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The Mermaid dish

  • Object:

    Dish

  • Place of origin:

    Staffordshire, England (made)

  • Date:

    1670-1689 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Toft, Thomas (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Lead-glazed earthenware, with trailed slip decoration

  • Museum number:

    299-1869

  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, room 56d, case 13

  • Download image

Object Type
Great dishes such as this were probably used in the 17th century as display objects. They perhaps copied more refined dishes of painted delftware (tin-glazed earthenware). After the publication of the Reverend A.E. Downman's Blue Dash Chargers in 1619, the quaint biblical name 'charger' became attached to these objects, whether delftware or slipware (wares of coarse red clay decorated with a white liquid clay known as slip). The striking image of the mythical Mermaid was popular and well known in the 17th century from inn signs. As well as having a strong visual and mystical appeal, it was easily adapted to the shape of the dish.

Social Class
Staffordshire slipwares must always have been relatively cheap. But whereas functional cups and posset pots were probably sold at fairs and taken in wicker panniers on horseback to distant parts of the country, these huge dishes emblasoned with the name of their maker seem to have been made as local advertisements for the (widely varying) skills of their creators. Despite the many surviving examples, they were apparently completely ignored in Staffordshire until Enoch Wood acquired two specimens for his factory museum, which opened about 1816.

Influence
Although such wares were recognised as interesting examples of folk pottery by the time that the South Kensington Museum acquired this piece in 1869, it was only in the 1920s that the writings of the art critic Herbert Read helped to raise them to the level of English Primitive Art. The striking simple image perfectly adapted to its 'frame' on the dish was much admired by early studio potters such as Bernard Leach (1887-1979).

Physical description

Shallow dish, slip-trailed earthenware, 44 cm x 7 cm, decorated with the image of a mermaid.

Place of Origin

Staffordshire, England (made)

Date

1670-1689 (made)

Artist/maker

Toft, Thomas (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Lead-glazed earthenware, with trailed slip decoration

Marks and inscriptions

'Thomas Toft'

Dimensions

Depth: 7 cm, Diameter: 44 cm

Object history note

Made in Staffordshire and signed by Thomas Toft (died in 1689)

Descriptive line

Dish, decorated with the image of a mermaid, slip-trailed earthenware, Thomas Toft, England (Staffordshire), ca.1670-80.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Baker, Malcolm and Richardson, Brenda, eds. A Grand Design : The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1997. 431 p., ill. ISBN 1851773088.
By the 1920s the remarkable signed dishes of Thomas Toft, the earliest and most accomplished member of several families of slipware makers working in Staffordshire, were admired as a distinctive English vernacular style of pottery. But this ware had already attracted interest as early as 1869 when the Museum acquired this piece, at a time when those involved in ceramic production showed an interest in collecting examples from the preindustrial past.
The freehand pictorial use of slip which appeared on Toft's dishes in the 1660s was old-fashioned in style. Much of the patriotic imagery on these dishes (though not, in fact, the mermaid) may well have been stimulated, like that on the urban delftware portrait chargers, by the Restoration of Charles II. The dishes' high survival rate and lack of wear show that they were made solely for decoration. None have worthwhile provenances, either as family heirlooms or to taverns with names that match the heraldic motifs. If the huge makers' signatures were intended as advertisement, it is ironic that their names as well as their products were completely lost until the wealthy manufacturer Enoch Wood collected for his private museum the two examples mentioned by Simeon Shaw in his 1829 History of the Staffordshire Potteries. Wood's "very scarce" dishes were acquired by Henry Cole and his advisor Herbert Minton for the new Museum of Practical Geology in 1846, six years before the Museum of Ornamental Art was established at Marlborough House. (The collections from the Museum of Practical Geology in 1901 formed an important addition to the already vast holdings of ceramics of the V&A.) This Mermaid Dish, the first example of Toft's work to be acquired, was purchased by the Museum at auction for £15.
Wealthy collectors in the Midlands, such as Thomas Greg and Charles J. Lomax, glutted on the mechanically perfect products of the Industrial Revolution and disinclined to collect foreign Renaissance pottery, soon began to search for the "pre-Wedgwood English pottery" remaining in farms and cottages in the counties around Staffordshire. Although in 1883 even Louis Marc Emmanuel Solon, the French art director of Minton & Co., felt compelled to apologise at length for the "modest artists" of "so primitive a community," he chose to display the dishes in his own collection in broad ebonised frames. Thus, these peasant pots with their bold linear style went from quaint antiquarian curio to artistic icon, acquiring status as examples of pure Englishness-in part through the collecting zeal of Dr. James Whitbread Lee Glaisher (whose collection is now at the Fitzwilliam Museum) and the writings of Bernard Rackham and Herbert Read. According to Rackham and Read in their 1924 English Pottery, this ware "owes nothing to servile imitation," proof indeed that "art tends to reach its highest levels when narrowly restricted in its means."
Considered a formative influence in the 1920s upon the cross-cultural pioneering studio potter Bernard Leach, English trailed slipware is now highly regarded in Japan. In America, popularised by collections formed in Kansas by Frank P. and Harriet C. Burnap in the 1930s-40s and by Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia in the 1950s-60s, such ware has come to represent part of the shared cultural roots of the New and Old Worlds.

Lit. Solon, 1883; Rackham and Read, 1924; Goodby, 1992

ROBIN HILDYARD

Exhibition History

Precious: Objects and Changing Values (The Millennium Galleries, Sheffield 02/04/2001-24/06/2001)
A Grand Design - The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Victoria and Albert Museum 12/10/1999-16/01/2000)

Labels and date

British Galleries:
This famous 'Mermaid' dish by Thomas Toft shows his masterly control of the slip-trailing technique and a natural sense of design. Little is known of Toft and his contemporary Staffordshire slipware makers, whose main production must have been useful household wares. Large dishes like this may have served as advertisements for such goods. [27/03/2003]

Subjects depicted

Mermaids

Categories

Ceramics; Earthenware

Collection code

CER

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Qr_O77538
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