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24 Mar 2023

Armorial china: part 1

Written by Patricia F Ferguson
A white porcelain teapot is displayed against a plain grey background. The teapot has a coat of arms on the side. The lid has a gold enamelled rim.
Porcelain teapot with the arms of Gordon of Haddo
Chinese armorial porcelain (items with coats of arms adorning them) can be seen in many of our properties. Ceramic specialist Patricia Ferguson takes a look at what they reveal about Scotland’s heritage.

Over 6,000 Chinese armorial porcelain tea and table services were made for British families between 1725 and 1820; remarkably, a fifth of these were for Scottish families. The major reason was the increasing number of Scotland’s elite working in the English East India Company, who were able to place orders directly with ship captains and officers sailing to Canton (now Guangzhou). From the 1720s, many lucrative posts had been filled by Scots through the patronage of Company-connected government ministers. Many of these positions were political favours, exchanged for votes – ultimately, this became part of the British government’s policy for the political management of Scotland. [1]

For those without powerful political connections, the Dutch and Swedish East India Companies offered employment as commercial agents, captains and supercargoes (officers responsible for a ship’s cargo). The Swedish Company was founded in 1731 in Gothenburg by the Edinburgh-born merchant Colin Campbell (1681–1757) and others, and it attracted skilled Scottish merchants and seamen. Descendants of the Irvine family of Drum in Aberdeenshire were prominent in the Swedish trade from its beginnings, profiting from smuggling congou tea (a black Chinese tea) into Scotland at affordable prices. [2]

Although many of the armorial porcelains have survived from this period, their histories are rarely recorded because they were not part of official Company trade. Orders for armorial porcelain formed part of a private trade. The examples discussed below, all made in Jingdezhen, South China, hint at the commercial and political networks associated with Scottish kinship.

Haddo House: Armorial porcelain and gift culture

At Haddo House, there is a partial armorial porcelain tea set, dating from around 1741. It is painted in colourful enamels, with the arms of Gordon of Haddo, Earls of Aberdeen impaling (or combined with) the arms of Gordon, Dukes of Gordon. One of the supporters in the design is dressed as a Doctor of Law, referencing the eminent lawyer George Gordon, 1st Earl of Aberdeen and Lord Chancellor of Scotland (1637–1720); the supporter on the other side is a greyhound.

These arms were unique to William Gordon, 2nd Earl of Aberdeen (1679–1745) and his third wife Anne (1713–91), daughter of the 2nd Duke of Gordon, of Gordon Castle in Moray. The date of this tea set is based on a similar tea set that bears the arms of Cosmo George Gordon, 3rd Duke of Gordon (1720–52), who was Anne’s brother. In 1741 Cosmo married Lady Catherine, Anne’s step-daughter.

If these tea sets was not actually ordered by the Gordons, they may have been examples of gift culture – prestigious objects given to influential aristocrats by prudent merchants in anticipation of future benefits or appeals.

Castle Fraser: Another clan’s heirlooms

At Castle Fraser, there are 15 pieces from a table service with the arms of Mackenzie of Kintail, made around 1745. The simple pattern is similar to those ordered for the Dukes of Gordon, with large monochrome black flower sprays. The arms belong to Kenneth Mackenzie of Seaforth, Lord Fortrose (1717–61), who in 1741 married Lady Mary Stewart (1720–51), daughter of the 6th Earl of Galloway.

Lord Fortrose was the son of the ardent Roman Catholic Jacobite William Mackenzie, 5th Earl of Seaforth (1681–1740), whose estates and title were forfeited in 1716 due to his involvement in the 1715 Rising, before being pardoned in 1726. During the 1745 Rising, Lord Fortrose converted to Protestantism and supported the Government.

The Mackenzie service was probably ordered at the same time as two others in the family, since all are painted with a scene from classical mythology. One was made for Fortrose’s cousin Major William Mackenzie (1707­–70), grandson of the 4th Earl of Seaforth. In around 1745, he married Mary Humberston, the daughter of a wealthy London customs officer. The other service was made for Fortrose’s brother-in-law Thomas Humberston (d. 1755), an MP and member of the Society of Dilettanti (a gentlemen’s club with an interest in classical art). Lord Fortrose’s service arrived at Castle Fraser through marriage and inheritance in 1814.

A white porcelain plate is displayed against a plain grey background. The plate has a coat of arms at the centre. Around the rim are dark grey floral motifs.
Porcelain plate with the arms of Mackenzie of Kintail, painted in overglaze enamels and gold, made in Jingdezhen, China, c.1745

Drum Castle: Direct links with Sweden

At Drum Castle, there is a large tea set and table service featuring the arms of Irvine, made around 1750. The partial service has a European-style shell-and-scroll border. The arms belong to the Jacobite Alexander Irvine, 17th Laird of Drum (1711–61), who in 1751 married Mary (c1721–96), daughter of the 2nd Laird of Auchiries. The service celebrates Alexander’s recent acquittal from his involvement at the Battle of Culloden, which had forced him into hiding at Drum and then into exile in France.

Alexander’s uncle was Charles Irvine (1693–1771), a successful Aberdeen-based merchant and supercargo in the Swedish East India Company. He travelled to Canton five times, before returning to Aberdeen in 1761. The service may have been ordered by Charles’s nephew, John Irvine, another supercargo with the Swedish Company. He was in Canton in 1748–49 and 1750–52. A very similar service, made around 1750, was ordered for George Skene, 17th Laird of Skene (1699–1756), a former Lord Rector of Marischal College (now the University of Aberdeen). The Irvine and Skene sets, and possibly Lord Cosmo Gordon’s, share a rare feature: the white enamel was replaced with silver, which has since tarnished. As this is also found on tea sets ordered by another Scottish supercargo with the Swedish Company, it strengthens the evidence for a Swedish connection for all three.

These services are typical of the hybrid objects associated with the East India Company, where only the material and place of production are Chinese; the rest is European. They are important in the narrative of Scotland’s ceramic heritage, yet are rarely documented.

I am grateful to Angela Howard for her generous assistance. Information on all the services is found in David S Howard’s books: Chinese Armorial Porcelain, Vols I (1974) & II (2003).

[1] George K McGilvary, East India Patronage and the British State: The Scottish Elite and Politics in the Eighteenth Century, Tauris Academic Studies, 2008

Hanna Hodacs, ‘Keeping It in the Family: The Swedish East India Company and the Irvine Family, 1731–1770’ in Journal of World History, vol. 31, no. 3 (2020), pp. 567–595

Patricia Ferguson is a ceramic specialist with an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. She has worked in London at the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum, and as Honorary Adviser on Ceramics to the National Trust (England, Wales and Northern Ireland). She published Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces in 2016.

Look out for Armorial china: part 2, due to be published next month.

For more details of the National Trust for Scotland’s ceramics collections, read our Survey of Asian Ceramics.

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