Tragic lovers in pottery

08/02/202116:1511/02/2021 11:08Leave a Comment

Tragic love, where one or both lovers die, has been a popular theme in literature and art. Traditionally, if the female partner survived they were supposed to be inconsolable, forever mourning their lost love, and giving artists the opportunity to depict grieving young women in a variety of ways.

Many tragic lovers were drawn from classical mythology or history, and in the 18th century it was accepted that a well-educated person would be familiar with both the stories from Greek and Roman mythology and the history of those two civilisations. As a result, the fine and decorative arts, including ceramics, drew heavily on these themes for their inspiration.

The Fall of Troy

The story of the siege and fall of the City of Troy was told in The Iliad. Several hundred years later the Roman poet Virgil set his poem about the founding of the Roman Republic, The Aeneid, in the aftermath the Trojan War. The relates the adventures of its eponymous hero, Aeneas. Within these two poems, as well as descriptions of battles and manly heroism, are many stories of tragic heroines, some of whom can be found on pottery in our collection.

The story of the Trojan War starts with a competition. The goddesses Hera, Athene and Aphrodite quarrelled as to who was the most beautiful and should receive the prize of a golden apple. Since none of the gods would judge, it was decided that a mortal should do so. The three goddesses appeared before Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, and each offered him a different inducement to influence him. Hera, offered to make him the greatest ruler the world had ever known: Athene to make him the wisest of men – and Aphrodite? She offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, recently married to the king of Sparta. Paris gave the golden apple to Aphrodite and, in seeking the love of Helen, kidnapped her from Sparta, taking her back with him to Troy. This set in motion a ten years’ siege of Troy by the Greeks, ending in the city’s destruction and the death of Paris himself.

Earthenware plaque from the late 18th century depicts the moment that Paris gives the apple to Aphrodite. Decorated in a limited palette of underglaze colours, it is by an unknown maker.

Andromache morning the ashes of Hector

The older brother of Paris was the great warrior Hector. When the Greek army laid siege to Troy it was Hector who led the Trojan forces and often fought in single combat with the Greek heroes.  In the tenth year of the war he killed Patroclus, the friend of the hero Achilles, and Achilles swore revenge.

On the day of his death Hector’s devoted wife, Andromache, had a foreboding that he would die and begged him not to fight that day. Hector explained that it was his duty to fight and went out to face the Greek forces. Hector was killed in single combat with Achilles, whereupon Achilles tied his body to the back of his chariot, dragging it around the walls of Troy, until it was ransomed for gold by his father, King Priam. When Troy fell to the Greeks Andromache was taken captive with the other Trojan women to become a slave, mourning Hector’s death for the rest of her life.

Late 18th century earthenware figure shows Andromache standing next to the urn containing the ashes of Hector. Decorated in overglaze enamels it is by an unknown maker.

Dido & Aeneas

At the fall of Troy Prince Aeneas, another of the sons of King Priam, fled the city with some of his followers. In Virgil’s poem, The Aeneid, Aeneas arrives at Carthage, a Phoenician city in north Africa ruled over by Queen Dido. The goddess Aphrodite caused Dido to fall in love with Aeneas and for a while all seemed well, but then Aphrodite told Aeneas that he must leave Carthage and follow his destiny, which was to found the city of Rome. Despite Dido’s pleas for him to stay, Aeneas sailed for Italy. Overcome with grief at being abandoned, Dido built a funeral pyre and stabbed herself with Aeneas’s sword.

Stoneware teapot from the Turner factory of Longton has an applied panel showing Dido begging Aeneas not to leave while Aphrodite urges him to follow his men to the departing ships

Anthony and Cleopatra

One of the best-known stories of lovers from antiquity is that of Anthony and Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt. In the civil war following the death of her former lover, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra joined forces with the Roman general, Mark Anthony, who became her lover and consort. Caesar’s heir, Octavian, later to become Emperor Augustus, declared war on Anthony and Cleopatra, defeating them at the Battle of Actium and invading Egypt. Anthony stabbed himself with his sword and was carried, dying, in to Cleopatra’s presence. In turn, she was said to have killed herself, by being bitten by an asp.

This pair of reclining figures, shows the death of Anthony and Cleopatra. The figure of Cleopatra is based on a Roman statue of the sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican collection that, in the 18th century, was wrongly identified as the Egyptian queen, due to the snake bracelet coiled around her upper arm.

Agrippina mourning the ashes of Germanicus

Two generations later, Germanicus, the nephew and adopted son of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, was, like Hector before him, a great general and warrior. Married to Agrippina, the grand-daughter of the Emperor Augustus, they were a devoted couple with nine children. Unlike many Roman wives, Agrippina accompanied her husband on his military postings, but in AD19 while in Syria, Germanicus died suddenly at the age of 34. Poisoning was suspected. Agrippina returned to Rome, accompanied by her children, and carrying an urn containing the ashes of Germanicus.

The Staffordshire potters used the same figure of a mourning woman embracing a funeral urn to depict Agrippina who was seen, like Andromache, as a model of wifely devotion.

Although classical literature inspired many depictions of tragic lovers whose fate was often controlled by the gods, the late 18th century also saw the Staffordshire potters turning to modern literature as sources for their work, with the authors’ emotional depictions of tragic, unrequited love, either as a result of death or desertion.

Werther and Charlotte

Pair of experimental jasper medallions by Enoch Wood, Burslem, c.1790.
Werther is show in an agony of indecision while Charlotte‘s hands are clasped in supplication.

In 1774 the German writer, Goethe, published the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. It was an instant success and was quickly translated into many languages, including English. It is the story of Werther, an artist, who loves the beautiful Charlotte, despite the fact that she is engaged to another. After her marriage, unable to bear seeing her happiness, Werther shoots himself, dying miserably. Charlotte visits his tomb and grieves for him, with the author suggesting that she, too, will soon die of a broken heart.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the depressing subject matter, The Sorrows of Young Werther was hugely popular. Young men dressed in the style and colour of clothing that Werther wore in the novel, and grew their hair long in imitation of their hero: there were reports of copycat suicides, inspired by the novel, and the book was consequently banned in some countries.

Jasper plaque of Charlotte at the tomb of Werther. William Adams, Tunstall, c.1800

In Staffordshire the pottery firms produced elegant jasper and stonewares inspired by the two lovers, but tending to concentrate on Charlotte’s grief following Werther’s death. The subject of her kneeling in tears before his tomb was very popular and produced by many potters, who copied Lady Templetown’s design for Josiah Wedgwood’s pottery. As Werther’s tomb included a memorial urn, some potters also re-issued the popular figure of Andromache/Agrippina as ‘Charlotte mourning at the tomb of Werther’.

Poor Maria

Detail from a jasper sugar box & cover, Josiah Spode, Stoke-upon-Trent, c.1800, after the design by Elizabeth, Lady Templetown.

For those customers who disapproved of the shocking themes of suicide and love for a married woman, the potters produced tableware and figures inspired by another popular author – Laurence Sterne whose Tristram Shandy had appeared in 1759-1761, with A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, published a few years later in 1768.

In both of these books the character of ‘Poor Maria’ appears. In the first book, deserted by her lover, Maria is overcome with melancholy and wanders through the countryside accompanied only by a pet goat, where she is met by Tristram Shandy. In A Sentimental Journey she is met with again, only this time even her goat has abandoned her and she is now accompanied by a small dog

“I discovered Poor Maria sitting under a poplar — she was sitting with her elbow in her lap, and her head leaning on one side within her hand….. Her goat had been as faithless as her lover; and she had got a little dog in lieu of him…which she had kept tied by a string to her girdle.”

Maria was the epitome of the passive female, whose heart, once broken remained so. Like the similarly broken-hearted Charlotte, Maria was based on Lady Templetown’s design for Josiah Wedgwood’s jasper ware. In an era with little copyright protection, however, this image, like that of Charlotte, was soon being used by a variety of pottery firms.

A trio of Marias: two teapots and covered sugar box, all by the firm of Turner, Longton, c.1800.

Several potteries produced figures of Maria seated under a tree. The most popular version showed her accompanied by her dog, but a matching figure was also made, showing her with her faithless goat. Although not mentioned in the literary source, the figure of Maria and her goat shows her inscribing her lover’s name on an urn (which symbolically contains the ashes of her love).

This pair of figures of Poor Maria by an unknown maker, c.1790, are spill vases: the tree stumps at the back are hollow and could be used to display flowers or the decorative paper spills that were used to light candles.

The fashion, in both literature and art, for depicting tragic heroines mourning their one true love gradually went out of fashion during the 19th century but, while the subject matter might seem overly sentimental to modern eyes, it did inspire the potters to produce some very attractive designs.

Written by Miranda Goodby, Senior Curator of Ceramics - Modified by Glenn Roadley (Curator, Natural Sciences)

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