Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say.
Is it, though? Is it really?
I’ve always wondered about that phrase. The thought of someone imitating me, personally, is far creepier than it is flattering, the kind of behaviour that thrillers twist to disturbing ends. If not creepy, there’s an element of mockery that lingers, particularly in imitation of mannerisms or speech, no doubt a hang up from siblings and playground nemeses gleefully repeating every word you say, never intending to flatter, always to ridicule and annoy. Professionally, in a world of intellectual property and copyright law, imitation is a fraught and complicated issue. Emulation, of business model, professional comportment, employment environments, fine, yes? Imitation, of design, of ideas, of brand? Well, that’s usually called something else, and it’s not flattery.
Yet, imitation remains a part of our material world, particularly within the framework of expensive vs. cheap, or authentic vs. fake. From designer knock-offs sold on the street for a fraction of the price, to mass-produced clothing that adapts and ‘imitates’ the trends of the catwalk, to interior design fads. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately, because it’s not a new thing and there are more than a few examples in the Christchurch assemblage that illustrate how the imitation of design – particularly in ceramics – is rooted as much in the social and economic meaning of objects, as it is in the aesthetic.
I had originally intended to have a paragraph here giving a brief overview of intellectual property rights in the UK in the nineteenth century, but it turns out that “brief” and “intellectual property law” are not things that go together. So, here are some links to the British Library and National Archives pages on design, trademarks and patents if you’d like to muddle your own way through it. Basically, what you need to know is that prior to 1839, very few protections, if any, existed for design or trademark and, after 1839, those protections that did exist did not necessarily prevent people from ‘adapting’ any designs they wanted (Carter-Silk and Lewiston 2012: 28; Drakard and Holdway 2002: 45). British potters, in particular, were apparently notorious for copying and reproducing designs and I’m not super clear on how the legislation affected this practice in the long run. I’m also not really trying to unravel that, as I’m sure it’s an extremely tangled web of legislation and trade protections and my brain can only take so much. What I’ve been thinking about of late is more to do with the why of imitation in nineteenth century ceramics, from the perspective of both the manufacturer and the consumer.
While I was away, I found a little bit of time to go and visit Stoke-on-Trent, in order to geek out about ceramics. Apparently now a place that no-one in England would ever conceive of going to unless they absolutely had to, Stoke-on-Trent was nevertheless the heart of the Staffordshire pottery industry of the nineteenth century and, if you are a pottery nerd (or even if you are not), it remains the place to go to experience both the industrial manufacturing processes of Victorian pottery production and the end results of that industry. While at Spode/Copeland, we had a short tour from one of the people there of their “Blue Room”, in which we talked about perhaps one of the most famous, and most taken for granted, examples of imitation (perhaps appropriation would be a better word) in nineteenth century material culture: that is, the English imitation of Chinese ceramic designs, fabric and forms.
Stoke-on-Trent is apparently a place that no-one else ever visits. Ever. From the friend who said “I’ve never heard of anyone wanting to visit Stoke”, to the people in London who said “Why on earth are you going to Stoke?” to the hotel receptionist who assumed we were there for work, because why else would anyone go to Stoke-on-Trent, it became very clear that, to the English, it’s like saying you travelled across the world specifically to visit Ashburton (sorry Ashburton, it was you or Gore and I feel like I’ve made enough jokes about Gore that I feel bad about it). Images: J. Garland and T. Wadsworth.
Much has been written about the influence of Chinese art and culture on the development of the British ceramic industry (and tea drinking culture; i.e. Drakard and Holdaway 2002: 45, Coysh and Henrywood 1982). Much of the imitation of Chinese designs and styles was rooted in the association of Chinese porcelain with tea drinking, both in terms of the functionality of porcelain (hard, non-porous, coped well with boiling water) and the status of the beautiful blue and white Chinese styles that were, until the late eighteenth century, some of the finest available in Britain and Europe (Coysh and Henrywood 1982). To manufacture ‘Chinoiserie’, as it came to be called, was to buy into the social meaning of Chinese porcelain as much as the economic; to transfer the prestige – technical and social – of imported Chinese porcelains to the local industry. To purchase it was to implicitly acknowledge the fashionability of Chinese ceramics, by choosing to own – and display – a (usually) cheaper version. The Willow pattern is arguably the best example of this, although its ubiquity stands in contrast to the porcelains it imitates.
The Christchurch assemblage, as most nineteenth century British colonial assemblages do, has copious quantities of ‘Chinoiserie’, or Chinese ‘inspired’ designs, from the Willow pattern (still sold today!) to slightly more uncommon patterns, some of which reference trading posts or places of significance to the English in China. However, it also has a few other examples of ceramic imitations, several of which are layered and often serve to complicate the identification and dating of artefacts and assemblages.
This beautiful (perhaps, depending on your tastes…) jug was found on a site on Colombo Street a few years ago. It references what are known as Mason ‘Imari’ jugs, which in turn imitate a style of Japanese export porcelain known as ‘Imari’ by Europeans (Godden 1992: 216-218; Kowalsky and Kowalsky 1999: 269, Hildyard 2005: 123). When I first came across this jug, I found the Mason (G. M. and C. J. Mason, c. 1813-1840) examples when I was researching, but the lack of “Mason” in the impressed stamp on the base of the Christchurch jug suggested that it may have been an imitation (Trendafilov et al. 2017: 222; Paull 2018). Since then, however, I’ve come across another style, amusingly named “Gaudy Welsh”, that was made between 1820 and 1860 in several Welsh potteries (Lewis 2011). Identical examples of the jug found in Christchurch have also been identified by collectors and others as Gaudy Welsh jugs. I’m still not clear on which one it is (if anyone knows, do get in touch!), but I think there’s a case to be made that either option still references the initial Mason jugs, and all of the British examples are themselves imitations of a Japanese style. The precise nature of that imitation – inspiration or copying – is less clear, but the links back to Japanese export porcelain remains. It’s certainly clear that this was a design and a style that was shared among different potters during the early-mid nineteenth century and one that consumers may have recognised as either Mason or Japanese inspired.
Another unusual artefact was found in the same assemblage. This, a brown glazed porcelain dish through which a bird and foliage design had been engraved, resembles a style of pottery popular over a century before Christchurch was settled by Europeans. Known as Batavian ware, after the port through which the original porcelain was shipped (Batavia/Jakarta), this ware consisted of Chinese export porcelain that had been covered with a brown glaze, sometimes with windows to the original porcelain or further decorated by European engravers, with bird and foliage designs (Li 2012; Nilsson 1998-2019; MacPherson 2020; Kerr 2011). Given the dates of popularity for this ware – the 1720s to 1730s – it was a deeply confusing artefact to find in a post-1850s Christchurch context and possible explanations for its presence ranged from an heirloom brought over by a settler to a nineteenth century imitation. The latter was supported by the relatively crude nature of the engraving and what appeared to be a softer porcelain paste for the body of the dish, rather than the harder Chinese porcelain expected for an original.
Various sources suggest different forms of revival or imitation occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century: one indicates a revival in the early 1800s in the Netherlands, made primarily for export to South East Asia (Nilsson 1998-2019), while others suggest that the Meissen and Leeds factories made wares in imitation of the earlier Chinese Batavian pottery during the late 1700s and early 1800s (Campbell 2006: 79). That said, it’s all still a bit vague and even the early nineteenth century date is a bit early for Christchurch (an imitation AND an heirloom, perhaps?), but it does lend some credence to the idea of it being an imitation. If that’s the case, the nature of the imitation is multi-faceted, as something that references both Chinese porcelain and European trade, as well as European decorative arts through the wheel engraving. The idea of imitation as ‘revival’ also adds an element of time depth to the reproduction or adaptation of designs that is less evident in the imitation of contemporary designs. It’s something we’re familiar with today, particularly in fashion, for better or worse: I hear the 90s are back at the moment, for example, which is very much something I consider to be for worse.
Last, but not least, more recently, I discovered a design on several porcelain vessels in Christchurch – mostly chambersticks and tea wares – that had its own story of appropriation. These vessels, found on the site of a nineteenth century shop, as well as the backyard of an early Christchurch rabbi, Isaac Zachariah, and successful Christchurch solicitor Henry Wynn Williams, were decorated with a blue floral line design with more than a passing resemblance to the Blue Fluted Plain pattern (or Pattern No. 1) produced by the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Factory from at least 1775 to the present day (Royal Copenhagen 2019). The pattern was extremely popular throughout the nineteenth century and was copied by a variety of other European potters, as well as their British counterparts. The latter included Furnival who produced it as the “Denmark” pattern and Allerton, who produced a version under the name “Stockholm”, which demonstrates that people could be as bad at geography in the nineteenth century as they are now. Naturally, the Blue Fluted Plain was itself inspired by Chinese designs, because of course it was. It was an exceptionally popular pattern and style and the factory was associated with the royal family and Danish nobility, for whom many of their products were made.
The naming of the English versions of the Blue No 1 pattern shows an awareness of its Danish origins, even of its origins as Royal Danish Porcelain (well, the Furnival one does – the Allerton one is, admittedly, a bit confused). The acknowledgement of the European origins of the pattern and the replication of the design is not just an acknowledgement of its popularity but – particularly for the consumer – is also an acknowledgement of the social status of the design, an attempt to gain that same meaning for a fraction of the price. We know this – many of us do this, when we buy cheaper versions of designer goods, when we respond to a complement with “oh, it’s just a fake”, when we equate authenticity and originality with realness and therefore, imitation with pretense. It’s not an association I can prove from only a couple of samples, but it is interesting to note that the examples found on domestic sites in Christchurch are associated with people of a moderate-high community status – a rabbi and a well-respected and successful solicitor.
Writing this post raised a few points for me, in terms of design and the different forms of imitation and the nature of art and material culture. One, I had a lot more to say about this than I thought I would (if you’ve made it this far through the post, well done!). Two, the stories that can be told by artefacts can have much greater depth and breadth to them than even I think possible sometimes. So many of the artefacts found in Christchurch to date are British-made, but their stories are in fact part of a much greater art and design tradition that spans centuries and continents and builds again and again on what came before it. Even though the city was settled by Europeans in 1850, to limit our perspective just to the latter half of the nineteenth century would be to ignore so many of the factors that contributed to its development: both the people who arrived to settle there after 1850, and those who had already been there for centuries have stories – and material culture – that extend back through time and across the world. And three, copyright and intellectual property law is a surprisingly interesting and unsurprisingly complicated thing that, for the most part, appears to have had little impact on the potters of the nineteenth century, no matter where they were in the world.
Carter-Silk, A. and Lewiston, M., 2012. The Development of Design Law Past and Future: From History to Policy. Intellectual Property Office, Newport.
Coysh, A. W. and Henrywood, R. K., 1982. The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 1780‐1880, Volume I. Antique Collectors’ Club, Suffolk.
Drakard, D. and Holdway, P., 2002. Spode Transfer Printed Ware: 1784-1833. Antique Collector’s Club.
Godden, G., 1992. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain. Magna Books, Leicester.
Hildyard, R., 2005. English Pottery 1620-1840. V & A Publications, London.
Kowalsky, A. A. and Kowalsky, D. E., 1999. Encyclopedia of Marks on American, English and European Earthenware, Ironstone, and Stoneware 1780-1980. Makers, Marks and Patterns in Blue and White, Historic Blue, Flow Blue, Mulberry, Romantic Transferware, Tea Leaf, and White Ironstone. A Schiffer Book for Collectors, Atglen, U.S.A.
Li, B., 2012. ‘Batavian’ Style Chinese Export Porcelain: Origins, Recent Finds and Historic Significance. In Buslig, S. A., Chien, N. D. and Li, B. 2012. The Ca Mau Shipwreck Porcelain [1723-1735]. The Hungarian Southeast East Asian Research Institute.
Paull, J., 2018. Janice Paull Antiques and Design, International Specialist in Mason’s and other English Ironstone China, c. 1790-1848: Fakes. [online] Available at http://www.janicepaull.com/fakes/fakes.htm [Accessed 3/5/2018].
Trendafilov, A., Garland, J., Whybrew, C., Mearns, L., Lillo Bernabeu, M., Hennessey, M. and Webb, K., 2018. Christchurch Convention Centre, Vol. 1. Final report on archaeological monitoring under HNZPT authority 2017/280 eq. Unpublished report.