An insight into pastille burners – Georgian and Regency porcelain curiosities…

If you have ever gleaned anything from the majority of pieces that we have published about life in Georgian and Regency Britain (assuming that you might pay attention once in a while of course – bleak days that there’s absolutely nothing on TV and the like), you’d be quite right to properly assume that day to day existence was a fairly coarse affair, with pretensions of seemliness, sweetness and light being just that – a flimsy façade set out to conceal the grim realities of what amounted to little more than squalor and filth that were never far below the veneer of respectability.

Occasionally, however, the objects of our desire have palpable, practical applications rather than just being fripperies and adornments – substance over form, for a change. One pervasive problem that afflicted the chattering classes every time they tried to remove themselves from the rigours of 18th and 19th century indelicacy were, not to put to fine a pint on it, the smells. Whether they be as a result of ineffective (or entirely absent) sewage treatment, the lack of methods by which fresh food could be preserved, a generally scant regard for personal hygiene or the degree of proximity to nature or overcrowded human habitation – smells were everywhere, at all times, with varying degrees of noxiousness and were a caus of great embarrassment and disgust to those who had pretensions of appearing to inhabit a loftier, more fragrant realm.

Since Tudor times, there had been a predilection for freshening one’s own breath – often made rank by the lack of dental care – by chewing on small lozenges, known as cachous. Made from an amalgam of herbs, scented extracts and sweeteners (which obviously didn’t do a lot for the tooth decay issue, but I digress…) these were deemed to be so effective that their use was extended in order to take wider effect by being fashioned in to something akin to incense sticks, to be burned room by room and suffuse the otherwise fetid chambers of one’s storied pile with delightful scents and pleasing aromas. Those pilules intended to be thusly burned would include charcoal and sometimes saltpetre amongst their constituent parts to ensure that they remained smouldering longer than might otherwise be the case and, therefore, maximise their effectiveness.

Initially, these occasionally acrid and odoriferous indoor fireworks would simply be placed on mantelshelves, ledges or window sills, in simple wooden bowls to protect the surface on which they stood but – increasingly – small bronze or silver dishes were adopted and complexity began to increase once craftsmen realised that they had been charged with producing items which might be marketable commodities; recumbent lions under oak trees bearing acorns in which the pastilles could be housed, perforated urns adorned with squirrels and trailing vines, and other wares which were essentially “en plein air” by nature. Items from the middle east began to appear in British homes, most probably having been originally intended for “proper” incense burning rather than obfuscating the stench of domestic ordure, in both silver and bronze and more in the style of shallow dishes, often fashioned to resemble lotus flowers. However, enamelled china pieces also found their way to the UK – notably exquisite Japanese examples in the form of “patchwork” hares. And, as at the waxing of the Regency period, porcelain was becoming the commodity of choice from which discerning gentlefolk would have their domestic garnitures produced; pastille burners swiftly followed suit.

What was absent in the early years of the pastille burners’ popularity was a uniform style, but they soon became greatly influenced by the 19th century preference for bucolic, pastoral themes – and what should be more redolent of a house wreathed in the wholesome scents of rustic viridity and seemliness than a country cottage ? And so, it quickly became the preference to place one’s scented troche in a small, porcelain house, in such a manner that the smoke wafted up through a scaled-down chimney from the lighted pastille within to add a further suggestion of realism.

For a brief period of some twenty to thirty years immediately after the close of the Regency period, this was to became the definitive form for pastille burners; thatched cottages, country chapels, idyllic farmhouses, even idealised byres which, in reality, would have been far from delightfully aromatic – anything that would be seen to confer an aura of unsullied, pastoral purity to the most noisome of oppidan residences. Many leading porcelain manufacturers chose to include such items amongst their inventories with Coalport, Spode, Worcester, later (Bloor) Derby, Wedgewood and Davenport all lending their expertise to the production of some of the (latterly) more collectible examples. It should, therefore, be remembered that these pieces – although easily perceived as being somewhat kitsch and of most definite contrivance – can be held up as specimens of porcelain produced by some of Britain’s very finest names; most definitely – in spite of their original purpose – not to be sniffed at !

link below to our website pages with many more pictures and the full details of each piece – do take a look !

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