layer is one two-hundredth (0.5%) of the total 7 kg weight of Marguerite. That’s around 35 grams of gilding, and we already know from the recipe that 43.5% of this is gold. This indicates the presence of around 15 grams of gold. The spot price of gold at the precise moment when I’m typing this sentence is £44.69 per gram. So the gold in Marguerite might be worth £670.

Or it might not. We don’t know the purity of the gold used in the Spode factory in 1868. We don’t know the actual thickness or actual weight of the layer of gilt. We don’t know how much gold might have been lost in the preparation of the recipe. Most of all, we don’t know how to recover the gold from Marguerite, but we do know that in order to do so we would need to destroy her, probably by grinding her into powder. Don’t want to do that. She looks too good on my mantelpiece. She’s staying where she is. That’s my last word on the subject.2020-05-28 17.03.59

But incidentally, my Marguerite isn’t the only Marguerite in my life. Although you don’t come across the name often these days, I happen to have a lovely sister-in-law called Marguerite. She is named after her mother (a redoubtable lady known to all as Madge, who in her very late nineties is still to be seen whizzing around the roads of East Fife in her small car). I believe that Madge in turn was named for her mother. Which takes the family forename back into the late nineteenth century. However, I don’t know whether or not the popularity of Gounod’s Faust played any part in the choice made by my wife’s brother’s wife’s maternal great-grandparents to call their baby daughter Marguerite. I might ask Madge about it.

A final observation. My friend Dougie tells me that he knew a Marguerite at the Aberdeen Beach Ballroom in 1965. Unfortunately, he wasn’t forthcoming as to the nature of their relationship, so I regret that I cannot provide any additional information.

 

References

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goethe%27s_Faust

[2] https://www.roh.org.uk/news/how-to-stage-an-opera-faust-and-the-19th-century

[3] https://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/person.php?id=ann_1285433089&search=terry

[4] http://www.thepotteries.org/types/parian.htm

[5] http://www.spodemuseumtrust.org/identification-service.html


2 thoughts on “Meet Marguerite

  1. Fascinating article…loved all that information..especially about Parian ware…and the opera Faust…

    Like

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