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Royals in Ceramic Capture Victorian Hearts

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Welcome back to our Cultural Icons series exploring the fascinating stories behind the people commemorated in flatback ornaments in the Willett Collection of Popular Pottery in the Brighton Museum.

Many of these Victorian souvenirs, which are only decorated on the front so they can sit on a mantelpiece were on display at Hove Museum this year.

They were usually of famous and sometimes infamous people in the Victoria era who we would now call stars or celebrities. The hearth, the centre of the home, provided an ideal space for the flatback as a conversation piece inspiring discussion and fascination among family and visitors alike.

Royals and left-wing politicians

Whilst unsurprisingly the most popular royal subject of the day was Queen Victoria, a number of flatbacks were made of foreign royalty. The public was especially keen on British allies during the Crimean War of 1854, especially France.

We have Napoleon III of France (1808-1873) and his wife Empress Eugenie (1826-1920) nursing their only child Eugenie, the Prince Imperial, c1870.

Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte had spent most of his youth in exile. Returning to France after the 1848 Revolution, he was declared Emperor in 1852. He first met Eugenie, a renowned beauty and the daughter of the Count of Montigo of Spain in 1849 in Paris. They married in 1852 when she was aged just 23. 

A well-educated, headstrong young woman, Napoleon often consulted her on political matters and she acted as Regent when he was abroad. Unfortunately due to her Catholicism and conservatism she often countered any liberal tendencies in her husband’s policies. With the Fall of the Second Empire in 1870, both were exiled to England. After their flight from France, the couple stayed for a time at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Their baby son was later killed in the Zulu War of 1879 leaving Eugenie devastated.

Also on display is a figure group of Queen Victoria with the King of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel III (1820-1878), c1860. The King of Sardinia was another popular subject as his country had sent a corps of soldiers to help the British and French in the Crimean War.

A politician for the potters

Left-wing politicians were other popular subjects, reflecting the potter’s own concerns and working life as well as the political leanings of the lower middle and working classes who purchased them.

Meet the politician and economist Richard Cobden (1804-1865). resplendent in his brilliant cobalt blue coat. Elected MP for Stockport, an advocate of free trade and low taxation, and famous for founding the Anti-Corn League in 1838, Cobden was a firm favourite of the potters. The piece was made to commemorate his role in bringing about the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846, as evidenced in the cornucopia of corn that he sits beside.

Discover More

Follow our Cultural Icons series as we explore some of these fascinating flatbacks and discover of these early celebrities.

Cecilia Kendall, Curator, Collections Projects