Gods with Feet of Clay

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Henry Willett was one of the founding fathers of Brighton Museum. Among the many things he gave to the Museum was a collection of popular pottery, the cups and plates and mantelpiece ornaments used by everyday people at the end of the 19th Century.

Henry Willett divided his pottery collection into 23 themes, one of which was Religion.

‘On the mantelpieces of many cottage homes …. [are figures] which the inmates admire and revere … an unconscious survival of the Lares and Penates [household gods] of the Ancients.’

Henry Willett

Gods and Mythology 

Scholars and artists in Renaissance Italy began the rediscovery of Classical Greece and Rome. Of course they had never been completely forgotten; there are numerous references to Roman gods in Boccaccio’s Decameron (1350) and Chaucer borrowed many of his stories for the Canterbury Tales (1370). Saturn, Mars, Venus and Diana all figure in The Knights Tale.

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From around 1450, as more people explored ancient history and literature they reacquainted themselves with the mythology of Antiquity.

These pieces inspired contemporary painters and sculptors and engravers, who copied them or used their poses and draperies for other subjects. There is a lead figure of Neptune in Bristol, based on a classical model, dating from the 16th century. Many classically-inspired lead statues were made in the 17th century and installed in gardens and parks. Classical figures were also carved in marble for country houses or civic and church monuments. The general population became familiar with them when they appeared in public spaces.

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By the 18th century most educated middle and upper-class people spoke Latin and Greek and were familiar with illustrated editions of classical works such as Ovid’s History of the Gods. Many young aristocrats undertook a Grand Tour of Europe, visiting the important classical ruins and admiring the statuary. They bought volumes of engravings and souvenir statuettes in bronze, which they brought home to Britain. In Germany, from the 1740s, some of the best-known classical figures inspired innovative modellers, such as J.J. Kaendler, at the Meissen porcelain factory, outside Dresden. These Meissen figures were widely collected by the British upper classes. English porcelain factories, such as Bow, Chelsea and Derby then copied them, often casting exact replicas. In turn, the Staffordshire potters made their own copies of these figures from the English porcelain versions. They were usually issued in pairs such as Apollo and Diana or Minerva and Mars. Venus shared her favours with Neptune, Bacchus or Mars.

Elements and Allegories

Much of the ancient statuary so admired by Grand Tourists represented only minor gods and secular figures from mythology. Many of these came to be used to personify abstract concepts and moralities. Artists, and later the potters, were inspired by emblem books. The best known was the Italian, Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593), first published in English with illustrations in 1644. Ripa defined Virtues, Vices, Passions, Arts, Humours, Elements and Celestial Bodies.

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These illustrated books led to the production of many sets of paintings and sculptures of figures representing the Muses, the Continents, the Senses and the Seasons as well as the Vices and Virtues. By the mid 18th century groups were being produced at the Meissen factory and before long groups of such figures became popular products of the English porcelain factories and the potteries. They looked well ranged along a mantelpiece or in a display cabinet.

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Sets of the Continents closely followed the German prototypes but the sharply defined distinctions between the British Seasons led to more original designs for these pottery figures. They are modelled either as young women or children, warmly or scantily dressed, each bearing appropriate fruit or grain.  The taste for personifying moral qualities was peculiarly British. The trio of Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity, were more popular than the Cardinal Virtues, Prudence, Temperance, Courage and Justice. More obscure virtues, such as Purity were also produced.

Britannia

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Under the Romans, Britannia was the major part of that island off the northern shores of Europe, first invaded by Julius Caesar in 55 BC. It shared a northern border with Caledonia (Scotland) and lay adjacent to Hibernia (Ireland) to the west. The emperors Claudius and Anoninus Pius issued coins adorned with a female figure labelled Britannia. It was the first personification of the British Isles, developed, ironically, to characterise a conquered country.

Britannia then lay dormant until she was reawakened by Henry Peacham in his Minerva Britanna, (1612) the first English emblem book. Here she is described,

‘With haire disheveld, and in mournfull wise

Who spurns a shippe, with scepter in her hand

Thus BRITAINEs drawen in old Antiquities’

King Charles II had her likeness cast on the humble copper farthing, minted in 1672. Based on her Roman forbear, she sits in profile on a rock, swathed in draperies, holding an olive branch in one hand and a spear and shield in the other. The shield is adorned with the crosses of St George and St Andrew. Samuel Pepys believed that her appearance was a portrait of Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond, one of the King’s mistresses.

James Thomson wrote his famous poem, Rule Britannia! as the finale of his masque, Alfred,  commissioned by Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1740. It was set to music by Thomas Arne but became the prince’s funeral ode when he died suddenly in 1751. Some of the earliest English porcelain figures, issued by the Chelsea and the Girl-in-a-swing factories were of Britannia mourning the Prince. Soon afterwards, the Worcester factory used printed likenesses of Britannia to frame portraits of George III as she steadily gained popularity. Minerva had been a popular choice for early lead statues. Minerva, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Athena, was goddess of both wisdom and warfare. Eventually, as the potters transformed her into Britannia, the head of the monstrous gorgon (a gift from her protégé, Perseus) impaled on the centre of her shield, was replaced with the crosses of the Union flag.

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Britannia has appeared consistently on British coins and banknotes since the time of Charles II. Christopher Ironside, designer of the 1971 heptagonal 50 pence piece, reinstated her olive branch, lost since the Napoleonic wars. Her appearance had been very similar to that of the war-like Minerva, championed by Napoleon, who menaced Britannia from across the English Channel. It is ironic that Britannia and Marianne (the personification of France who followed Minerva) symbolised the aspirations of modern, democratic nations at a time when citizenship remained a male monopoly.

This text originally accompanied the Gods with Feet of Clay exhibition at Brighton Musem & Art Gallery.

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