Mrs Delany and Ceramics in the Objectscape

Jo Dahn

  Ceramics and feminine subjectivity
  A well-known anecdote has Wedgwood meeting with 'Capability' Brown. To Brown's assertion that 'his life was devoted to lords and gentlemen', Wedgwood is supposed to have responded: 'and mine, to the ladies'.26 The conjunction of women and ceramics was established before his time: handling and displaying fine china was central to particular constructions of femininity. Women of Mrs Delany's circle were expected to have an affinity with such objects. They typically bequeathed china to their female friends and descendants. Five years before her death, for example, Mrs Delany's sister, Mrs Dewes, wrote a letter for her daughter Mary leaving her the contents of her cabinets. Various objects were mentioned, but her most detailed description was reserved for an 'old china cup' which had been handed down from woman to woman:

The old china cup with the gilt cover and saucer, that has a setting in gold belonging to it, Mary must have, and give it to her daughter if she has one, if not to one of her brother's daughters, as it has gone from daughter to daughter these three hundred years!…These trifles I give to renew in her mind whenever she sees them, the constant tenderness of her truly affectionate mother,…27

Women like Mrs Delany and her sister did not need new china. Their objectscapes were already replete with the significances that circulated around the existing contents. The 'ladies' to whom Wedgwood addressed his efforts were, with some notable exceptions, women of his own up and coming middle class.28 Ultimately these were the women he needed to please and he made a point of trialling new designs on them. Throughout his professional life he relied on his wife's judgement in questions of taste. 'I speak from experience in Female taste,' he wrote to Bentley, 'without which I should have made but a poor figure amongst my Potts; not one of which of any consequence is finished without the Approbation of my Sally.'29

In 1772 Mrs Delany was given 'a profile of Captain Edward Hamilton in Wedgewood-ware [sic] in imitation of the antique,' which she commended as 'very like.'30 She also praised Wedgwood's 'ingenuity and industry'. On viewing the Frog Service31 for Katherine the Great at his London showrooms in 1774 she wrote:

I am just returned from viewing the Wedgewood-ware that is to be sent to the Empress of Russia. It consists I believe of as many pieces as there are days of the year, if not hours… there are three rooms below and two above filled with it, laid out on tables, every thing that can be wanted to serve a dinner; the ground the common ware pale brimstone, the drawings in purple, the borders a wreath of flowers, the middle of each piece a particular view of all the remarkable places in the King's dominions neatly executed. I suppose it will come to a princely price; it is well for the manufacturer, which I am glad of, as his ingenuity and industry deserve encouragement…32

It was not quite complete - some 150 views were yet to be painted. Wedgwood was worried that potential customers whose property was not featured might be offended, and in this way he could still accept illustrations for inclusion in the service. Characteristically, Mrs Delany spotted an error in one of the 'drawings': '…my indignation was raised when I read the card… I rectified the mistake with the person that had the care of them.' The mistake concerned her niece's home, Ilam house. It had been ascribed to the wrong owner, so her reaction is not really surprising. She continued, 'and [I] hope I am will acknowledge its true master to her Imperial Majesty,' indicating that the significance of the illustrations, which exported a distinct notion of English culture, was not lost on her. It is clear though, that there was a degree of ambivalence in her response to the array of china: 'I am so giddy,' she finally declared, 'with looking over such a quantity of crockery ware…'33

Mrs Delany's use of the term 'crockery' suggests that she did not rank the Frog Service alongside her own china or that of her acquaintance. Crockery is common-or-garden table-ware, and this is her only use of the word in her published correspondence. Yet the collection and display of china loomed very large in her life. A distinctly emulative approach towards it emerges from her earlier correspondence, perhaps supporting McKendrick's argument. As we have seen, after the death of her first husband, Alexander Pendarves, she was living in London with her aunt and uncle, Sir John and Lady Stanley. She sent regular boxes of provisions from the city to her mother and sister who were living near Gloucester:

In the box with the linnen [sic] there is… French silver saltsellers, [sic] and a pair of china ones, which you may think old fashion, but it is the new mode, and all saltsellers are now made in that manner…34

Two years later, china was again perceived in terms of its fashionability:

I sent a little box last night to the carrier with a set of china as my mama ordered me: I hope they will come safely, I gave great charge about packing them carefully. China is risen mightily within this month. My Aunt Stanley liked them so well for the oddness of them, that she bought a set of cups, bason, sugar-dish and plate cost fourteen shillings.35

China continued to interest Mrs Delany throughout her life. She amassed a considerable collection herself, and she noted the presence of china in the objectscapes of other people. Her own was acquired in a number of ways. Some was bought at shops, sales and auctions. Much was given by friends and family; '… our dear Sir John', she wrote to her sister in 1737, 'has given me a pair of pretty white china babies for my cupboard, and a bowl for a ladle in china, in the shape of an Indian leaf …'36 As I have noted, aristocratic women frequently bequeathed china to one another, and she inherited several pieces from her friends. Mrs Bristow, for example, gave the Duchess of Portland 'a Japan dressing-box, any shells she pleases, and two pieces of china.' To Mrs Delany she left '..the remainder of her shells and two pieces of china.'37

Mrs Delany's own will gives some idea of the nature of the china in her objectscape. Specific mention is made of 'a Dresden cup and saucer', 'a pair of white china bottles with raised flowers', 'the scarlet bowls mounted in gilding with china flowers', 'two saucers of old japan china, with the two bottles that used to stand in them with flowers', 'a pair of old japan china bottles', a 'china bottle set in gold', 'a japan box in the shape of a heart', 'a Dresden china cup and saucer with sprigs of flowers', and 'a Dresden china soup basin, cover and plate.'38 The will begins with a list of individual bequests in which she distributed many of her personal belongings amongst her closest friends. These were often objects with particular resonance for the recipients, and it should be noted that all the china was given to women. Thus: 'To the Countess Gower the blue and white cup and saucer, Dresden, out of which she used to drink her tea, and a pair of white china bottles with raised flowers.'39

To her great-niece Georgiana Mary Port, Mrs Delany left 'the contents of her closet at Windsor' as well as 'all her plate, japan and china (not previously disposed of)'.40 Like many other women of her time and class, she had deliberately constructed a decorative objectscape within which to situate herself; almost – I want to suggest – like a self-portrait. Many of the things belonging to it - such as embroidery and shell work, paintings and drawings - were of her own or her friends' making. China formed an important part of that environment, and regular (if not constant) redecoration and refurbishment of the 'closet' or 'cabinet' where she kept it was a source of pleasure. The china took its place amongst a series of arrangements of many different sorts of objects, but was most closely associated with shells:

I am making some little brackets (…) but instead of gilding them I cover them with shells; I design to have eight of them for my closet, to hold little pieces of China.41

In 1743, as we have seen, she married Patrick Delany, and in 1744 they went to live in Dublin. This was the period when Mrs Delany was most involved in constructing a personal objectscape. She threw herself into redecorating and refurbishing their house (Delville), and made regular reports of her progress in letters to her sister. A display of china was at the core of her most personal rooms:

I am going to make a very comfortable closet; - to have a dresser, and all manner of working tools, to keep all my stores for painting, carving, gilding, &c.; for my own room is now so clean and pretty that I cannot suffer it to be strewn with litter, only books and work, and the closet belonging to it to be given up to prints, drawings, and my collection of fossils, petrifactions, and minerals… In the middle of the closet a deep nitch [sic] with shelves, where I shall put whatever china I think too good for common use.42

Although men were by no means prohibited, she saw her 'closet' as ideally a private feminine space: '… retired from all interruption and eaves-droppers.'43

Mrs Delany took over the education of her great-niece Georgiana Mary Ann Port in 1778 when Georgiana was seven years old. The girl came to live with her in London, and was inculcated into the mysteries of the china service early on, as Mrs Delany reported:

Mary… made me follow her into the parlour to behold a complete set of young Nankeen china which she had just received from the Duchess of Portland: her raptures were prodigious, and indeed they are very fine and pretty of their kind, not quite so small as for baby things, not large eno' for grown ladies, and she insists on my telling you all this, and that there are twelve teacups and saucers, 6 coffee cups and teapot, sugar dish, milk mug, 2 bread-and-butter plates, and they have been produced for the entertainment of all my company every afternoon.44

The child's tea set was imported. The earliest surviving record of a Wedgwood tea set made especially for children is dated 1811. However, although they were not included in the catalogue of readily available wares, it would have been perfectly possible to order such a set before this date.45 But Georgiana was being trained to take her place in aristocratic society, and the exclusivity of oriental china was still an important mark of status in those elevated circles. Then as now, playing with toys like this reflected adult activities and established patterns of behaviour in later life. Georgiana was also introduced to the pleasures of the cabinet collection. As Mrs Delany's great-niece she found favour amongst friends of her aunt who were keen to bestow marks of their approval in the form of gifts. After a visit to Lady Stamford, for example, Mrs Delany wrote that she '… brought away shells in abundance; her collection encreases [sic] so fast that you must provide her with a cabinet to keep them, for she promises herself much joy in sorting and entertaining Mr Beresford with them.'46

Mr Beresford notwithstanding, boys were not expected to take an interest in, or show respect for, delicate objects. 'I had 20 frights for my china, shells and books: his little fingers seized everything with such impetuosity that I was ready to box him' complained Mrs Delany, after a visit from Lady Meade and her children.47 And in 1756, when Mr Mason and Viscountess Grandison were staying at Delville in the Delanys' absence, Mrs Delany expressed her anxiety about their son:

I hope the boy won't break and rifle my shell-cabinet! I have taken the liberty to order it to be constantly covered.48

Throughout her published correspondence china objects are primarily related to women. And although many men of her acquaintance, including her brother Bernard Granville, had collections that included china, there was a danger that to display excessive enthusiasm for it would tend to classify them as 'effeminate.'49 Lord G in Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison - Mrs Delany's favourite novel after Clarissa by the same author - is ridiculed for displaying just such a behaviour.50 Charlotte Grandison mocks him for his present of 'old Japan China with brown edges,' especially when she sees him '… taking out, and putting in the windows, one at a time, the cups, plates, jars, and saucers, rejoicing and parading over them, and shewing his connoisseurship to his motionless admiring wife, in commending this and the other piece as a beauty…'51 She rails against his 'gew-gaw japan-china taste,'52 and explains to Lady L, who attempts to mediate between the couple, that, 'If my lord would but be cured of his taste for trifles and nick-nacks, I should, possibly, be induced to consider him as a man of better understanding than I once thought him: but who can forbear, sometimes, to think slightly of a man, who, by effeminacies, and a Shell and China taste, undervalues himself?'53

What was derisible in a man was desirable in a woman. In some of her letters it seems almost as if Mrs Delany believed her china went before her. When important guests were expected, she automatically checked its condition. Thus in anticipation of a visit from Lady Caroline Fox, she had, 'set all my best china in order, and prepared everything for their reception.'54

Predictably, china was an important element in the display of food. But although Mrs Delany sometimes referred to her tableware, she rarely (if ever) described its appearance. On the occasion of a visit from Lord and Lady Mornington, she reported:

… my dessert was … very pretty and much set off by some fine china, part of my dear Bushe's legacy.55

The china service was noted here because it evoked female friendship as well as contributing a strong visual aspect to the meal. The presentation of food is a frequent feature of Mrs Delany's correspondence. A letter of 1752 describes a 'grand ball' in Dublin:

the musicians and singers were dressed like Arcadian shepherds and shepherdesses, and placed among the rocks. If tea, coffee, or chocolate were wanting, you held your cup to a leaf of a tree, and it was filled; and whatever you wanted to eat or drink, was immediately found on a rock, or on a branch, or in the hollow of a tree.56

Over the course of her life, she attended innumerable elaborately staged social functions of this sort.57 As to her own efforts, every so often she sent menus and table lay-outs to her sister:

You love a bill of fare, and here it is.

First Course
Second Course

Turkey Pout
    Salmon     Pick Sal
      Grilde and Quaills      
Soup and
Little Terrene Peas     Cream    Mush- Terrene
  Apple Pye  
  Crab      Leveret   Cheesecakes  

and Cream
and Jelly
Strawberries and Cream
        Almond Cream
          Currant and Goose-

Orange Butter

I have scratched it out very awkwardly, and hope the servants will place my dinner and dessert better on the table than I have on paper.58



This was a particularly grand meal, given in honour of the Lord Primate of Ireland. For her close friends Mrs Delany's approach was rather different, although equally impressive:

We have discovered a new breakfasting place under the shade of nut-trees, impenetrable to the sun's rays, in the midst of a grove of elms, where we shall breakfast this morning; I have ordered cherries, strawberries, and nosegays to be laid on our breakfast table, and have appointed a harper to be here to play to us during our repast, who is to be hid among the trees. Mrs Hamilton is to breakfast with us, and is to be cunningly led to this place and surprised.59

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26 Meteyard, The Life, xxiv. back to article

27 Mrs Dewes, Welsbourn, 23 March 1756. Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, III, 633. back to article

28 Notable exceptions included Queen Charlotte and the Empress Katherine of Russia. back to article

29 Wedgwood to Bentley, undated, referable to 1776-7. Meteyard, The Life, II, 156. back to article

30 Mrs Delany to Mrs Port, of Ilam, St James's Place, 30 December 1772, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, IV, 487. back to article

31 The 'Frog Service' is so called because each piece is decorated with a green frog motif referring to the palace of Kekerekeksinen - meaning the 'frog marsh' - where the service was to be used. See Young (edit) The Genius. back to article

32 Mrs Delany to Mrs Port of Ilam, St.James's Place, 7 June 1774, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, IV, 594-5. back to article

33 Mrs Delany to Mrs Port of Ilam, St.James's Place, 7 June 1774, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, IV, 594-5. back to article

34 Mrs Pendarves to Mrs Anne Granville, at Gloucester, 5 October 1727, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, I, 135. back to article

35 Mrs Pendarves to Anne Granville n/d (between April and July 1729), Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, I, 210. back to article

36 Mrs Pendarves to Anne Granville, Northend, 10 October 1737, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, II, 5. back to article

37 Mrs Delany to Mrs Port of Ilam, St James's Place, 27 February 1779, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, V, 410. back to article

38 Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, VI, Appendix, the will of Mrs Delany, 22/2/1778, 483-492. back to article

39 Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, VI, Appendix, the will of Mrs Delany, 22/2/1778, 483-492. back to article

40 Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, VI, Appendix, the will of Mrs Delany, 22/2/1778, 483-492. back to article

41 Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, at Gloucester, Delville, 25 January 1745-6, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, II, 415. back to article

42 Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Delville, 6 October 1750, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, II, 600. Installing her collection had been a communal activity: '…two Mrs Hamilton's, Bushes, Miss Hamilton, Mr Sackville Hamilton, came to breakfast. As soon as that was done, I set them all to work; gave each a dusting-cloth, brush, sponge and bowl of water, and set them to cleaning my picture-frames. Bushe undertook cleaning the pictures, and egging them out, whilst the carpenters and I fixed up the shelves for my books and china: everybody that popped their head in, was seized to work; no idler was admitted; a very merry working morning it was, and my dressing room is very spruce and handsome.' Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Delville, 22 September 1750, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, II, 592. back to article

43 Mrs Delany to AG, Delville, (Believed to be) 11 July 1747, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, II, 471. back to article

44 Mrs Delany to Mrs Port of Ilam, St James's Place, 1 April 1779, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, V, 418. back to article

45 I am grateful to Ms Lynn Miller of the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston for this information. back to article

46 Mrs Delany to Mrs Port of Ilam, St James's Place, 17 April 1779, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, V, 422. The Beresfords were friends of Georgiana's mother, Mrs Port of Ilam. back to article

47 Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Delville, 28 September 1750, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, II, 597. back to article

48 Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Spring Gardens, 2 June 1756 Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, III, 433. back to article

49 In the 18th century usage 'effeminacy' in a man was opposed to 'manly' qualities, but it did not have the homosexual connotation that is has today. back to article

50 Mrs Delany thought the book 'so excellent, so improving.' Its hero, Sir Charles, '… is as faultless as mortal hero can be… there is grace and dignity in all he says and does.' In his examination of Shaftsbury's art criticism John Barrell discusses ways in which the mode of consumption of art could influence constructions of masculinity. See John Barrell, 'The Dangerous Goddess' in The Birth of Pandora and the Division of Knowledge, London, Macmillan, 1992. Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Whitehall, 3 December 1753, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, III, 251, and Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Bulstrode, 9 December 1753, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, III, 252. back to article

51 Samuel Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, Oxford, 1972, (1753-1754), Vol. IV letter XXXIII, 418. back to article

52 Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, 509. back to article

53 Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, 519. Sir Charles Grandison , Mrs Delany's ideal man, shows no signs of 'gew-gaw japan-china taste'. Instead he interests himself (for example) in making 'accurate observations … on those treasures of antiquity which have been discovered in the antient Herculaneum.' See Vol. V, letter XXIX, 605. back to article

54 Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Delville, 7 July 1750, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, II, 1565. back to article

55 Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Delville, 10 March 1759, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, III, 540. The friendship between Mrs Delany and Letitia Bushe began in Ireland in 1731. Mrs Delany thought she had 'a fine genius for painting' (Mrs Pendarves to Mrs Ann Granville, Dublin 3 February 1731-32, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, I, 334.) Letitia Bushe died in 1757. back to article

56 Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Delville, 7 February 1752, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, III, 85. back to article

57 Other letters describe the pandemonium that resulted when, invited company having dined, the poor were let in to consume the leftovers: '…after the dinner is over the common people are let in to carry off all that remains both of dinner and dessert; you may imagine what a notable scramblement it occasions.' Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Delville, 28 October 1747, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, II, 481. back to article

58 Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, at Wellesbourne, Delville, 20 June 1747, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, II, 468. back to article

59 Mrs Delany to Mrs Dewes, Delville, 22 June 1750, Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, II, 558. back to article

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Mrs Delany: biography

Mrs Delany in relation to Wedgwood

Ceramics and feminine subjectivity

Concluding remarks

Mrs Delany and Ceramics in the Objectscape • Issue 1