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: An Eighteenth-Century Punch Bowl


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
A considerable proportion of the much-prized porcelain exported from China to the European markets in the eighteenth century was decorated with foreign designs, that is to say, with designs furnished the native painters by the foreign merchants. In perhaps the majority of cases these designs were heraldic in character, consisting of coats of arms which were painted upon the separate pieces composing a tea-service or dinner-set. Every amateur of old china is familiar with examples of this type. At one time there was a theory in vogue that such pieces were produced at the little factory of Lowestoft in England. It is possible that a few specimens of white unornamented porcelain may have been decorated at Lowestoft, but it is not very probable. In fact the Lowestoft theory has been so completely exploded that it need not concern us. The name, however, survives in the designation Sino-Lowestoft (or Chinese Lowestoft) which is sometimes given to this type of porcelain.Occasionally the designs were of a more complicated character, including landscape and marine view, portraits, genre subjects, historical scenes and other subjects. The punch bowl, recently acquired by the Institute, is a remarkably fine example of oriental porcelain decorated with foreign designs. In a way, it illustrates both types of decoration as it combines coats of arms—in this case, satyrical—with portraits. The punch bowl is certainly Chinese in origin and may have come from the celebrated factories at Canton. Its date, judging from political events to which its designs refer, may be placed about 1769. The bowl is of a fine, hard paste porcelain, with the decorations painted on the white ground in colors and gold. On each side of the bowl are a pair of medallions, both pairs similar, each forming a satyrical coat of arms. In one medallion is a bust portrait of John Wilkes; crest, a lion passant; supporters, Serjeant Glyn and Lord Temple; motto, Always Ready in a Good Cause; above is inscribed Wilkes and Liberty. The other shows a bust portrait of Lord Mansfield, with a hydra below; crest, a viper; supporters, Lord Bute and the Devil; motto, Justice Sans Pitie.It is an interesting fact that a similar bowl is described in the catalogue of the collection of pottery and porcelain illustrating popular British history, lent by Henry Willett, Esq., to the Bethnal Green Branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899. Another bowl, differing only in the substitution of Lord Camden for Serjeant Glyn and of George III for Lord Bute is described in the catalogue of Oriental porcelain and pottery lent to the same Museum in 1876 by A. W. Franks, Esq. No other example is known to the present writer. It will be necessary to say something here of John Wilkes and his political career, but before taking this up it may be of interest to state that in the Willett catalogue there are described no less than seventeen pieces of European or Oriental origin, decorated with designs having references to John Wilkes.John Wilkes (1727-1797) played an important part in English politics of the second half of the eighteenth century. Following his graduation from the University of Leyden and four years of continental travel, he returned to England and in 1757 was elected a member of Parliament for Aylesbury, and re-elected after the general election in 1761. Although William Pitt was his leader in politics, Wilkes failed to receive the political preferment he expected. Attributing this to the opposition of the Prime Minister, Lord Bute, Wilkes established in 1762 a paper called the North Briton, in which he attacked Bute and expressed his views freely on political matters. A caustic criticism in 1763 of the King's message to Parliament led to Wilkes’ arrest on a general warrant. He was soon released owing to the illegality of his arrest, but an indiscreet reprint of the objectionable article and the private publication of an obscene poem led to his prosecution. In 1764 he was expelled from the House of Commons and shortly afterwards found guilty of the charges brought against him. As Wilkes was in Paris, recovering from the effects of a duel, he did not return to receive sentence and was outlawed.Wilkes was supported by the leading Whigs abroad, but in January 1768, returned to England and sued unsuccessfully for pardon. In the following month he was elected Member of Parliament from Middlesex. Wilkes now gave himself up and accepted his sentence on the charge for which he was prosecuted in 1764. He was sentenced to twenty-two months imprisonment and a heavy fine. Wilkes was expelled from the House of Commons on February 3, 1769, and with this proceeding began a series of contests between the ministry and the electors of Middlesex without parallel in English history. Wilkes was immediately re-elected, but the election was declared void. He was again re-elected and again rejected. On the fourth election his opponent had only 296 votes to Wilkes’ 1143 votes but was declared duly elected. As a result of these audacious proceedings a storm of fury broke out throughout the country and “Wilkes and Liberty” became a battle-cry for high and low. His prison cell was thronged by the chiefs of the Whig party and large sums were subscribed to further his cause.The punch bowl described above owes its origin to this tremendous popular sympathy for a man, who, whatever his personal character may have been, at least had opposed the violation of popular liberties.The remaining incidents of Wilkes’ life may be briefly summarized. He held various offices, among them that of Lord Mayor of London. In 1776 he moved for leave to bring in a bill for the just and equal representation of the people in Parliament, but this attempt at parliamentary reform proved premature by at least a century. During the American troubles Wilkes sympathized with the Colonies and opposed the government. In 1782 all the declarations and orders against him for his elections in Middlesex were ordered to be expunged from the Journals of the House of Parliament, so that after a stormy, tumultuous life Wilkes finally enjoyed his hour of triumph.As to the others represented on the punch bowl a few words will suffice. Serjeant Glyn was Wilkes’ devoted friend and admirer. Lord Temple, Richard Grenville-Temple, a violent and factious politician, was an ardent supporter of Wilkes, paid his litigation costs, and provided him with the freehold qualification which enabled him to stand for Middlesex in the famous election of 1768. William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield, who is represented in the medallion corresponding to that of Wilkes, ranks among the most famous of English judges. Wilkes was convicted before him on both charges of libel, although Lord Mansfield appears to have acted with considerable fairness to Wilkes, having supported Lord Camden’s decision against general warrants, and reversed the judgment of outlawry. The notorious Lord Bute and the Devil are represented as his supporters. The third Earl of Bute was unquestionably one of the worst Prime Ministers of England. He aided George III in his efforts to break the Whig monopoly of power and to establish the supremacy of the monarchy over both Parliament and the parties. His reward was general detestation and violent hatred which led to his final disgrace.
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Source: Joseph Breck, "An Eighteenth-Century Punch Bowl," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 3, no. 9 (September, 1914): 114-116.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009