Mrs Delany and Ceramics in the Objectscape    
  Jo Dahn, University of Wales, Aberystwyth and BathSpa University College or

  Introduction: the objectscape; women and ceramics

Until relatively recently notions of class based behaviour derived from Thorstein Veblen - particularly conspicuous consumption and emulation - were central to accounts that sought to interrogate our relationship with the objects of material culture.1 However, the motivation to consume is, and always has been, more complex, more variable and more interesting than Veblen believed. Latter day theorists have shown that object-systems function in a variety of ways to produce meaning(s). Pierre Bourdieu, for example, has demonstrated that consumption activities may not be motivated by emulation, but by differentiation, whereby each class strives to distinguish itself from others. Research that examines particular instances of consumption increasingly reveals its heterogeneity. In her new book on women and ceramics, Moira Vincentelli gives a useful summary of historical and theoretical approaches to the consumption of objects in the domestic arena. In her view (and mine) gender is an important factor:

Gender affects people's relationship to the material world, hence men and women have different attachments to different objects corresponding to the gender roles 'scripted' by a society.2

From whatever theoretical position one proceeds, it is clear that the organisation of sets of objects forms one of the frameworks via which day-to-day life is experienced. I want to argue that within the domestic sphere there exists what might be thought of as a 'landscape' of objects, which I will term an 'objectscape', that has both psychic and practical function(s) and forms part of the multi-layered environment that each individual inhabits. The assembling of the objectscape, and behaviour(s) with regard to it, continues throughout life. This is a complex process. The objectscape can be 'read', providing insight as to (for instance) character, or fiscal status. Moreover, the material properties of some objects within the objectscape can determine behaviour: the porcelain tea service elicits a very different set of actions from its earthenware equivalent.

The accumulated and accumulating objectscape exerts its own pressures on the individual. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault discussed the development of the Panopticon method of surveillance whereby prison inmates are 'caught up in a power system of which they are themselves the bearers… what matters is that he knows himself to be observed.'3 He argued that the Panopticon principle is manifest in many variations that strengthen 'social forces', the result being 'a society penetrated through and through with disciplinary mechanisms.'4 Indeed, Foucault referred to 'the panopticisms of every day', and the objectscape can be seen to have an analogous function, as the individual negotiates a set of objects that themselves signify social relationships.5 Whatever their peculiarities, such objects are constant reminders of social context. Gifts and inherited objects, for example, are both capable of evoking close personal ties. We might conceive of the 'vigilance' of objects in this connection, for within the objectscape there will be many items that stand witness to that network of other people with whom each individual seeks to interact, and whose understanding and approval is an important factor in the process of individual and social self-definition.

In 1982 Neil McKendrick famously declared that emulation was the spur to 'an unprecedented propensity to consume' that gathered force over the course of the eighteenth century.6 He saw ceramic objects as central to this 'consumer revolution'.7 Female consumers in particular, were slaves to fashion and experienced 'a compulsive need' to acquire ceramics.8 Since then, the correlation between women and ceramics during this period has been noted by several writers. Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, for example, argues that china can be regarded 'as a defining trope for femininity'.9

She has discussed the development of the relationship between women and china, as indicative of the '… "fictile" process through which gender is constructed.' To situate or 'read' a woman in relation to a set of china objects was to collude in her commodification. She concludes that overall it was the 'frangible condition' of women that china recalled, and that whereas 'the woman at the tea table' could be constructed in many different ways, 'what she could never be was an independent agent, actively creating her own definition of subjectivity.'10 The association between women and material culture as represented in many novels of the period lends support for her view. But this is a complex issue and we need more 'real' historical evidence detailing the specifics of women's choice and consumption of china. My concern in this essay is to explore the way(s) ceramics featured in the objectscape of Mary Delany (1700-1788). I want to propose that it was possible for a woman to actively produce her own subjectivity in the cultural arena of the objectscape.

Best known for her flowers worked in cut paper (her 'flora'), throughout her adult life Mrs Delany collected and displayed ceramics. They were key components of the objectscapes she inhabited, and central to her notion of feminine community. What follows is heavily reliant on her voluminous correspondence, which was edited by Lady Llanover and published in six volumes in 1861-2.11 Mrs Delany was an aristocratic habitué of court circles and an arbiter of taste, close to several important and influential patrons and collectors, most notably her best friend the Duchess of Portland (Margaret Harley). The world evoked in her letters is a world of privilege from the feminine perspective; there are marvellously vivid references to the acquisition and consumption of objects.

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1 See Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Penguin, 1979, (1899). back to article

2 Moira Vincentelli, Women and Ceramics, Gendered Vessels, Manchester University Press, 2000, 110. back to article

3 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Penguin U.K., 1977, 201. back to article

4 Foucault, Discipline, 208-9. back to article

5 Foucault, Discipline, 223. back to article

6 'Spurred on by social emulation and class competition, men and women surrendered eagerly to the pursuit of novelty, the hypnotic effects of fashion, and the enticements of persuasive commercial propaganda.', Neil McKendrick, 'The Consumer Revolution' in Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society, London, Europa, 1982, 11. back to article

7 McKendrick in The Birth of a Consumer Society, chapter 1. back to article

8 McKendrick in The Birth of a Consumer Society, 101. back to article

9 Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects, Women, Shopping and Business in the Eighteenth Century, Columbia University, 1996, 52-58. back to article

10 Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects, chapter 3: China. back to article

11 The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany: With Interesting Reminiscences of King George the Third and Queen Charlotte edited by the Right Honourable Lady Llanover, volumes I-III, London, Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street 1861, and Second Series, volumes IV-VI 1862. back to article


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In this article I suggest that we might usefully consider the component objects of the domestic interior as forming an 'objectscape' with many social and cultural functions. I discuss the correlation between women and ceramics in the eighteenth century, and show how ceramics featured in the aristocratic lifestyle of Mrs Mary Delany (1700-1780). I argue that they were central to her notion of feminine community. A brief biography of Mrs Delany is included, and she is also situated in relation to Wedgwood and his productions. His copy of the Portland Vase is identified as an important object capable of dense signification. Issues of class and gender inform the text throughout. The principal source material is Mrs Delany's published correspondence.

material culture, gender, class, Wedgwood


Mrs Delany: biography

Mrs Delany in relation to Wedgwood

Ceramics and feminine subjectivity

Concluding remarks

Mrs Delany and Ceramics in the Objectscape • Issue 1