Part 2 of my investigation into the origins of these mysterious Wedgwood dessert plates from 1892 (or thereabouts), and how they ended up in a thrift store, looks at the people behind them, namely the painter and the two intended recipients.
In my last post, I was able to determine that the Wedgwood marks are more than likely the real deal, and the hand painted inscriptions dating them from 1892 are more than likely accurate within a year or so. That means I managed to find eight very old Wedgwood dessert plates in a thrift store for just $12.99! That’s cool enough, but the story doesn’t end there. These plates are much more than just antique tableware.
To refresh your memory, the backs of the plates have the following hand painted inscriptions:
- To AMS Xmas 1892 (four plates)
- To KGM Xmas 1892 (four plates, one with a crack in the foot)
As for the pattern painted on the front, it’s certainly better than I would do, but not at all of the quality one would expect from Wedgwood. Notice the differences in depth of colour and the little flourishes that appear on some of the plates, but not others? Also the imperfections in the painting technique: scratches, smudges, and little scribbles?
Despite its flaws, I find the pattern rather dynamic and the colour choices are actually quite modern. I can easily see mixing and matching these plates with some plain white, or white and gold and some dramatic black placemats. At the very least, the plates were remarkable enough to stand out amongst dozens of professional patterns crowded around them in the store.
What’s so special, continued.
Imagine, if you will, a life of needlepoint. Perhaps a very small segment of society would jump for joy. For the rest of us, it sounds like a dreary and extremely limiting existence. No job, no car, no options other than marriage, child bearing…and needlepoint. It’s not so hard to imagine, then, that Victorian women might want to expand their horizons and try a new craft, even one that might even earn them a living. As it turns out, china painting was a respectable Victorian pastime which permitted those very things.
During the 1870s to 1890s, manufacturers like Wedgwood and Royal Doulton trained and employed artistic young women to do some of their hand painting. While men were still in charge of the casting, painting was considered the more delicate side of pottery production and, therefore, acceptable for the ‘weaker sex’ to partake. The ladies pitched in with the abundant workload, and some of the very best even became successful for their own designs and were able to make a living doing so. Hannah Barlow (1851 – 1916) is just one example. The activity spread and the manufacturers began shipping china blanks around the world which could be bought for a few cents or several dollars for the larger pieces. Ladies everywhere ditched their needles and picked up paint brushes.
That brings us back to our mystery dessert plates. We know they are Wedgwood and now we can assume they were likely blanks shipped from the factory for amateurs to try their hand at painting. So who, then, was our painter?
Based on the coral-coloured monogram etched into each plate, I assume that she bore the initials A.S. or S.A. I’m going to make a little leap and suggest that it’s A.S. based on one of the intended recipients: A.M.S. It makes sense to me that a lady might give these plates to family members, so it stands to reason they had the same last name, which in this case began with S. So who was A.S.? And where did she come from?
It’s actually possible that A.S. came from the same area that these plates ended up 123 years later. The fact that they ended up in Canada, and in particular, southern Ontario is not too surprising.
From the Canadian Museum of History:
In Canada, as in Britain, china painting was not only an occupational, but an artistic endeavour. One of the best-known teachers in the latter part of the nineteenth century was John Howard Griffiths (1826-1898) of London, Ontario. After learning the skill at Mintons in Stoke-on-Trent, England, he and his older brother James (d. 1896) emigrated to Canada at mid-century. In 1889, John H. Griffiths won a special silver medal at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition (now the Canadian National Exhibition) for china painting.
I found these plates in a thrift shop between the two Ontario locations mentioned above: about 2 hours from London and just under an hour from Toronto. Who knows? Perhaps A.S. was even a student of Mr. Griffiths. That might be a bit of a leap, but it’s not like southern Ontario was so hugely populated in 1892. And, hey, while we’re leaping about, my ancestors began arriving in Canada in this very same area in 1834 and our last name starts with S. And like good farming settlers we populated the area the best we could. Gosh, I wonder…
Author’s Musings: Just having a little peek at my brief family history book and, in fact, there were ancestors of mine in London, Ontario as early as 1851 and into the 1900s. Four brothers were there starting in the 1850s, and perhaps they had some daughters. I’ll have to check the big family tree book to check that out. Something for another day. However, I do know that not too far from London, there were two girls with initials that do match. Agnes (A.S.) would have been 36 in 1892 and her sister Annie Maria (A.M.S.) was 33.
Of course, it’s likely these ladies were married off to gents with names that didn’t start with S. However the girls had an abundance of brothers who could have passed on the name to daughters in the right time period. On the other hand, it might also be true that the artist was not married, since china painting was sometimes used as an income supplement for women who had no other form of income. Again, I’ll have to check ‘the big book’ to see if Agnes S. had a significant other in 1892. As for the recipient of the other four plates, (K.G.M.) no names jump out at me in my book, but a good friend or neighbour might have also been a recipient.
Ah…it’s fun to speculate, isn’t it?
I’ll probably never know who the ladies behind the initials were, but it’s pretty likely they lived very similar lives to my own ancestors. It surprises me that the plates were kept together for so long, since they were intended for two different people. That suggests they were all family members, (sisters and cousins, or mother and daughters) and the plates were passed down through the family.
And that leaves the final question: who was it that finally dropped the plates off at the thrift store more than 12 decades later? Was it a descendent of the recipients? Of the painter? Someone who only looked at the amateurish painting and didn’t bother to check the back for a maker and the year? Or did the last surviving member of the family finally pass, and were his or her belongings scattered to the wind? It’s impossible to know, but the ideas these questions put in my head have provided weeks of entertaining imaginings.
What are they worth?
According to a thrift store: $12.99. According to the person who gave them away: nothing. According to Wedgwood collectors: I haven’t a clue. Noting else remotely like them came up in my internet searches. I’ve found lots of very sophisticated china painted by professional women in the era, but none of it done by amateurs. Yet more history of the daily lives of regular women forgotten.
To me, these plates are worth more than the china they’re made of. They’re a slice of Victorian life, maybe that of my own ancestors. They’re something I might have done at the time, if I had the time (and I would have, with so few other options). They have also given me new insight into who the painters were that made some of the beautiful pieces of china to come out of the 19th century. And that’s all rather priceless.
Learn more about the Victorian lady china painters
Thanks to my research I have totally fallen in love with a fantastic set of china painted by several Canadian women in 1897 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Canada by John Cabot. The set was commissioned by the Women’s Art Association of Canada. Have a look at some of the work the ladies produced:
These are just some of my favourites. To see the complete dinner service and read how it came together (and why it’s in Scotland!) check out the Canadian Museum of History page.
What is it? Amateur-painted Wedgwood dessert plates painted as Christmas gifts
When was it made? The china blanks were made no earlier than 1891, based on the WEDGWOOD ENGLAND stamp. They were painted in 1892 based on the painter’s inscription.
What’s it worth? As a thrift store find, $12.99. As a glimpse into Victorian life? Well, you decide. As for me, I can’t wait to use them at my next book club and let the speculating begin!
Is it collectible? Since I’ve never seen anything like it before, I really couldn’t say, but if I ever do find more, I’ll snap it up.