‘The Prodigal Son in Misery’, 1780: a study of a teapot in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery
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University of Brighton student Kayleigh Peters looks at the back story to a teapot in Brighton Museum that tells a biblical tale.
This short study investigates a teapot, which is on display in Willett’s Popular Pottery, a gallery on the ground floor of Brighton Museum. I will ask, who made it and why it was made?
The teapot was made in about 1780 in Staffordshire in England, by William Greatbatch (1735-1813) when he was a prominent potter in the town of Fenton. It is a highly decorative pot; printed and enamelled, in fashionable white earthenware clay or ‘creamware’. It is entitled ‘The Prodigal Son in Misery’, from the biblical parable of the prodigal son, which was a popular design for teapots during the mid-eighteenth century in England. The actual design is derived from a set of six engravings of paintings by the French artist Sebastien le Clerc II. Later, the engravings were re-worked by Richard Purcell, and Greatbatch followed these designs closely, keeping the position of the characters, whilst updating their hairstyles and clothes to the 1780s.
To give some context to the rise in pottery production in the 1780s, Great Britain was experiencing the far-reaching effects of industrialisation. In turn, this brought greater prosperity, resulting in a raise in living standards, which drove demand for refined practical household pottery and tableware, and the teapot became an especially desirable possession. With its rich seams of clay, North Staffordshire saw a greater number of small potteries than anywhere else in Britain, and the collection of pottery towns became known simply as ‘The Potteries’. It was the creation of The Piecemeal, a network of inland canals, which allowed the faster transportation of goods, which ensured the success of The Potteries. This was a time of transition in ceramic production, from what we term ‘cottage industry’, meaning pottery workshops in people’s homes, to the industrial workshops or manufactories, situated away from people’s homes. In all, over 130 working potteries were set up in the region.
The Potteries made significant progress in ceramic technology. An important development was the use of a cream-coloured earthenware clay, with great plasticity, known as ‘creamware’. Creamware was ideal for refined tableware and other notable potters such as Josiah Wedgwood made fortunes from new technology, and especially creamware.
At the time of making this teapot, Greatbatch was working in collaboration with other potters Thomas Whieldon and Wedgwood. Due to the rapid sale of the ‘Prodigal Son’ series, Greatbatch entered a period of successful manufacture at his manufactory in Fenton. However his good fortune did not continue and he suffered heavy financial losses leaving him bankrupt. Luckily, his talent was recognised by Wedgwood, who took him on at his Etruria Works, offering him a lifetime wage of five shillings a day, including a rent-free house.
To summarise, this decorative teapot with its ornate features and biblical narrative, stands in Brighton Museum as a testament to another time. It demonstrates a time when Britain was changing; rising living standards led to changes in the way food and drink was consumed, and tea-drinking became hugely popular across society. It was a time of fast-paced development in ceramic technology in Staffordshire, and potters such as Wedgwood became very successful, and whose company is still producing work today.
William Greatbatch had a varied career as a talented potter, and this teapot was made at a time where he saw great financial success, which unfortunately was not to continue. This teapot signifies the way an object can both represent a moment in history, and also give insight to someone’s life. ‘The Prodigal Son’ is therefore a fascinating time-capsule of historical information.
Kayleigh Peters, student on BA (Hons) 3-D Design & Craft, University of Brighton
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