MILKMAIDS & PLOUGHMEN – AN EVERYDAY TALE OF GEORGIAN INDISCRETION (AND PORCELAIN, AND GLASS)
We’re pleased to present an article today which merits inclusion from three different perspectives – the first and foremost being that it’s an excellent example of a relatively early example of transfer-printed Worcester (First Period) porcelain.
It’s a fine, cylindrical mug with an applied strap-loop handle and a classically simple profile dating to the early 1760’s. During this period the Worcester manufactory was trending away from its initial influences – Japan’s Kakiemon style, underglaze blue Chinese replicants and Meissen’s floral patterns – and establishing its own unmatched reputation by developing the transfer-printing technique, with many designs used at the time being based on the catalogue of engravings by Staffordshire-born artist Robert Hancock.
Our mug bears two typical Hancock illustrations, one being “May Day” with three milkmaids dancing to a merry jig played by a one-legged fiddler, in the company of another gent who’s precariously balancing a cushion loaded with plate-metal goods on his head – as you would. The other features another pair of milkmaids in more industrious mode, complete with pails (more of which presently), their glamourous, frock-coated assistant and appropriate bovine charges. Both of these images appeared on many similar ceramics, as did a range of broadly similar designs – several of which also featured milkmaids...
The preoccupation with these comely denizens of the milking parlour, however, extended far beyond decoration on porcelain throughout 18th century Britain – as they were one of a pair of thinly-veiled allusory characters used to imply the fecundity and licentiousness of rural life and which were often alluded to in song, verse, theatre and the visual arts. Their partners in these gentle crimes against sensibility were ploughmen, who’s role as a manifestation of the vigorous, hard graft required by way of preparation for the sowing of seeds needs no further explanation.
The milkmaids themselves, rather than just being used to infer bounty, fertility and general wholesome bucolic abundance were specifically employed to reference a far more specific method by which seed could be broadcast; if you wish to research this further, I guide you towards contemporary songs referenced in Ganev’s paper entitled ‘Milkmaids, Ploughmen and Sex in Eighteenth-Century Britain’ – once again, I shall refrain from elucidation.
So – ahem – to some more directly relevant content within Mr Hancock’s rendering of milkmaids going about their business. I would draw your attention to the wooden pails which they are carrying on their heads. Notice how rather than having rope handles or fretted hand-holes they have a cruder method by which they can be managed – several of the thin staves from which the vessels are made have been extended above the rim and shaped to make a handle, with which our aforementioned glamourous frock-coated assistant can be seen lifting one of the pails on to (or perhaps off of) the head of the slightly less tightly-corseted maid on the right.
Pails made in this specific manner were afforded the recognition of their own name – as they were known as piggins. The name was in common usage in the late middle-ages and is splendidly verified by Blount’s 1674 ‘Glossographia’ as ‘a kind of wooden dish of hoops – a carnogan’ which is an even more elegant word! Anyway, the point of all this is that I am hoping that the word piggin has stirred some latent memories of previous visits to our website, as it was coined by the purveyors of the finest Irish cut crystal glass to refer to (substantially miniaturised) versions - constituent parts of tableware sets - which were intended to serve butter or cream – an echo of their original utilitarian role in the dairies and laiteries of rural Britain. We’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to make several of these glass vessels available over time – a quick search for the name on our site (selecting ‘sold products’ as a filter) will make the source of their design abundantly clear.
As for the means by which Mr Hancock’s evidently rather indelicate engravings were printed on to the finest of Worcester’s porcelain – the transfer printing process – this deserves a more in-depth examination, and will be dealt with accordingly in due course…