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24 Apr 2023

Armorial china: part 2

Written by Patricia F Ferguson
An elaborate porcelain pot with a lid stands on a little tray, against a plain grey background. It is decorated with a blue and gold pattern and has a family crest at the centre.
Porcelain sauce tureen and stand with the Brodie arms
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.

Many Scottish bureaucrats and army officers were employed by the English East India Company in India in the 18th century, willing participants in Britain’s mercantile expansion and empire. For some, armorial porcelain table services were the material symbol of their success; they had become immensely rich because of their exploitation of privileged circumstances on the other side of the globe. These porcelain services were proudly displayed on dining tables and buffet-niches in temporary or ancestral homes, from Madras (now Chennai) to Aberdeen, as imperial trophies.

For other Scots – the captains, supercargoes and officers of East Indiamen (the name given to ships belonging to the Company) who sailed to Canton (now Guangzhou) – fortunes were made by taking private orders from Company directors, merchants, friends and family members, many of whom were based in India. Orders would include lists of items alongside coloured sketches or inscribed bookplates describing their coats of arms. Cantonese merchants sent these orders to their agents in Jingdezhen, 500 miles north of Canton, to be copied. By the 1740s, enamelling workshops had been set up in Canton, which accelerated the process and reduced the cost and delivery time.

Despite the relatively small population of Scotland, more Scottish than English armorial porcelain services were ordered (proportionally) between 1775 and 1800. Scottish orders represented as much as 35% of the total production, directly reflecting Scotland’s conspicuous presence in both India and Canton.

House of the Binns: Heraldic achievements

At House of the Binns in West Lothian, there is an armorial service with the arms of Dalyell of the Binns, made around 1773. Painted in famille rose enamels with a border of neoclassical floral festoons, it was made for Sir Robert Dalyell, 4th Baronet (1726–91), on his marriage in 1773 to Elizabeth Graham (d. 1825), daughter of the 4th Laird of Gallingad and 5th of Gartmore. The service was a highlight of the fashionable new dining room, intended to impress his wife’s wealthy family who had trading links to the West Indies.

Their heraldic achievements – seen in the full display of the crest, coat of arms, supporters and motto – reveal a controversial ancestor. At the bottom of the shield is an oval medallion, which represents the badge of the Order of the Baronets of Nova Scotia. This order was founded in 1634 to support the colonisation of Nova Scotia. In 1685, James VII of Scotland and II of England rewarded the loyalty of the 4th Baronet’s ancestor, General Tam Dalyell (1615–85), with this honour. General Tam was a mercenary who fought for the Tsar of Russia and is remembered for his uncompromising suppression of Scottish Covenanters.

The service was still in use around 1815, when Sir James Dalyell, 5th Baronet (1774–1841) ordered a tea service in a similar pattern from a porcelain factory in Derby.

Newhailes: An everyday armorial service

At Newhailes House, a Palladian country house near Edinburgh, there is a partial 17-piece armorial table service with the arms of Dalrymple of Hailes, made around 1775. The coat of arms and pattern is painted entirely under the glaze in cobalt blue. This economical decoration required just one firing and was often ordered as everyday tableware. Several of the shapes are associated with the Swedish market.

The discrete fleur-de-lis at the top of the shield indicates it belonged to a sixth son, who was William Dalrymple (c1739–76). William was the youngest son of Sir James Dalrymple of Hailes, 2nd Baronet (1692–1751), and he worked for the East India Company. In a letter to his sisters written from Canton on 6 January 1774, William wrote: ‘I am sorry the Patern [sic] plate you said was sent never got to my hand as I could easily have got what you want for next shipping but now it will probably be a year longer however I cannot say til I see them perhaps they may be matchd if they are not very uncommon.’ [1]

Armorial services could take up to two years to deliver. The service may have arrived in London by March 1777, as we have a record statingat the India House [the Company’s warehouse] for a lot of table china from Mr W. D’. William never saw the service as he died in Madras in 1776.

Brodie Castle: armorials of a rogue heir

At Brodie Castle in Moray, there are elements from four armorial services with the arms of Brodie of that Ilk, made between 1775 and 1805. Extremely wealthy East India Company directors owned many armorial services, but at the time the Brodies were suffering financially and were unlikely to have ordered them. The debts of the 19th Laird were inherited by his cousin, James Brodie, 21st Laird (1744–1824), who was forced to auction property as well as sell land to his brother-in-law, the 2nd Earl of Fife. His wife died in a fire in 1786.

To revive their fortunes, James’s heir (also James) followed in the footsteps of James’s younger brother, a rich nabob called Alexander Brodie (1748–1818). Alexander had worked for the Company in Madras before returning to Scotland, buying an estate and becoming a Scottish MP. In 1790, the younger James Brodie (1768–1801) arrived in Madras and rose to become a senior merchant in the civil service. Around 1799, he had to resign for illegal private trading. In 1801, he drowned in India, just a year after his brother William Douglas Brodie (1769–1826) arrived.

Three of the armorial services, made around 1800–05, were clearly ordered by the same individual as they share identical heraldic errors: the red chevron in the shield is incorrectly painted black, while the stars are gold rather than blue. The largest and most complete service is the richly gilded, underglaze blue painted ‘FitzHugh’ pattern, named after a director of the East India Company, Thomas Fitzhugh (d. 1799). The shapes were inspired by fashionable Wedgwood models, and the family motto ‘Unite’ is sometimes incorrectly spelled as ‘Untie’. The cost of this service would have been beyond the income of a senior Company merchant.

Also at Brodie Castle is a rare set of Chinese porcelain flower pots, painted in blue and gold with the cipher ‘EB’, dating from 1795–1805. The cipher belongs to the wife of Alexander Brodie, Elisabeth, née Wemyss (1748–1800), a niece of the 6th Earl of Wemyss. Their daughter, also Elizabeth (1794–1864), married the last (5th) Duke of Gordon. Upon her death, her family heirlooms were sent to Brodie Castle, which is probably how the three armorial services and the flower pots arrived at the castle, presumably all ordered by her father.

Until the 1800s, the Scottish gentry, especially those with sons in India, frequently ordered porcelain from China decorated with their coats of arms, as there was no significant luxury ceramic industry in Scotland. This material evidence of the many networks of commercial and political influence came to an end when the English East India Company lost its monopoly on trade with China in 1833.

[1] Manuscript held by the National Library of Scotland, MSS.25286, f.18

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.

Read Armorial china: part 1

For more details on the National Trust for Scotland’s ceramics collections surveyed by Patricia F Ferguson, read our Survey of Asian Ceramics.

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