Thursday, January 21, 2010

1,244 real Views of Great-Britain

In 1772 Catherine the Great wrote to Voltaire, saying that she loved gardens in the English style: ‘the curving lines, the gentle slopes, the ponds in the forms of lakes, the archipelago on dry land, and I scorn straight lines and twin allĂ©es.’  Catherine invited John Busch to Russia to work at Pulkova and then on Tsarskoye Selo, near St Petersburg, where he collaborated with the architect Vasily Neyelov.  It must have been quite a  leap from Hackney, where Busch owned a nursery off Church Street that he sold on to Conrad Loddiges in 1771 (it became famous for its rare plants in the early nineteenth century).  Another landscape architect who went to Russia and contributed to the design of Tsarskoye Selo was Charles Cameron, who later worked for Alexander I and became Architect-in-Chief to the Admiralty.  But perhaps the most extraordinary example of Catherine's anglophile taste in landscapes was the order she placed with Josiah Wedgwood, for a 'Table and Dessert Service, consisting of 952 pieces and ornamented in enamel with 1244 real Views of Great Britain'.

Now 1,244 is not a trivial number and Wedgwood was understandably concerned: 'why all the gardens of England will scarcely furnish subjects sufficient for this sett, every piece having a different subject'.  How he did it is explained by Alison Kelly in 'Wedgwood's Catherine Services', an article for The Burlington Magazine (August 1980).  Wedgwood and his partner Thomas Bentley started with the famous landscape gardens that Catherine was particularly interested in, basing designs on published engravings like Beauties of Stowe, by George Bickham (1750-56) and Chambers's Description of the Gardens and Buildings of Kew (1771), as well as views sent in by sympathetic friends, like Mr Anson of Shugborough.  Stowe, unsurprisingly, provided more views (43) than any other landscape garden.

In addition to the nation's most celebrated gardens, Wedgwood and Bentley used images of famous country houses, although Bentley wrote that 'we have purposely omitted to represent the most modern buildings, considering them unpicturesque'.  Picturesque landscapes accounted for a good number of the designs: ruined abbeys, castles (150 of these) and even some early remains: Stonehenge, Kit's Coty House, a Cornish Dolmen and the Roman ruins of Silchester.  Wedgwood and Bentley were also up-to-date with tastes in the Sublime, including various views of the Lake District, the Peak Cavern, the Giant's Causeway and Fingal's Cave.  There is a letter from Wedgwood to Bentley in 1773 asking about Richard Wilson's landscapes: 'Pray have you Wilson's Views from different places in Wales? If you have not, Mr. Sneyd will lend them us'.  Alison Kelly writes that 'after reading this letter it is pleasant to recognise on a dish the unmistakable outlines of Wilson's Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle.'

Richard Wilson, Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, c1766

Given their role in the Industrial Revolution it is interesting that a few of the pieces feature such scenes as Papermills at Rickmansworth, a Colliery and Pump near Bristol and the Dock at Plymouth.  However, urban views are largely absent, with the notable exception of London.  You can see a plate from the dinner service showing Somerset House on the Hermitage website (there don't seem to be any non-copyright images available to put up here).  Other obvious London highlights included Kensington Palace, the Mall and Horseguards Parade but there were also a few views from the fringes of the city - Erith, Sunbury, Shepperton.  Mention of Shepperton made me wonder what a contemporary 952 piece Ballardian dinner service might look - traffic islands, car parks, terminal beaches, abandoned hotels...

Eventually Wedgwood and Bentley had got together all 1,244 views and the completed service went on show in London before being sent to Russia.  Apparently this was a great social success, as people were came to see whether one man's country estate featured more prominently than another's.  When it arrived, Catherine the Great was satisfied and used it for state occasions in the Chesmenski Palace. But after her death it was eventually forgotten about and only rediscovered at the beginning of the last century, when nearly 800 pieces were found to have survived.


Hels said...

Terrific article. You have found material about Wedgwood's commission that I have never seen before.

I wonder why Catherine the Great was so mesmerised by English taste. I would have understood French taste or German taste, but did she have any personal or public connection to Britain? I know she spoke French, German and Russian fluently.

Yet her collections tell that she loved Joseph Wright of Derby and Sir Joshua Reynold. And apparently she even tried to get Thomas Lawrence and John Hoppner to take up residence in her court.

My favourite Catherine story is how she managed to get Sir Robert Walpole's art collection from Houghton Hall over to Russia. Quite a coup! Quite a woman!

aureliaray said...

I think the service you describe here is that known as the ‘Green Frog Service’. Catherine the Great was building an English Gothick style palace, Chesmenski Palace, as a staging post between St Petersburg and her summer residence at Tsarskoe Selo. Surrounded by marshes, the site was known as La Grenouillère, Frog Marsh. Jenny Uglow in her book ‘The Lunar Men’ (2002) relates how the commission came through the Russian Consul in London. Each plate was to bear the emblem of a frog and to be decorated with a view of the British isles. The basic service was of 952 pieces but, as some of the larger pieces had two scenes, 1,244 views were required. Jenny Uglow illustrates the service with a black and white photograph of an oval platter showing Wedgewood’s home, Etruria Hall; a tiny frog in a shield appears on every item.

Plinius said...

Thanks for your comments. The information here almost all comes from the Alison Kelly article I cite. Yes, this was the Green Frog Service - the name originally derives from the Finnish word for the site of the palace: Kekerikeksinsk, frog marsh.

The story of Catherine's purchase of the Walpole paintings can be read here - they were lost to the nation but 'ironically, in 1789, ten years after the collection arrived in Russia, the north wing of Houghton Hall was destroyed by fire. Horace Walpole comforted himself with the fact that the wonderful paintings had, in fact, escaped.'