Objects of Delight
10: The archaeology of the Plumtree Court mantelpiece IV
Analysing the assemblage
An individual's desire for such decorative (and wholly useless from a utilitarian point of view) items like a figurine may be seen as part of a process by which the modern bourgeois sensibility is constructed in the urban working class(Schwarzbach 2001, 42)
Absences: the material conundrum
In my MA dissertation (Mills 2010) and a subsequent book chapter (Mills 2015) I introduced and stressed the importance of miniature objects to historical archaeology. I listed miniature objects that had been discovered during archaeological excavations and investigations around the world. I subsequently discovered during this project that there was a further important class of miniature object — the plaster of Paris figure — that was at the time as numerous, if not more so, than the ceramic and metallic objects I had previously noted, and was more frequently referred to by contemporary writers and illustrators. Made in millions, sold cheaply, and present in working-class domestic contexts throughout the industrialised world, the subjects of plaster of Paris miniatures reflected current thinking and attitudes. Despite this, because of their fragility, and because they decomposed in archaeological deposits, plaster of Paris miniatures are very rarely referred to in studies of nineteenth century material culture. Their absence from archaeological reports, from museums, from discussions of "Victorian life" and from reconstructions of "Victorian parlours" has resulted in their absence from the histories of the period1.
Examining these absent objects and their entanglements nevertheless enables me to draw parallels with those more robust, tangible, well-known and often-curated objects manufactured in earthenware or porcelain. Though they were a significant product of many potteries in Britain and beyond during the nineteenth century, they were rarely specifically written about or illustrated. Many were probably described as and included under the general headings of "chimney ornaments", "images" and "china", and so are included in my survey (especially in reported crime, where they were occasionally mentioned both as stolen goods and as weapons, the mantelpiece presumably offering a convenient arsenal of material that could be thrown or wielded). Even so, I have been able to find only one or two nineteenth-century references to peddlers of ceramic figurines, and only a single illustration of an "Earthenware Man" (Figure 1) to match the 150-odd plaster equivalents. This is strange, because John Thomas Smith, who drew the earthenware man and, earlier, an image-seller2 wrote in 1839: "of all the tradesmen who supply the domestic table, there are none more frequently called upon than the earthenware man…the itinerant Staffordshire Ware vendor, exhibited in the following plate, is sure to sell something in every street he enters" (Smith 1839, 61).
Hindley, in his History of the Cries of London, includes, beneath a woodcut of an image-seller (Figure 2), the verse:
Buy my images, Images
Come buy my images — earthenware
Your mantelpiece to bedeck
Examine them with greatest care
You will not find a single speck(Hindley 1881, 138)
Hindley's work is a mish-mash of earlier woodcuts and extracts from earlier writing, many of them undated. It is therefore difficult to place this verse and the two woodcuts he includes in this and a later edition3. The Bewick woodcuts are probably late eighteenth century or early nineteenth, and the verse may also have been collected many years before Hindley's book. Both woodcuts show image-sellers with trays of figures balanced on their heads.
That commentator on everyone and everything in London, Henry Mayhew, writes of a "swag shop" that was selling: "a great store of shepherdesses". He notices that so popular was the Bard that he "did not see one of these windows without its Shakspeare, a sitting figure" (Mayhew 1851, 333-4). Mayhew distinguishes between "figures" that appear to be identifiable characters such as Shakespeare, and "pots" that are generalised, unnamed and poorly sculpted figurines. It is also interesting that he writes that the latter at least come from Germany4 rather than British potteries. Mayhew complicates matters a little further on by referring to "pot figures" whose quality isn't an improvement. These are caricatures "...of Louis Philippe5, carrying a very red umbrella, Marshall Haynau6, with some instrument of torture in his hand, while over all boomed a huge English seaman, in yellow waistcoat and with a brick coloured face" (Mayhew 1851, 334). A recently-deceased monarch who had been forced to abdicate, and an Austrian general infamous for his brutality seem odd originals for figurines.
Apparently-ceramic figures appear in some paintings, for example Collinson's Answering the Emigrant's Letter (Figure 3 and Figure 4), while their plaster equivalents are not obvious. This may have been the result of a preference amongst artists for the type of home that displayed ceramic ornaments. The lack of plaster of Paris figures may result from the artists not venturing into homes where these were present, or simply creating imagined scenarios using material with which they were familiar. There may not have been much of a market for realistic scenes of working-class life other than depictions of sensational poverty or sentimental/humorous scenes. The snippets of information from Punch cartoons or newspaper fillers are ironically more accurate.
More confusion might be added by plaster of Paris image makers' habit of making moulds from ceramic originals. Many plaster "images" were also painted, bronzed or gilded, which makes the identification of their composition difficult, if not impossible, in paintings and photographs. Towards the end of the nineteenth century some Staffordshire ceramics were undecorated, and at a distance it is difficult to tell Parian ware and marble from plaster of Paris, although these were significantly more expensive and unlikely to appear in working-class contexts.
Some writers refer to plaster casts as "clay". For example7: "Signor J Pelechi's hair flicked his velveteen shoulders as with head aback he derided the public lack of art appreciation reflected by his arrest for hawking clay statuettes without license" (San Francisco Call, December 22nd 1904). We soon learn that these are in fact plaster of Paris: "Signor Palechi's endeavour to elevate the art standard of this materialistic city consisted of his manufacture at home and offering for sale abroad miniature plaster images of personages famed universally or locally. His collection of molds enabled him to turn out exact counterfeits of Napoleon Bonaparte, Mrs Carrie Nation8, Garibaldi, Young Corbett9, William J Bryan10, Aguinaldo11 and May Irwin12. He was preparing casts of 'Battling' Nelson13 and Mrs Chadwick14".
There is a hint that plaster of Paris images may have replaced their ceramic equivalents as the century progressed: "Ho, for the country farm-house, as it was twenty years ago...the quaint bits of China on the mantel have made room for far more commonplace plaster images" (Daily National Era, March 30th 1854, Washington D.C.).
Whilst the overall picture is unclear and contradictory, it seems that the trade in ceramic figures, and those who sold them, failed to engage the imagination of most nineteenth century writers and lyricists (the words of the ballads included in this study could admittedly apply to ceramic objects, but the cover illustrations appear to favour street sellers). Perhaps this was because they were not sold by such colourful and romantic individuals as Italian image-sellers: the "sunburned sons of Italy" who sold plaster of Paris images from trays balanced on their heads were of far more interest to poets and artists. It may also be because ceramics were sold in shops rather than on the streets (which involved attracting customers using characteristic cries), or because their subject matter was narrower or more mundane, or because they less accurately represented classical originals.
This also begs the question: was there a difference in end-customer preference? It is perhaps significant that paintings that include ceramic Staffordshire-like objects range over contexts from gentile poverty to middle-class gentility. Artists include the pre-Raphaelite (for a short time) Collinson, the painter of romantic/sentimental subjects Frederick Daniel Hardy (Figure 5), Charles Hunt (Figure 6) and the early twentieth-century painter Charles Spencelayh, who created nostalgia-steeped works that often featured elderly men apparently deep in their memories of times past (Figure 7).
Whatever this murky picture might obscure, I contend that on the whole what is revealed by my study of plaster of Paris objects can apply to their ceramic equivalents. Both included representations of celebrities of all kinds. Both included animals, fruits and flowers. There were differences — plaster of Paris images rarely if at all included "bocage", that stylised vegetation that forms a background to many Staffordshire figures. Staffordshire figures were also rarely accurate renderings in miniature of famous originals.
For example, a Staffordshire "Venus" (Figure 8) was very different to a plaster of Paris Venus de Milo (Figure 9). There is a paradox here. Plaster images ranged from crude and bizarrely-coloured animals to very recognisable statuettes that were "copies". Ceramics were often reproductions of crudely or imaginatively sculpted originals. Ironically, the bust of Milton, a cat or two and a Clytie that graced the mantelpiece of an impoverished householder might have more accurately resembled their originals than those on the mantelpiece of someone slightly better off who could afford Staffordshire "chany". Cottages and castles are common pottery objects. Plaster of Paris is ill-suited for objects that are regularly handled, such as spill holders, which often represented rural scenes or buildings. I wonder if references to "clay" images might simply have been a misunderstanding.
A clue to the solution of this conundrum is provided by Mary Ellen Best, a middle-class woman from York, who painted scenes from her life in the 1830s, at least until she was married and had children. Her home, as portrayed in the 1837-9 painting The Artist in her Painting Room (Figure 10) and other related works, is a colourful middle-class environment, in which, on the mantelpiece, we can make out several figures (Figure 11).
The previous year, Best had painted The Interior of a China Shop, a rare glimpse of 1830s retail (Figure 12). The shop's shelves are crammed with blue and white and other ceramics. In the background are a number of busts and figures, all of which appear to be bronzed. This was a very different shopping experience to that which was going on in the streets outside.
I suggest that ceramic miniatures were more likely to be found as elements of middle-class bric-à-brac than in working-class assemblages, at least in comparison with plaster images. The choice of plaster of Paris as a construction material meant that although millions of these objects were made, at temporary and permanent locations all over the industrialising world, their fragility has meant that they have mostly not survived, and as a result of this, our consciousness/awareness of those who made, sold and bought them became very limited. Without the tangible evidence in archaeological finds trays or museum display cases, we "forgot" them.
Many ceramic miniatures have survived. They were made in equivalent numbers, though because they demanded a more complex technology — pottery kilns — they were manufactured in fewer, more permanent, locations. Because we can see and touch these objects we feel we know more about those who owned them. They feature in museum reconstructions, on present-day mantelpieces and in antique shops. Paradoxically we know little about who made them, and there were very few mentions of ceramic "images" in contemporary media. Ceramic images (or "chimney ornaments") also often featured in reports of theft, which also suggests that they were to be found in a better class of home. There are some accounts of image-sellers dealing in ceramic ornaments, though these they would have presumably been obtained from wholesalers.
We are left with an amount of contemporary information about a class of miniature that has not generally survived, and little information about a class of object that has survived in significant numbers. My contention is that nineteenth century mantelpieces would have displayed numerous plaster of Paris objects.
The usefulness of "useless things"
In his detailed examination of the materiality of his parents' "living room" the social scientist, Steven Riggins, created a list of analytical categories (Riggins 1994, 111). He begins by dismissing "agency", which he defines as "[distinguishing] between the active and passive use of objects...between objects to be handled and objects to be contemplated", as being too inflexible in domestic situations, where an object might be at different times both on display and then handled. Instead he suggests that "mode" provides a more subtle differentiation because a single object can possess both "active" and "passive" modes. This is difficult argument to sustain: the decorative objects on the Plumtree Court mantelpiece are "passive", but possess the agency to delight, amuse, impress (as they did George Godwin) and reinforce identity.
In the following chapter I do, however, make use of Riggins' categories as a convenient scaffold around which to construct an initial analysis of the functions of the objects on the Plumtree mantelpiece. Each category is first introduced in theory and then is applied to objects in this research. Riggins' categories that I have utilised are:
Normal and alien use
Indigenous objects/exotic objects
Size and proportions
Method of production
A. Normal and alien use
The objects on the mantelpiece would normally remain passively on display, arranged so as to be seen and to communicate their various messages. They are displayed in a standard, unremarkable fashion. There is no evidence that any of them are being used in ways that are alien to their intrinsic function as decorative objects. Occasionally mantelpiece decorations were used in unusual ways, such as in 1909 Omaha when Mrs Janosky used a plaster image of a dog as a weapon with which to attack her son-in-law during a quarrel15. Using the base or the hollow interior of an image to hide small objects such as money or stolen items was another alien through common use16. Mantelpiece objects were frequently used to obtain credit, for example by pawning them (Stallybrass 1998, 196). Some mantelpiece ornaments were used to support watches (pocket watches) and other small valuable objects such as necklaces. Another use that could be termed "alien" is the association with superstition, which is further discussed below.
B. Status objects
An ostentatious display of expensive or high-value objects as a way of expressing status would have been very rare in often-shared nineteenth-century working-class homes where security was poor or non-existent17. However the mere presence of numbers of decorative objects on this mantelpiece, and their variety, may have been regarded as a measure of status, in that although individually they were inexpensive, an imposing array in the midst of Plumtree Court's squalor would indicate that the householder had more than average amount of disposable income, taste or education. This is certainly how Robert Robert's father regarded his knick-knacks (Roberts 1971/1990, 18-19), proudly displayed in a Salford "slum". Given Godwin's horrified description of the living conditions in Plumtree Court, the "barbarities" on the mantelpiece he uses as an illustration may indeed have demonstrated that their owner regarded their status as higher than the general population squeezed into the homes.
C. Esteem objects
Some mantelpiece objects, such as trophies and prizes, demonstrate that the owner holds themself in high esteem and wants to reflect this to themself and to share this with anyone else visiting the home. There are no obvious esteem objects on the Plumtree mantelpiece. Other miniatures may have been used to indicate pride in achievement, as Mrs Briggs demonstrated in 1889 when she explained that a highly-coloured image in a corner represented the "fruits" of her husband's labours18.
D. Collective objects
This is an important category to be considered when looking at miniatures. These objects appear often to have acted as "badges" indicating a social attitude (e.g. Napoleon = republicanism/revolution) or adherence to a social movement or religion (e.g. Washington, Wesley). Someone viewing such objects could recognise a kindred spirit or a likely social miss-match. The objects can also indicate membership of an often undefined social group, community or "type". This could be deliberate or unconscious. An example of conscious self-identification is the possession of figurines of "popular" criminals such as Dick Turpin or a political figure such as Napoleon. The former might suggest that the owner feels themselves to be rebellious or anti-establishment, or dislikes the wealthy. These attitudes would have been either good-humoured ("I'm a bit of a lad") or more serious ("Don't cross me"). Displaying figures of royalty, aristocrats, military heroes, would indicate support for the establishment. The busts of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra on a shelf in a New York tenement probably tell us of a continuing connection with a mother country and its values. Napoleon, a hugely popular figurine (see further discussion below) had different meanings depending on a number of factors, some geographical. In France the presence of the figurine would have indicated loyalty to the regime or the individual, or nostalgia or of identification with his ideals. For veterans it would show pride in their part in his campaigns. In other countries Napoleon served as an indication of anti-establishment views, of republicanism and of working-class collective identity (his reputation, whether deserved or not in the view of history, was of a leader who championed the "peasant").
Godwin suggests that the objects on the Plumtree mantelpiece demonstrate a collective "love of art". He also suggests that "striving upwards" is occurring. Godwin tells us that he believes that there is a general improvement in working-class taste, something earlier indicated by William Hone19. The religious objects (crucifix, holy water, rosary beads, religious tracts) reveal a wish to declare and reinforce identity within a particular faith (Catholic Christianity). The crucifix, a representation in miniature of a original with considerable meaning, could be regarded as falling within the scope of my research, and fits with the religious objects peddled by Italian and other street sellers. A demonstration of faith can be regarded as a shared, collective activity.
E. Stigma objects
Stigma objects convey something negative about the owner. This can be age (if this is defined as a negative) or infirmity or indeed, poverty and class (by those to whom these would be regarded as negatives, see below). There are no intrinsically stigma objects on the Plumtree mantelpiece. As examples of bric-à-brac they would nevertheless be looked at askance by many observers at the time. Godwin of course calls them "barbarities". William Hone and others pour scorn on spotted cats and parrots20. To these and other commentators there was a degree of stigma attached to the mere possession of bric-à-brac (see below), and they would probably have immediately identified the assemblage as belonging to working-class people, or people with poor taste.
F. Disidentifying objects
These are objects that don't "fit" or that disguise, accidentally or deliberately, the owner's status, taste or origin. The objects on the Plumtree Court conform to an interestingly narrow but bifurcated set of "likes": cats and parrots in one group, bowls of fruit and urns in the other. The two categories do not seem to be closely related. It is easier to imagine collections of animals and collections of bowls/urns as indicating separate enthusiasms. This dichotomy might indicate two influences on the mantelpiece.
Other mantelpieces may very well have been the stage for performances of misrepresentation. It would be easy to purchase figures of literary or other notables even though the owner was not connected to them intellectually. Venuses and Greek Slaves may have been bought because of their artistry, their beauty, their associations with the ancient world, or their subtle or not-so-subtle eroticism, while at the same time dissuading any eyebrow raising by explaining that that they were "classical" or "artistic". Horace Smith, tongue in cheek, warns us that if we were to purchase a figure of Voltaire we must declare that it is because it is a "work of art", not because we participate in his "sentiments" or admire his writings (Smith 1830, 22).
G. Social facilitators.
Riggins uses this term to describe objects such as games that encourage competition or collaboration. None are present on the Plumtree mantelpiece.
H. Indigenous objects/exotic objects
A nineteenth century mantelpiece could include exotic objects brought back by travellers as well as locally made and purchased figurines. A Staffordshire dog would similarly have been exotic when placed in a Scandinavian window. When figurinai carried their wares from Italy in the early days of their activities the objects could have been regarded as exotic. By the end of the nineteenth century mantelpiece figurines tended to adhere to an homogeneity of styles. The objects on the Plumtree Court mantelpiece appear to have been purchased locally. They indicate a delight in the mildly exotic, limited to a parrot, bowls of fruit and an urn. If the two mystery figures were corn dollies they might represent an exotic link with paganism/superstition.
I. Time indicators
Temporal homogeneity: many of these objects are examples of figures that were manufactured over a long time period and some of the subjects are still available today (for example Enfant lisant; Enfant dessinant), so they are poor indicators of time. If it hadn't been for Godwin telling us when he visited Plumtree Court we wouldn't be able to accurately date the illustration unless it had been possible to learn more about the two religious documents attached to the wall. On the other hand, many miniatures of celebrities were produced only while their notoriety ran high, so their appearance on a mantelpiece would reflect the time of their fame, or at least the beginning of it. Some individuals, for example Napoleon and Madame Vestris, remained popular long after they were at their most active.
Temporal heterogeneity: All the objects on the mantelpiece fit the 1850s date well; none are distinctively older or newer than the others.
J. Size and proportions
Miniaturisation: Assuming the mantelpiece to be about 10cm deep, eight objects can be classified as "miniatures". There is no constant scale.
Monumentality: this working-class mantelpiece was not a site of monumentality.
K. Method of production:
Mass-produced: The plaster of Paris figurines on the mantelpiece would have been made in large numbers in the workshops of figurinai. If any were ceramic, they too would have been mass-produced in potteries.
Hand made: If the two mystery objects were corn dollies, these would have been hand-made. If they were crocheted dolls, they too would have been hand-made.
L. Display syntax:
This category examines the manner in which objects are displayed in relation to each other:
Co-location: the objects share a defined location — the mantelpiece.
Highlighting and understating: their position at the focal point of the room highlights them, although one cat has been placed facing the wall, so could be said to be "understated". This may have been accidental.
Clustering and dispersing. The objects are clustered, though this may have been because of the limited space on a mantelpiece rather than a intention to arrange them close together. The cluster means that some objects are positioned towards the back of the shelf and are partly obscured by those in the foreground. The corn dollies are placed symmetrically, as are the two small pictures and the religious prints on the wall. The pair of fruit bowls is located to one side. The crucifix is placed centrally. The objects are brought together and clustered as a cast of performers gathers on the stage.
Status consistency and status inconsistency: the objects display consistency of status. No one object stands out from the rest as higher or lower status. They are all classified by Godwin as "barbaric".
Degree of conformity: The objects conform in various ways. They share similar values, materials and sources. They conform to a narrow set of tastes, though these can be divided into animals/birds and inanimate objects.
This is, for me as an archaeologist and writer, the most important of Riggins' list of analytical categories, at least in the current project, and most difficult to both define and to communicate. Riggins tells us that "flavour" is "the general impression conveyed by a room"" We have to use the mantelpiece to "invent" a room and then create an impression.
Learning the "flavour" of life in the recent past is another way of making sense of it, of using human senses that include the tool of imagination, one of the most "human" of senses, to place ourselves in the minds of nineteenth century people, to think their thoughts, see with their eyes, to experience their bodily sensations as nearly as we can, given the paucity of clues we have been left. Without the "soft" category of flavour, all the previous categories are merely dull and dusty. Flavour is notoriously difficult to describe, and the use of a class of objects that evoke emotions, reactions — that have "meaning" in other words — is what this research is about. The search for flavour is the goal of archaeology. The rest is merely dust. We revel in imagining life in prehistoric times. We might enjoy thinking about being a Roman so much that we dress in Roman armour and march along Hadrian's Wall. We can experience the "flavour" of the Vikings at the Yorvik Centre in York, complete with authentic smells, or a Civil War battlefield along with authentic armaments, or a "Victorian parlour" replete with a clutter of furniture and bric-à-brac.
Another problem to be faced is that the flavour of a food, of a meal, is a fleeting thing. We savour it and it is gone, a ghost of digestion and memory, something to be looked forward to in the next meal. The flavour of the past is similarly insubstantial — the "flavour" of a few minutes in one room in Plumtree Court evaporates almost as soon as it is conjured up. That is of course true of any examination of history or archaeology. The challenge here is to capture and preserve that flavour in words that are a little more permanent. The objects, three-dimensional, hard to the touch, replete with agency and power and intrinsic meaning, help us to do that. It is ironic that the objects in Godwin's drawing almost certainly no longer exist, and, assuming that some of them were made of plaster of Paris, they belong to a class of artefact that is almost extinct, and which now survives, apart from a few extant examples, only in words and images.
A final element is that using the term "flavour" risks sounding trivial. It is after all a favourite word in the vocabulary of tourist authorities, lazy journalists and marketers. "Impression", too, can be shallow, unless the impression is "lasting".
The room would also have had different flavours depending on who the "taster" was. A working-class neighbour or friend might have been impressed by the number and types of the objects on the mantelpiece. They would have thought that their owner had good taste, or noted that at some time they would have had some cash to spare on knick-knacks. Someone light-fingered would have sized up the array of objects and calculated what they would be worth at the pawn-broker's. A time traveller from the 21st century, no doubt holding their breath and peering into the gloom, would notice the peeling wallpaper, the scratches and chips on the ornaments, their garish colours, the astonished murmurs and mutterings from the occupants of the room. A child would covet the cat, a seaman smile nostalgically over the parrot, a fellow Catholic would feel reassurance in the presence of the crucifix, the rosary beads, the holy water, the tracts. The owner of the objects would feel...what? I meet this challenge in Section 13.
Who, why and how?
People acquired miniatures, usually, it can be assumed, by buying them. Those that were gifted had also been bought by the gift givers. Some were stolen, but again these had originally been purchased. Even those that had been won at fairs had been bought by the stallholders. The nineteenth century was a capitalist one. Miniatures were commodities.
Like F.S. Schwarzbach, when he was looking at a Staffordshire figurine of Jenny Lind, I wanted to ask some questions: "who designed these figures, and why was it that certain subjects were chosen over others (was it the modellers' decision or the pottery owners'?); who purchased them and why; and how they were incorporated into daily life in the homes in which they were displayed" (Schwarzbach 2001, 45).
Who designed the figures?
(a) Many, if not the majority, of plaster of Paris figures were reduced-scale copies; miniatures of classical or contemporary statues, or copies of existing figures, including moulds of Staffordshire figurines. The "designs" were therefore either archaeological artefacts (for example the Venus de Medici and the Venus de Milo) or historical (for example Canova's Shakespeare), or contemporary (for example Enfant lisant; Enfant dessinant (see Figure 42) or the usually anonymous sculptors of the original Staffordshire figures). There was almost certainly a process of copying copies of copies, which together with the wear and tear on moulds, many of which were plaster of Paris, added to the lack of detail of many of the figures.
(b) Other figures were sculpted by anonymous sculptors and formatori back in Italy, on the road or in the temporary or permanent workshops the image-sellers established around the world. These were the cats and other animals, the buildings, the figures of contemporary heroes and heroines, politicians and celebrities that the image-sellers created to meet demands, sometimes local, resulting from fame or infamy, be that short-or long-lived. As some of the newspaper descriptions in Appendix II confirm, these moulds were often bought in from a specialist or imported21.
Why certain designs?
This is a fascinating and complex topic. The image-sellers were capitalists. They had to make a profit to survive, even though their margins were probably larger than might seem at first sight. A US journalist estimated in 1883 that each figurine cost about ten cents to make22. It was probably even less. So if the image-seller sold a miniature Shakespeare for 25 cents he was achieving an initial margin of 150 per cent. Of course there were other factors that affected that margin, but still, it was enough to keep the trade in images going for nearly 200 years.
The image-sellers told journalists that certain figures always sold well ("pretty ladya" Shakespeare, Milton, Venuses) whereas others were a failure (for example President Cleveland)23. They also explained that they would saturate a local market with a range of designs, then either move on or exchange their existing moulds for new ones in order to create a fresh stock of characters. The image-sellers had to be constantly aware of who and what would sell. The range is impressive — see Chapter 8.
The objects conform to archaeological expectations in that they possess forms ("cat" "Venus de Milo" etc). They are less useful in providing dating information. They sometimes provide a terminus post quem (a figurine of Venus de Milo must date from later than 1821, the year the statue was discovered).
Sales of long-established favourites, the Venuses, Miltons and Shakespeares and the like, depended on the public enthusiasm for these characters. The questions that have to be asked therefore, is why were working-class people buying figurines of ancient Greek gods and goddesses that most of their present-day equivalents would have never heard of? Why Shakespeare and Scott? Why badly-moulded and bizarrely-painted cats and blue apples?
Schwarzbach makes a very important point that I haven't come across in any other writing on this subject: that the makers of figurines were also working class (Schwarzbach 2001, 47). They lived amongst the people they sold to, and were usually as poor, if not poorer, than many of them. Some of that poverty may have been consciously or unconsciously staged — the public tended to take pity on ragged, starving black-eyed little boys and mournful, humble adults who were prone to burst into tears at the slightest pretext24. That the image sellers were regarded as slightly clownish probably helped those near the bottom of the economic scale to feel a little superior to the shambling figures with their trays of fragile objects balanced precariously on their heads. Being working class themselves meant that the image sellers had short lines of communication. They drank in the same taverns, hung around in the streets with the same housewives, mixed with the same savoury and unsavoury individuals, all of whom were potential and actual customers. That they were slightly exotic, slightly "alien", perhaps helped also. They brought a little of "sunny Italy" to the dull streets of grey London and chilly Baltimore.
Who purchased the miniatures?
The chalk pieces were brighter, sturdier, and both literally and figuratively lacked the polish of the aristocratic Staffordshire porcelains. The animals and people will have a friendlier, less arrogant posing expression, as if adapting themselves to the environment of ordinary folk, where they will grace tables of scrub pine rather than polished mahogany.(Lipman 1948, 142-3)
From the evidence I have gathered, decorative plaster of Paris and earthenware objects were bought mostly by working-class people, Jean Lipman's "ordinary folk". For example, The New York Times in 1874, reported that: "Their purchasers are, for the most part, among people in humble circumstances who have still something for superfluities"25. Image-sellers hawked their wares amongst tenements, the busy streets of industrial districts (French 1903, 363) and areas where living conditions were poor, for example Mulberry Bend, New York26. The same New York Times piece suggests that image-sellers did sometimes venture into the suburbs: "there are venders who strike for more remunerative trade, who in some way get molds of artistic reductions of antiques, and present really exquisite casts to the educated families of small means who live in the suburbs"27. Towards the end of the century image-makers took advantage of the development of department stores to retail their products28.
Like all class divisions, there was a degree of blurring and evolution. In the eighteenth century, before the "industrial revolution" John Flaxman, father of the more well-known sculptor also named John, had a shop in Covent Garden and later on the Strand where he made and sold plaster casts, and where his son learned many of the skills he was to later utilise in his career. Flaxman senior's stock, in 1759, included Niobe, the Venus de Medici, Hercules, Ajax and Achilles "for the few". "Less refined and more ordinary tastes" were offered George II, Lord Howe, Admiral Hawke, General Wolfe, William Pitt and Admiral Boscawen29. In those days, as the Gentleman's Magazine commented in 1827, "the sale of plaster figures...was not so hackneyed a trade, as it has now become by the large importation of Italians" (Jacob 2011).
Once the trade had become "hackneyed", the low prices of the miniatures, the fact that trading took place in the street or at the door, and the poor reputation of the "images" all point to working-class customers. Writers on home décor, whose readers would almost certainly have been middle class, occasionally suggested a plaster of Paris figurine be purchased for some specific purpose, for example obtaining a plaster Cupid for a Valentine's day decoration but rarely recommended their general use30. An exception was Lillie Hamilton French, who in her book Homes and Their Decoration, extolled the virtues of plaster casts:
With discretion and little money almost any house maybe made interesting with plaster casts. This discretion, it goes without saying, it must be displayed in the choice which the buyer makes. Streets of large cities are full of image-venders; large important stores on principal avenues are now devoted to reproductions in plaster, so that one is no longer obliged to search, except for purposes of economy, in narrow side streets or tenement-house districts as one was obliged to do not so many years since.
French, however, considered the stock in trade of "image-venders" to be mixed. There were "worthless casts of diving women" but "they have among all their trash some good examples" (French 1903, 363).
Generally, "images" were to be found in "humbler" abodes around the world: the Sydney Empire noted in 1873 that many cottages had a table "bedizened with plaster images". We learn from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1888 that:
The Italian image man bore upon his head figures he had moulded in clay and painted in bright colours. There was the Virgin child, the crucifix, the Madonna, St Peter's church at Rome, the Capitol at Washington, Jenny Lind, Daniel Webster31, roosters, rabbits, dogs, etc. These images generally adorn the mantels of the servants' rooms.
How were miniatures incorporated into daily life?
Gowans defines "social function" as "the uses of arts and artifacts in society—what they were intended for by those who commissioned them, in addition to what significance they may have for us today, either as reflections of social values in the past or as aesthetic objects in the present; in addition to whatever component of artistic expression they may have" (Gowans 1981, 16). To this I would add the uses to which they were put by those in the past who acquired them, which often differed radically from the intentions of their creators, and the ways that the objects that I study, through their agency, influenced society (a reverse view).
Having examined the significance of cats and parrots I continue by looking at three miniature objects that I suggest reflect nineteenth century working-class social values. The first is a representation of a Greek and Roman goddess, Aphrodite/Venus, who embodied love, sexuality and beauty. These are traits that contrast mightily with our conceptions of working-class life in the nineteenth century, yet she stood, in one guise or another, on many a mantelpiece. The second object is Napoleon Bonaparte, who was at one time Britain's enemy, was defeated, but whose figurines remained stubbornly popular throughout the nineteenth century industrialising world (and are still common today). Thirdly, I discuss an object that doesn't quite fit my general argument, but is very familiar to anyone who has visited a present-day "Victorian" context — the Staffordshire dog.
Henri Brest, French vice-consul on the Greek island of Melos, died there aged 100 in 1896. It was he who had first taken charge of the fragmentary "Venus de Milo" after its discovery some 76 years earlier. By the time he died the sculpture was dubbed by the Pall Mall Gazette: "the most remunerative effigy of the goddess that the world has ever known...she has acquired a pile for many peripatetic Italian image sellers" (Pall Mall Gazette, 4th August 1896). Soon after her first exhibition she joined the already-famous Venus de Medici as a popular figure on mantelpieces around the world.
Her fame, like that of the Medician Venus and others, would be easily understandable in a period of easy and rapid communications and omnipresent visual media like the present, but in the early nineteenth century it demonstrated a broad spreading of knowledge and awareness amongst working people that is difficult to explain. As an archaeological find it would have interested the literati of the time, but her reputation rapidly expanded far beyond. There were some political reasons: the Medician Venus had been looted by Napoleon for example. But the Venus de Medici was back in Italy by 1815, and the Venus de Milo was safely on display in Paris by 1821. Although one can understand copies of the various Venuses appearing in museums and galleries they also stood on hundreds if not thousands of mantelpieces, as William Hone noted, in working-class districts, along with Apollo and "other beauties of ancient sculpture" (Hone 1837, 310).
Thomas Rowlandson, who looked askance on life at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, often included a mantelpiece in the background of his interiors. In several caricatures he includes a Venus de Medici (Figure 13). We also see her being closely examined by one of Rowlandson's lascivious elderly men in his caricature Images (Figure 14).
It is possible to play "spot the Venus" throughout the nineteenth century. The "Crouching Venus" was as popular in that century as she had been in ancient Rome (Figure 15) The Venus bought by Charles Townley in 1775 appears on Muller's image-seller's tray (Figure 16). We can see a reversed Venus being peered at in Russia (Figure 17), Venuses being manufactured in New York (Figure 18) and Italy (Figure 19), and in various sizes on French postcards (Figure 20) (complete images are in Appendix I).
No vulgar gaze
The West Australian, identifying both a New Road (in London's East End) "statuary" and an "Italian image boy", explained eloquently:
Pause before Venus de Medici with no vulgar gaze, but with admiration at so true a conception of the goddess of love and beauty and such a model for modern times. Of course the originals are perfect, but they are beyond our reach; it would be sufficient however for us if the works of 'Phidias' were correctly modelled from the originals, and no matter where obtained whether from a statuary in the New Road, London, or from an Italian image boy in the streets.(The West Australian, October 30th 1884)
That Venus was a familiar entity in the nineteenth century, a familiarity that ignored class boundaries, was underlined by Charles Dickens, who in Barnaby Rudge had his character Miggs exclaim:
'I wouldn't,' cried Miggs, folding her hands and looking upwards with a kind of devout blankness, 'I wouldn't lay myself out as she does; I wouldn't be as bold as her; I wouldn't seem to say to all male creeturs "Come and kiss me"'—and here a shudder quite convulsed her frame—'for any earthly crowns as might be offered. Worlds,' Miggs added solemnly, 'should not reduce me. No. Not if I was Wenis'.
'Well, but you ARE Wenus, you know,' said Mr Dennis, confidentially.
'No, I am not, good gentleman,' answered Miggs, shaking her head with an air of self-denial which seemed to imply that she might be if she chose, but she hoped she knew better. 'No, I am not, good gentleman. Don't charge me with it.'(Dickens 1840)
Dickens uses the familiar beauty of Venus to emphasise the contrast with the shrewish Miggs.
Where are her arms?
We learn of an 1898 encounter (probably fictional, though perhaps plausible) between an image-seller, a "swarthy son of Italy", and a Cincinnati Commercial Tribune newspaper office wit. Having dismissed "Napolyun ze gret" and "Vognah, de gret moosishin", the "sporting editor" asks about "Venus duh Meelo" who costs "thirty cent-a". The editor exclaims: "Thirty cents for an old broken plaster of paris figure? Throw it away". The image-seller explains that the original statue doesn't have arms: "Dah nevveh fin-a da arrums". The editor continues the jape, telling the Italian that if he made one with arms he'd pay thirty cents for it, but "I wouldn't give you a nickel for it in that damaged condition". The unfortunate Italian offers the Venus for a quarter ("Dat Statue de fines' in all de worl'. It ees wort millions dollas") but in the end leaves, disgusted32.
Venus' fame continued throughout the century. She is one of the most popular figures, amongst image-sellers, customers and amongst observers, probably because she was so recognisable. Despite the horror of an 1827 street-keeper, Venus, whether Medici or Milo, was regarded as respectable because of her "purely classical character", as in the 1845 case of the image-seller charged with selling pornography33. The Pittsburgh Dispatch considered that: "Every home with growing children should have reproduction in some form of the Venus of Milo. It is an education in itself to be brought up with it"34.
A good-looking woman
A tongue-in-cheek piece in an 1888 edition of the Springfield Daily Republic, tells of the art club that sketched the Venus of Milo "or rather a plaster image representing that lady, who is now dead". The writer muses that the statue "is probably inaccurate, as it represents her as having no arms or hands" and complains that it isn't worth making a statue of "people who become exhausted abruptly at the shoulder" and who have no funny bones to hit on the mantelpiece. Though "unarmed and having nothing to defend herself" Venus was nevertheless a good model and didn't appear nervous35.
So very naked
Like many of the popular figurines, both female and male, cast by the image-men, Venuses are either nude or semi-naked. This miniature state of déshabillé is discussed further elsewhere (see Eroticism), but it inspired Thomas Hardy to write a delightful passage in Jude the Obscure (1895), in which Sue comes across an image-seller and choses a Venus ("of standard pattern") and an Apollo from his stock, which included Diana, Bacchus, Mars, kings and queens, a minstrel and Cupid. Having bought the figures for "considerably less" than the ten shillings initially demanded, and the image-seller having gone on his way, Sue has second thoughts about her purchase, which suddenly "seemed so very large now that they were in her possession, and so very naked" (Hardy 1895). Her choice is likely to shock the more righteous of those around her.
It appears that one sales ploy widely used by image sellers was to begin negotiations by asking a ridiculously high price and then abruptly dropping the price to (or accepting) a fraction of the original, without many, or any intermediate steps. This often appeared to surprise the customer into agreeing a final price, just as Sue reacted in Hardy's novel. The technique paid off in an example related by The Evening Kansan-Republican in 1901, where an office clerk ("winking at the others") offered a measly 50 cents for a plaster image when the image-seller was initially asking two dollars and seventy-five cents, and which the vendor instantly accepted. He was probably making at least 40 cents on the deal36.
Venus de Milo possessed "wondrous loveliness" according to The Sunday Journal in 190337. Nearly a century earlier, William Hone had noticed that, because of "distaste" for the badly moulded parrots and cats he scorned, "agreeable forms are now absolute requisites, and the demand has induced their supply". The Venus de Medici was one of those agreeable forms (Hone 1837, 310). Queen Victoria purchased a Venus from a "poor Italian boy" at Windsor railway station in 185338. In 1854 George Sala mocked a publican for his enthusiasm for things "classical", telling us that "there wasn't an Italian image-man out of Leather Lane that came in to take a drop but he'd buy a Venus, or a Jenny Lind, or a Holy Family of; and these he'd stick up on gim-crack brackets under his tubs, and ask me with a simpering grin I didn't think it classical? Classical! What business has a license victualler with the classics?" (Sala 1854, 70).
Venus de Medici may have been "far-famed" in 1859 but some New York image-sellers seemingly bucked this trend for improvement by complaining that "the educated classes" were, by 1867, "quite innocent of mythology" and no longer appreciated plaster figures of Venus, the graces or Cupid, but preferred these characters in Parian or earthenware39. Plaster was then reserved for less classical individuals40. This may have been the result of poor quality, because the reporter from the St Paul Daily Globe, who was visiting a plaster of Paris workshop in 1885, found it difficult to identify some of the figures "that might have been the Venus of Milo or the Goddess of Liberty; at any rate they were female figures, with about as many clothes on as the females wear at some variety theaters"41. Venus was still displaying her "solemn majesty" in St Paul, Minnesota in 190242. Lillie French, on the other hand, warns us that: "Very few of the small casts of the Venus of Milo... are made from beautiful models, and I have never seen a small one that did not disappoint me" (French 1903, 368).
The nineteenth century popularity of Venus, in her various miniature forms and guises, underlines a working-class enthusiasm for what social commentators at the time called "beauty", but also a level of awareness of and interest in things ancient and "classical", as well as eroticism. There also might have been elements of following "fashion", as well as effective marketing, but for those without much disposable income, every purchase of a non-utilitarian object would have to be justifiable. The presence of a plaster of Paris representation of Venus was decorative and "improving".
On entering a room in her South Australian home and discovering a burglary, Mrs Piesse exclaimed "Oh dear, not only my money is gone, but Napoleon's head is gone along with it!" (South Australian Register, November 12th 1856). Her distress would have been understood by many during the nineteenth century. Bonaparte was present on mantelpieces throughout the world.
The Fall of Napoleon (Figure 21) is an 1836 painting by George Wallis in Wolverhampton Art Gallery. As a work of art it is not spectacular, and indeed it was reviewed rather dismissively at the time it first went on show43. However when first exhibited it caused a stir amongst gallery visitors. It shows two sailors, one black, both presumably drunk, staggering along a pavement outside a tavern and tripping up an unfortunate image seller (deliberately?) who is coming around the corner of a building. From the image seller's tray topples a plaster figurine of Bonaparte. The use of the figurine as a visual reference to the demise of Napoleon underlines the familiarity of these objects at the time. The painting also incidentally nicely shows the arrangement of spikes or rods on the image seller's board, plus a bollard (for the significance of a bollard, see below).
Forty per cent of the illustrations of image-sellers and their wares that I have located include at least one figurine of Napoleon. In contemporary accounts, we learn not only of the loss of Mrs Piesse's bust of her hero, but that he contributed to the fortunes made by image-sellers: Antonio Bajocciwas made "a rich man" in New York, where he made "Plaster images—heads of Napoleon, of the grand Washington, of little Samuel, of Poll Parrot, and other things, which please that monster, the American people"44.
Napoleon's presence is a complicated mix of loyalties and metaphors. There are many references to him in Appendices I and II: 37 images and 21 texts. Bonaparte formed part of women's "strange" taste in chimney ornaments. He stood on image-sellers' boards next to the Greek Slave, was exchanged for old clothes, cost 50 cents in 1889 United States, was one of the figures pulverised by the "Iconoclasts" in Elizabeth Pullen's 1895 tale, was one of the products of Erigo Guaspari in his 1903 Indianapolis workshop and was one of the moulds used by J. Pelechi in San Francisco in 1904, stood next to George Washington and Voltaire on the trays of Charles Stephen's image-boys in his 1922 novel A Busy Year at the Old Squire's, was part of acrobat Saqui's load that she carried on her head on the tightrope in 1843, stood motionless next to Wellington in an 1845 London "statuary", and the same year jostled green parrots and rabbits sold in France by a Marchand de Statuettes.
John Thomas Smith etched a diminutive, isolated figure of the defeated Bonaparte next to a larger bust of Wellington in his 1815 Very Fine, Very Cheap, one of a series of illustrations of street cries (Figure 22). In this work the figurine acted as a convenient metaphor, as it did in other images.
We find Napoleon in the US in Francis Edmonds' The Image Pedlar of 1844 (Figure 23), and multiple Napoleons in The Figure Merchant, the frontispiece for the 1852 edition of Godey's Lady's Book (Figure 24). Back in France, the title of Hippolyte Bellangé's 1883 painting Le marchand de plâtres ambulant, colporteur de figurines napoléoniennes (Figure 25) implies that sales were still being made towards the end of the century.
Despite the Literary Gazette considering that the French Revolution, already some five decades in the past, had had little effect, and that "the resources of art [were] not very generally employed to spread the revolutionary spirit", Napoleon stubbornly refused to go away. The article had noted that all that remained were a few revolutionary songs, some pictures of barricades, some statues, some "paltry lithograph portraits" and several "chalk and plaster statuettes" which it called "symbols and personifications of the Republic" (Literary Gazette 1850, 187). Some 160 years later, however, I noticed Napoleon and Wellington, still glaring at each other, in a Weston-super-Mare charity shop window (Figure 26).
In the 1878 painting The Veteran by Gaetano Chierici (Figure 27), a white plaster Napoleon stands prominently alone and erect, gleaming white, on the stove, the focus of the room. On one side, an old soldier is depicted, no doubt recounting his memories of serving under Bonaparte. On the floor, children play with miniature soldiers, some of which have been knocked over. Perhaps the artist has painted a white figurine to remind us of death (many figurines of Napoleon were coloured), or merely to make the miniature stand out proudly against the humdrum, cluttered background. The painting is of course rich in allegory, perhaps played out most obviously by the ranks of miniature soldiers that mix discipline, upstanding courage and then, fallen and scatted, defeat. The old soldier communicates memory, storytelling, not all of it perhaps accurate, failing with age. The exploits of the soldier, and his hero, are far in the past, the children represent the future, the toy soldiers represent history and remind us that Bonaparte's armies were defeated. And Bonaparte is now reduced to a ghostly figure, enshrined at the centre of the room but mute and easily broken.
The painting is important because it uses the viewers' understanding of the roles of miniatures, even when these three-dimensional objects speak "virtually", as two-dimensional painted media. The average nineteenth-century gallery visitor would have been very familiar with plaster of Paris figures, might have been accosted by image-sellers on his or her way to the exhibition. They would have been very open to the messages that the figures communicated, either intrinsically (Napoleon the hero) or extrinsically (Napoleon the defeated anti-hero, the tragedy of war, the nostalgia and romanticism of the ex-soldier, the innocence and future potential of small children etc). A similar sentiment was expressed in Reijntjens' Grandfather's stories of the Napoleonic War, again painted many decades after Napoleon's death (Figure 28).
Napoleon in miniature was co-opted by other countries and other histories. For example, "between 1821 and the end of the Mexican war in 1848, Americans use[d] the image and memory of Napoleon to make sense of their past, to define an American character and to celebrate a National future" (Ehlers 2013, np).
George Shaw, who worked in Staffordshire potteries, recording his memories at the end on the nineteenth century, is puzzled by the popularity of Napoleon:
I remember the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte was the leading article of our industry at this toy factory. When Napoleon was finished he stood up with arms folded across his breast, his right leg a little forward, looking defiance at his own English makers. He had a dark blue coat on, tightly buttoned, a buff waistcoat and white breeches. There were touches of gold on his coat and on his large black hat, with flat sides and point, with a high peak. These Napoleons must have been in large demand somewhere, for shoals of them were made at that time.
It is curious how a man who thirty years before had been a veritable ogre and demon to the English people should now have become so popular. If all the Napoleons made at this toy manufactory could have had life given them, then England, if not invaded, would have been crowded by military Frenchmen, and of the dreaded Napoleonic type.
It is difficult in these days to realise how the terror of Napoleon had saturated the minds of the lower classes in England. Yet, as I looked at the figure, it only then represented a name.(Shaw 1903, np)
Shaw's "terror" was replaced by both a grudging admiration and a sense of identification with the causes that Bonaparte espoused, and these were represented materially by the ubiquitous figurines.
When Gerolamo Induno painted a plaster figure of Napoleon positioned high up on a shelf, gazing imperiously down on the elderly Figurinaio he was suggesting that Bonaparte was still an influence in the old man's life (Figure 29).
Napoleon in miniature, in both plaster of Paris and earthenware, probably represented undercurrents of nostalgia amongst the working classes across the industrialising world for a time of revolt against the establishment, when there was a hero who stood for the "peasants", together with a hope that the condition of the labouring classes might be improved. There were veterans who had taken part in the Napoleonic wars to whom figurines memorialised an exciting period in their lives. And there were those who, though trapped in the strictures of the capitalist system, used miniature Napoleons to indicate that, if there was revolution, they might indeed issue from their lurking places" (Beames 1852, 67-8).
The Wally Dug
It is a visual cliché, an image of a Victorian fireplace (Figure 30), either side of which sit a pair of china dogs (Figure 31) "Staffordshire" dogs. It is repeated in almost every museum that includes a "Victorian parlour" (Figure 32).
A Scottish folk poem, The Wally Dug, tells us a little:
I aye mind o' that wee hoose that stood on the brae,
Its lum45 was aye reekin'46, its roof made o' stray47.
The ootside was bonny, the inside was snug,
But whit I mind best o' was the wee wally dug.
It stood in a corner, high up on the shelf,
And keepit an ee on the best o' the delf48.
It was washed twice a year, frae its tail tae its lug49,
And pit back on the shelf, was the wee wally dug.
When oor John got mairrit tae sweet Jeannie Blue,
The auld folks they gied him a horse an' a coo,
But when I left the hoose, ma hert gied a tug,
For a' mither gied me was the wee wally dug.
There's an auld saying, 'Ne'er look a gift horse in the moo',
But I looked that wee dug frae its tail tae its broo'
An' a fun' a wee slit at the back o' its lug,
It was stuffed fu' o' notes, was the wee wally dug.
I tain it hame tae oor Lizzle tae pit on a shelf,
An' I telt her the worth o' that wee bit o' delf.
An' we aye feed it yet through that hole in its lug,
It's a guid bit o' stuff, is the wee wally dug.(Traditional)
From the poem we learn that these animals did exist singly, and that they were owned by people who weren't wealthy. The small dog in question sat high up, guarding the best china (delf = delft = china) and was well cared for. The narrator is at first annoyed that his brother was given a horse and a cow when he left home, while all he received was the miniature dog. However he finds that money has been pushed into the interior of the dog through a slit in its nose, and he and his Elizabeth continue this practice. For my research, the fact that the dog was "keepit an ee" on the porcelain is significant. It brought good luck, a "guid bit o' stuff" (see Superstition).
Staffordshire dogs are frequently seen in German and Baltic seaports. In his Silvae blog, Jay Loomings remembers that rather than being found on mantelpieces, "all along our street they were in the windows" (my translation) of mariners' homes. He goes on to suggest that one reason they were so common amongst seafarers (they were known as Kapitänshunde or Kaminhunde — "fireplace dogs") was that to avoid being accused of exchanging sex for money, prostitutes in British ports would instead sell their clients earthenware dogs. In Germany their use by somewhat loose women led to the dogs being sometimes referred to as puffhunder or "brothel dogs" (Loomings 2013). Another function, reported from Britain, Finland and the Netherlands, was that the wife of a sailor would indicate to their lover(s) whether or not their husband was at home by the direction the figurine faced.
I have not been able to discover any Staffordshire dogs in contemporary illustrations of image sellers. Perhaps in contrast to cats, locally-produced ceramic dogs flooded and captured the market. The dogs were often large and manufactured in matching pairs; the logistics of handling both may have discouraged peripatetic image sellers. Similarly, they do not occur in many contemporary illustrations of mantelpieces. Their association with prostitution, or at least promiscuity, may have been a factor, and, because they are also called "comfort" or "comforter" dogs, one suggestion is that they were often purchased as peace offerings when a husband returned home inebriated.
The Staffordshire dog is an example of a miniature that has become a sort of "badge". It is perhaps today the most familiar Victorian mantelpiece and hearth decorative object. It may have been a symbol of good luck and even, with its large, always-open eyes, an apotropaic object. But in its time it also often represented something hidden – illicit or purchased sex. It is therefore ironic that it now appears in so many "Victorian" contexts, and demonstrates the dangers inherent in interpreting a period and populations about which so little is known.
Through what they represent and what they mean to their owners, the miniature decorative objects that people acquired can provide us with evidence of their "social function." They are "instruments furthering the ideological foundations of society" (Gowans 1981, 4). Plaster cats or parrots, Venus de Medicis, pairs of Staffordshire dogs or mysterious "Frozen Charlottes" not only act as "aesthetic objects or reflections of the spirit of their times" but also allow us to reveal and examine the "fundamental attitudes and presuppositions by which any age lives, and on which all of the institutions of every society must ultimately rest" (Gowans 1981, 4).
Taste and working-class images
Image-sellers acted as marchands sans frontiers (or perhaps, given their origin, that should be venditori senza frontiere). They appear to have been present in every country in the Old and New Worlds that possessed large working populations and both urban and rural economies. How much of this is a demonstration of "taste" — good, bad or indifferent? Stephen Bayley has asserted that taste is something of a will-o-the-wisp, not only difficult to define, but liable to change without notice, repeatedly to go out of favour, only to be revived a generation or two later. It is nevertheless important because taste is "both a mirror and a window", allowing us to glimpse both ourselves and the lives of those around us (Bayley 1991, xiii). Importantly for this project, Bayley goes on to claim that "taste is not so much about what things look like, as about the ideas that gave rise to them" (Ibid, xviii). However he displays or at least reiterates the stances of many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century middle-class writers in asking if "blue-collar workers" might wish to live in a "blaze of polychrome vulgarity" (ibid, xviii).
What is also significant is that the core range of miniatures sold by street peddlers was identical, wherever they operated. There were of course regional variations that recognised local heroes and celebrities, and part of the success of the image sellers was that they could respond quickly to local demand. They also adjusted their stock to reflect the religious leanings of the community, Catholic or Protestant. But their cats, parrots, Napoleons and Venuses were as familiar in Russia as they were in England, North America, South America and Australia.
This commonality might indicate a limited stock of originals and that consumers across the world had to choose from what was available. This is unlikely. Although there was some centralised production of images, many itinerants took moulds with them and made new ones as demand or events necessitated. Those who operated more permanent workshops would exchange moulds when a particular design had saturated the local market. There was an element of dynamism in what makers chose to produce. They reacted to local demand. That Italian image boys shouted "Belli Santi, Bellli Santi!" in France and "Buy Images!" in London suggests that the French customer wanted religious miniatures, while the English were more secular in their choice. The stock of the image seller in France, however, included secular items, and in the UK and North America, while secular images were headlined, their boards also included religious characters (e.g. Figure 33).
Julie Labate noted that the same "fine earthenware ceramics" — transfer-printed wares — occurred in the Five Points area of New York as in rural Ballykilcline in Ireland. For her this link was the result of the presence of an Irish diaspora. The ownership of refined earthenware, the most expensive ceramics of the period, suggested alternative views of working-class life that "contest the notion of lower class inferiority and simple-mindedness in their approaches to life. Within their power, these individuals exerted considerable agency in their accoutrements and their surroundings" (Labate 2012).
Emulation, resistance and identity
My investigations make me think that while a demonstration of "good taste" or "class" might have been true of some middle- or upper-class families, the role of the display was also, if not principally in the case of working-class people, to reflect identity back at the objects' owners. It is difficult to find evidence that working-class people in the nineteenth century spent much time visiting each other's parlours, even if they had such a room. In the present, however, the largest collections of miniatures are frequently very personal and private, such as those in teenagers' bedrooms, or the mantelpieces of the isolated elderly. In the face of criticism of lack of taste, of clutter and tawdry bric-à-brac, perhaps people's stubborn refusal to stop accumulating these ornaments was a quiet means of resistance as well as self-identity.
Mantelpiece ornaments might blur the apparently sharp distinctions between working classes and those "above" them. After all, the same characters, it seems, though in more luxurious versions, appear on middle-class mantelpieces as on the chimney-breasts of more humble homes. One train of thought is to regard this as evidence of "aspiration:" working class people acquiring things that mean little if anything to them other than "keeping up with the Joneses", or displaying an imagined "gentility". It is apparent that working class people actually knew who some, if not all, the characters they admired were. They were perhaps better educated in the classics than today's working people, attending the many "institutes" and other educational opportunities. They also read, accessing a vast number of libraries. But these activities may not have indicated aspiration. "There is very little to suggest that the formative working-class experience was in some way communicated by or copied from the middle classes" (Thompson 1988, 84).
That ordinary people delighted in objects that possessed no utilitarian function is a phenomenon at the heart of my research. F.S. Schwarzbach identifies this delight as evidence of urban working classes' growing "bourgeois sensibility" (Schwarzbach 2001, 42). Fellow art historian Christopher Witcombe contends that "bourgeois sensibility...demanded art with meaning or that had some purpose such as to instruct, or delight, or to moralize, and generally to reflect in some way their own purposeful and purpose-filled world" (Witcombe 2000). "Bourgeois sensibility" might imply a movement by working-class people towards the middle, what George Godwin called "striving upwards" (Godwin 1856, 305) and what many other scholars have termed "emulation". The prevailing attitude amongst reformers was that emulation was an important driver of change and "improvement". As Carol Harrison points out: "emulation was the key to reform [of the working class]: workers should adopt bourgeois values and practice them" (Harrison 1999, 123).
If present in the working classes, emulation would demonstrate a wish to participate in a middle-class society, a capitalist one in which, according to Julie Labate, "the upper classes are usually considered the innovators of culture" (Labate 2012). However the working classes showed (and show) a stubborn liking for "barbarities" and continued to buy "images" when these had long gone out of favour amongst their betters. The attraction of Venuses or busts of Shakespeare was not evidence of emulation nor a cultural "innovation" but a cementing of identity, independent of what was occurring in middle classes.
In discussing commodification, Charles Orser writes that: "archaeologist Paul Mullins...investigates how mass-produced bric-à-brac recovered from African American households represents an attempt by African Americans to participate in an overwhelmingly white consumer society—into which they were simultaneously incorporated and excluded. On the one hand, the bric-à-brac represented their abilities as consumers in white society, while on the other hand they were identifiers of their positions within African American society" (Orser 2002, 119). The same can be said for working-class consumers — that they were able to acquire fripperies, and that these ornaments conformed to an identity shared with others in their communities, often scorned as being in poor taste by other classes.
Paradoxically, the working-class mantelpiece, with its collection of low-cost miniaturised versions of meaningful things, may actually have been a site of what Joanne Hollows calls "a distinctive cultural response to modernity that also resisted middle-class experts' claims to cultural authority" (Hollows 2008, 25, my emphasis). Referring to the earlier work of Lizabeth Cohen, Hollows suggests that "working-class households may have had little faith in middle-class domestic experts". Then, as now, a plethora of "experts" threw their hands up in horror at "clutter" and promoted what is now called "decluttering". While clutter in the middle-class home was a sign of poor taste, clutter in a working-class home was seen by these "experts" as a sign of lack of hygiene (dust) and a waste of scarce money. In contrast, an absence of things also horrified observers. Jill Rappoport writes of Salvation Army "Slum Sisters" recoiling from the bareness they encountered in the slums, and who "urge[d] property acquisition and attempt[ed] to turn this acquisition into a sign of spiritual salvation" (Rappaport 2011).
"Where Some of the Surplus Goes" is the caption of an illustration of a room Margaret Byington includes in her book Homestead: the households of a mill town (Byington 1910, 84-5). It not only features a well-draped fireplace and mantelpiece but also a harmonium. She asserts that this acquisitiveness was driven by the "desire for social sanction which finds expression in the ambition to have a well furnished parlor" (ibid, 86). This "social sanction" was more likely the approval of their peers rather than a striving to emulate middle-class mores. Emma Casey points out that Colin Campbell argued that people "may desire goods for the immediate and obvious satisfactions that they produce rather than for any status these goods carry" (Casey 2016, 31). Campbell also replaced emulation with imitation, a practice that can be followed without any desire to "strive upwards". One can imitate a behaviour without wishing to emulate the person you imitate.
In Homestead, a steel town near Pittsburgh, "even the six [English-speaking] families each of whom lived in three rooms attempting to have at least a semblance of a room devoted to sociability" (Byington 1910, 55). Ohmann considered that "when working-class housewives 'achieved' carpets, plush and clutter, I imagine they did so in proud emulation more than in resistance. Either way, middle-class ascetic was under pressure from 'below'". (Ohmann 1996, 147). Whilst I agree that the middle class was feeling threatened (see below) the acquisition of ornaments, the creation of clutter, was for the working classes often a mark of achievement rather than emulation.
The things that miniatures do, "exaggeration, fantasy, and fictiveness", give voice to "anti and non-authority: the feminine, the childish, the mad, and the senile" (Stewart 1993, xiii), to whom could be added a slew of "under-dogs" such as the homeless, the orphaned, the incarcerated, the sick, the immigrant, the refugee, the slave, the powerless and the discriminated-against. A number of African-American contexts have produced Euro-American doll parts in situations that suggest religious practices that either survived from the Old World or were adapted to the New (e.g. Samford 1996). Dolls and other miniatures were used to force native children to conform to Euro-American norms, though there is evidence of resistance to this (Lindauer 2009, 99), and similarly institutions used miniatures to "educate" those in their charge again potentially creating dynamics of coercion and resistance that might show in the material culture. Stacey Camp has demonstrated that miniatures were used to mould immigrant workers to American values (Camp 2008, 2009).
Statuettes of spotted cats, or Venuses, or Shakespeares, confer no obvious advantage or superiority on their owners. Indeed it could be said that they do the reverse, as, in the eyes of many commentators, they communicate poor or bad taste. Nevertheless they were (and are) attractive to very many. Perhaps their owners purchased them out of habit, conformity or the following of fashion. Although possible, this is unlikely in a community that had little disposable income, where every farthing counted. Perhaps they were acts of complicity. The culture of knick-knacks and bric-à-brac could be a conscious or unconscious grouping in opposition to the establishment, and the objects on the mantelpiece act as badges, signals both to their owners and to any visitors from different classes:
I would also stress the creative element of working-class appropriation of these objects. I mean appropriation in its root, literal sense-making something one's own. De Certeau warns against "the illusion" that the masses are simply passive victims of 'expansionist production' and challenges us 'to discover creative activity' in the lived reality of everyday consumption (de Certeau 176, 167)(Schwarzbach 2001, 48)
For more than two hundred years, peopl —reformers, decorators, commentators, busybodies, do-gooders, snobs and social risers —have been railing against objects of bad taste, clutter, unhygienic furniture and decorations. In my regular visits to charity shops, I see as much evidence of what some would call bad taste, kitsch, vulgarity and bad design as ever. Over a hundred years ago, as Cohen points out: "Since domestic reformers were promoting a simpler esthetic at the turn of the [twentieth] century, they denounced workers' taste for ornamentation" (Cohen 1980, 767). Those denunciations had little effect, for working people throughout the world continued to acquire "horrors" of bric-à-brac to display in front of their wallpaper. That stubborn refusal to adopt good taste has survived to this day. It seems there was and is a sort of "bloody-mindedness" about this: "We're working-class and proud of it, and we reject your tastes. If it's bad to you, that means that it's good to us!" The mantelpiece became a badge of identity and working class achievement rather than a desire to ape middle-class values.
Lizabeth Cohen believes that "working-class material values have emerged through both resistance and adaptation to the social environment (Cohen 1980, 772). There is a paradox here. F.S. Schwarzbach writes "If, precisely at mid century, a figurine on the mantelpiece of the working-class home might be seen as a symbolic representation of respectability, only a decade or two later they betoken the debasement of working-class taste for cheap gimcracks and gewgaws...The figurines and the parlors both became for working-class families a necessary part of the domestic interior just as for their social 'betters' they became a sign of an apish and wasteful craving after social distinction' (Schwarzbach 2001, 46). I would however argue that the concept of "debasement" is a middle-class one. The working classes simply carried on as before. While the middle classes sneered at what they perceived as working-class aspiration, the working classes stubbornly and deliberately continued (and continue) to use these objects as a tool of identity, of resistance to aspiration. F.M. Thompson writes, in The Rise of Respectable Society: "those workers who could afford it were simply pursuing their happiness and pleasures in ways of their own choosing" (Thompson 1988, 81).
"Lurking places:" the threat of revolution
As working people became more affluent, increasingly engaged in consumerist behaviours and therefore, in theory, more powerful, the accumulation and enjoyment of bric-à-brac was seen as evidence of a perceived threat. The middle- and upper classes, outnumbered, worried that the burgeoning working classes now had the time and energy to listen to revolutionary thought.
While the incomes of most working people were limited, the wages of some skilled artisans were higher than many a middle class clerk. Urban streets were crowded with hawkers, the markets busy, a plethora of small retail businesses often prospering. There was anxiety throughout the century that as working classes became materially successful and educated French-style revolution would be possible. Thomas Beames expressed the fear of revolution amongst middle- and upper-classes when he wrote, conjuring up the image of the bullet-riddled St Antoine50: "...when rebellion recruits her forces she is fed by the denizens of [rookeries]. It is on record that during the combats in Paris in 1848, and on the famous 10th of April here, multitudes of strange figures issued from these lurking places, distinguished by their appearance from the rest even of the poor population. They bide their time; the agitator calls, and 'they will come when he doth call'" (Beames 1852, 67-8). Cluttered mantelpieces, with figurines of Napoleon and other anti-establishment figures would have fed this unease.
In the final verse of a satirical poem published in Volume II of Punch (1842) we are told that:
I patronise the Sunday-schools,
And always wish, indeed,
To get the children pious tracts
And testaments to read.
But yet when at the bookseller's
I call for Scott or Moore,
Some servant buys the very same—
Such books destroy the poor!
The anonymous poet was commenting on the prevailing attitude that the poor should know their place, and the anxiety that they might be getting "notions". It is revealing that the working classes should be reading Thomas Moore and Walter Scott (Anon 1842, 195). Miniatures of both Thomas Moore and Walter Scott were to be found amongst the stock of Italian image-sellers.
Identity: the miniature as "selfie"
There was a time before mirrors, when Narcissus could only gaze on his reflection in still water. Mirrors revealed an image of the self, at least in a horizontally-reversed version, to those who could afford them. A privileged few could have portraits painted, though these were constrained by the skill of the artist, who could also paint self-portraits. Then came photography, and the ability, at first restricted to the well-off, to capture images in black and white, not only of the world and its inhabitants, but also of the photographer. The advent of the box camera extended this activity to everyone, and eventually colour emulsions and now digital technologies allowed a reasonably accurate replication of one's exterior appearance, at least in two dimensions.
One of the unforeseen effects of the smartphone and its sophisticated a readily-accessible camera has been the explosion of "selfies", much scorned by arbiters of taste, but nevertheless hugely popular. Now, using scanning and 3D printing technologies, it is possible, and increasingly affordable, to create three-dimensional representations of oneself. I had mine made in an ASDA supermarket in York (see Chapter 1). It sadly reproduces, in reasonably accurate miniature, a mature bloke of average size and shape, though I of course secretly would like it to express a completely different fantasy image, one of a debonair, handsome, dashing flaneur.
These technologies weren't available in the nineteenth century (but see Figure 34 and Figure 35), but the popularity of the "selfie" today indicates something essentially human in wanting some sort of record of presence. I suggest that for many in the past, the miniature, though not a representation of the individual, nevertheless acted as a representation of how the individual saw herself/himself. In the midst of a poverty, it is easy to imagine that we have a swashbuckling streak like Dick Turpin, or are heroic like Nelson, revolutionary like Napoleon, or intellectual, or poetic, or beautiful, or famous. Perhaps the link is less direct: this miniature person/thing represents my attitude(s), my politics, my faith, my sense of humour. The presence of an ancient Greek goddess speaks to me of my taste, of being cultured. This representation didn't have to be realistic. One can imagine that one has the courage of a lion, the grace of a ballerina, the strength of Hercules, the beauty of Venus.
Figurines became adornments of the domestic interior where the mantelpiece was the place of the celebration of beauty and a repository of memory(McWilliam 2005, 109)
The Daily Mail recently published an OpEd bemoaning the undignified growth of the placing of toys and trinkets on the graves of children. It seems that more and more objects are being placed on graves, most of which are miniatures — small scale humans, animals, fairies and the like (Figure 36 and Figure 37). These material and sometimes exuberant displays are a phenomenon that could be related to the placing of objects within burials that has been common since prehistoric times. Even in death we are closely linked with things.
The objects are a public manifestation of grief. Although grief is a very personal emotion, some feel that it is not enough to grieve in private. Grief demands to be marked by material and long-lasting tokens that are visible to others, to whom the dead person is usually unknown. The death of a child is especially poignant, and demands to be marked by objects that reflect both childhood and the personality of the lost child, at least as imagined by their parents (Figure 38). The objects become representative of a life and can act as material memories.
Some objects will be things the dead person owned, held, played with, delighted in. Though the bereaved will have memories of the lost one, tangible objects may seem to encapsulate memory as firmly if not more so than mental ones. Some graves include objects that are appropriate for an age beyond the life of the deceased, so acting as "memories" of what activities the dead person might or would have engaged in had they lived. They are memories of activities that never took place. There are instances where people have placed age-appropriate objects on the graves of children whose parents could not afford the gesture (Mayer 2012). In this case the donors are "inventing" memories that had not and would not exist. Unfortunately these material memories can be untidy, and cemetery authorities regularly attract opprobrium by demanding that these objects are removed. That objects possess something more than just the material of which they are constructed is underlined by a ceremony that took place in 1929. The Illustrated London News published an account of a ceremony at the Imperial Primary School in Sugamo, Japan, during which children paid respects to their broken and lost toys, mostly dolls (Ptak 2008). This is another distinctive example of objects being imbued with "life" and logically, therefore being subject to "death".
Some miniatures represent life that had never existed, or existed only as a false memory or as a fantasy. The move from rural to urban life during the industrial revolution led to nostalgia for an unrealistic existence. In the output of British potteries during the century (especially its first half) we see shepherds and shepherdesses, swains and damsels, often accompanied by "bocage", a stylised vegetation. The same is true of plaster of Paris objects, though vegetation is unusual. While wild animals are rare, domesticated animals are common in both ceramics and plaster of Paris.
Changing and enduring tastes
"You have often met him (Figure 39) along the sidewalks, beside the quays or on street corners, with his board and its rope handrail" Le Magazin Pittoresque reported in 1850 in an article on Le Marchand de Figures de Plâtre (Charton 1850, 588; my translation) Declaring that plaster figurines are the sculptural equivalent of barrel organ music, the writer turns their attention to the "outdoor exhibitions" of the image-sellers that give us an idea of the concerns of the common man, and allow us to follow "oscillations of taste and popularity" (Ibid)
Eduard Charton describes how on the image-seller's "portable museum" stood a changing cast of characters: "busts and statuettes of great men, familiar caryatids destined to ornament modest apartments". Charton remembers that earlier in the century the boards "were covered with princes and marshals as well as busts of Paul and the Virgin, dogs with nodding heads and white rabbits". These were replaced by Bolivar, General Foy, Voltaire and Rousseau, to be followed by gothic figures when the Middle Ages became popular, and later Goethe, Schiller, Byron, Joan of Arc and la Pompadour. "Most literary and political celebrities appeared there…soon to descend and disappear...we simply cast our admiration or our whims of the moment in plaster, as if we wanted to fragility of the material and of what it represents" Charton continues. "Alas! How many of these reputations even outlasted plaster! Those great men who disappeared before their busts; who became out of date before being yellowed by time!...The moulder is a strict judge...he ruthlessly breaks the moulds of anyone who is no longer in vogue" (ibid).
Charton concludes that "the image-seller is really important in our modern civilisation; he spreads art, the education of the eyes, and he unknowingly improves popular taste...the visual arts are spreading increasingly into ordinary life; after having been the privilege of noble and wealthy homes, they are now embellishing the humblest existences" (ibid).
Just as there were divergent opinions throughout the nineteenth century as to whether or not image-sellers were becoming extinct or were on the increase, so too tastes were either in decline or improving. Horace Smith, writing in 1830, declares that:
You must surely remember, reader, unless the mother of the Muses have deserted you, that a few years ago our English modellers carried about an wretched collection of painted plaster dolls, lions, monsters, shapeless allegorical nondescripts, with here and there a sprawling whole-length cross-legged Milton or Shakespeare stiffly leaning over a tablet on which was inscribed an extract from their respective works(Smith 1830, 16)
William Hone wrote that he had noticed a significant change of taste early in the century, with a move away from once "desirable images" of crude "polly" parrots, bow pots, dogs and cats, towards casts of young boys reading and writing (Hone 1837, 310). John Thomas Smith, too, wrote in 1849 that "public taste has improved considerably" with a move from the "absurdity" of painted cats and parrots to busts of poets, painters, musicians and illustrious men "very beautifully executed" as well as "copies of some of the finest models of the antique" (Smith 1849, 11-12). Henry Mayhew was also full of admiration for the improvement in the tastes of working people, which he decided had moved on from "rude green parrots" (Mayhew 1851 217).
These apparent changes in taste were, however, still apparently happening much later. A writer in the Indianapolis Journal in 1879 was convinced that "the higher colors of a few years ago are no longer au fait. Plaster of Paris fruit-pieces and parrots in the uncompromising cardinal colours green, red and yellow, have had their day"51. There is still a prominent cat and Napoleon on the board of the image seller in True Williams' 1888 illustration of an Italian Image Boy, and the various objects he is hawking would have been familiar to a someone in a Holborn street a century earlier (with the exception perhaps of some local celebrity or other)52. Calboli tells us that there was a change late in the century in France, where the works of Falguière, Paul Dubois, Saint-Marceaux and Frémiet became more popular than representations of ancient statues. Napoleon was still there though (Calboli 1909, 116).
The objects themselves might change identity rather than form. Sala remembers in 1859 a hollow plaster of Paris cottage "of latitudinarian architecture" with stained glass windows and a working chimney. A lamp is placed inside "and the light pouring through the windows, and the smoke curling up the chimney (not altogether inodorously), produce a charming effect." "This building has many names" William Tell's chalet, the Birthplace of the poet Moore, Shakespeare's House, Her Majesty's Highland Hut or Shieling, Near Balmoral, Scotland, now the Birthplace of Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe" (Sala 1859, 192). There was, too, a churn of notables. In 1867, "the great American people at large" were buying figurines of Broadway characters instead of goddesses, according to the New York Post. While Washington was still popular, Licoln, Grant, Sherman and Sheriden less so, others were "played-out." Daniel Webster had gained plaster oblivion53.
Schwarzbach writes that "it is important to know precisely when and why it was [figurines] went so decisively out of fashion in lower-class homes" (Schwarzbach 2001, 45). I suggest instead that there was no decisive change in taste. There was a change in focus amongst writers and commentators, perhaps paralleling the rise of photography, but as the paintings of Charles Spencelayh, and New York crime scene photographs and other sources show, figurines continued to be displayed on "lower-class" mantelpieces on into the twentieth century, and the image-sellers continued their diminishing trade long enough to be photographed in the streets of Paris just before the second world war54.
Whilst some researchers stress the dreamlike fantasy aspects of miniaturisation (Bachelard 1958, 149) they fail to recognise the sheer power afforded to puny humans simply through being bigger than miniatures, being able to acquire them rather than the full-sized originals they represent, being able to use them to secure and reinforce identity, to manipulate and arrange them to create miniature environments, and even, in the case of model railways, dolls houses and the like, to create whole worlds over which to rule as omnipotent gods and goddesses (Figure 40).
People with little spare income may have used miniatures to create a tiny pocket of material culture over which they had power, both in relative size but also in having the freedom to arrange and manipulate the objects as they willed. At a time when there was little security, they could also move this assemblage from place to place and hearth to hearth, re-creating their personal space in each new dwelling. Similarly, the objects themselves seem to have power, a power that their small size appears to concentrate, so they are alluring, thought-provoking performers on the stage of the mantelpiece that offer us comfort and keep us company, as well as communicating back to us our sense of self.
We are seeing the past through biased, usually middle class eyes. Even when the writer was working class, they either don't record functionless materiality, or they disparage it, as does Robert Roberts in his account of his shopkeeper father's overmantel in the early twentieth century, a rant worth examining:
There was a marked division between those houses which had an overmantel and those possessing no more than a plain shelf above the fireplace. The overmantel, mirrored, and laddered with brackets, displayed a mass of tawdry ornaments, the more the better. Our own specimen the neighbours classed as 'a work of art'. Every Christmas my father invited favoured tick55 customers in turn into the kitchen and gave each a tot of Dumville's Special56.
The guest, much honoured, sat on the edge of her chair, sipped whisky and eyed all about her in humble admiration. First the brass chandelier, a mass of twirled metal and variegated knobs (this my father had made himself). He would demonstrate how its three upright gas mantles (classier than the inverted type) could be raised almost to the ceiling or lowered by means of three large pear-shaped weights. Then his guest would eye in wonder a repulsive, three-foot-square print of the 'Battle of Quatre Bras'57 and after that, the piano with its gilded candlesticks; but most of all the opulent show of bric à brac on the overmantel. This homage to our family possessions seemed to give the old man much satisfaction.(Roberts 1971, 18)
Roberts remembers the ornaments as "tawdry", yet showing them off meant a lot to his father. He calls the display of bric-à-brac an "homage" to the family's possessions, almost as if the overmantel and the objects ranged on it formed a shrine before which the supplicants, or honoured customers, knelt. But perhaps the overriding "satisfaction" was the result of a demonstration of power over those individuals who were in his debt. After all, Roberts senior had attained that badge of nineteenth century achievement, a piano! It is also significant that the neighbours called the overmantel a "work of art", again underlining the common use of the word to describe something different from a picture hanging in a gallery. Here it might have been used ironically, but even if it was, there was a recognition of the achievement of something out of the ordinary, and the creation of the "opulent show of bric a brac" was a success (Roberts 1971, 18).
Mayhew also judged people on their displays of knick-knacks. Writing about the Irish in London, he admitted that "In all the houses that I entered were traces of household care and neatness that I had little expected to have seen" and amongst the objects that gave "an air of comfort" was "the mantelpiece with its images" (Mayhew 1851, 110). A few years earlier, Reynolds, in his Mysteries of London, wrote that "it is a matter for thankfulness that even in the poorest classes of homes there is, as a rule, some attempt at ornamentation" (Reynolds, 1845, 311).
"Shells were also placed on the mantelpieces for decorative purposes, alongside a great array of sentimental figurines of poodles, cottages, lambs, ladies, and angels sheltering little children under their wings"(Karskens 2001, 76)
Sentimentality has a "bad rap". One current definition of sentimentality reads: "exaggerated and self-indulgent tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia" (Oxford English Dictionary). It is generally seen as an undesirable excess of something, and anything of which the working classes had an excess was treated with suspicion, if not fear. Hence the disapproval of the ample material evidence of tender feelings being displayed on mantelpieces.
As an example of the sentimental, Cupid occurs frequently amongst image-sellers' wares throughout the century. He was there in Reynold's description of a "statuary", "point[ing] his arrow at the bosom of a pope" (Reynolds 1845, 173). He was also one of the innocent plaster casts "intended for the profanum vulgus"58 in the stock of an image seller arrested for selling indecent medallions in 1845. According to the Los Angeles Herald, "a statuette or a plaster cast of Cupid" was held to be "a more up to date love token" for Valentine's Day in "the progressive year of 1908" than "creations of lace paper and hand-painted satin"59. The paper tells us that "statuettes of Cupid have long been among the most cherished art objects in many American homes" and could be purchased for one or two dollars. The Sunday Oregonian in 1910 found "dainty eight-inch" plaster images of "Master Cupid" for just 25 cents to use as table decorations during celebrations of the same event60. We see him being sold in the streets of Paris61.
The chubby infants are examples of a genre that ensured that naked or nearly-naked children featured on many mantelpieces. In his 1837 article, William Hone, having suggested that by 1826 the popularity of mantelpiece figures of cats and parrots was waning, was equally sniffy about their replacements, and provided an illustration of the latest trend, a pair of little boys, one reading, the other writing (Figure 41). The bronze originals of this pair (Enfant lisant; Enfant dessinant) were created by Charles-Gabriel Sauvage at the end of the eighteenth century (Figure 42), but they have been reproduced almost continuously in various media, porcelain, bronze, Parian, and most recently, resin for over 200 years (Figure 43).
The same figurine(s) can be seen amongst the wares of William Muller's The Image Seller of 184362 and Hugh Cameron's 1862 The Italian Image Seller63. Their French titles probably explains their absence from any written accounts, unlike The Infant Samuel at Prayer (Figure 44), a figure that reproduced in three dimensions the subject of Sir Joshua Reynolds' painting The Infant Samuel (1776).
In C.F.O.'s saccharine account of a "poor Italian boy" we are told of "yonder mechanic" whose "clear eye looks with pleasure on [Samuel's] innocent upturned countenance"64. Samuel was purchased from an image boy in 1853 by Queen Victoria65. "The plaster image of little Samuel saying his prayers in a nightshirt with a stubby-nosed angel in a bolster-case watching him" was hurled at wailing cats in 187466. "Curiously-wrought infants at prayer" were sold outside New Orleans cemeteries in 187567. "San Samuele saya his oration" was offered by the image-seller in The Iconoclast of 189568. P. G. Wodehouse refers to The Infant Samuel at Prayer at least eight times in his novels, beginning in 1908, and the Dutch Wodehouse Society ceremoniously destroyed a statuette of Samuel "as a cure for aunts" and/or "anger" (P. G. Wodehouse Society web site). Wodehouse used the figurine "to embody the kind of class-bound nineteenth-century religiosity he satirizes" (Lerer 2009, 121 note 24). I suggest that what was "religiosity" in the middle classes, Wodehouse's target, was sentimentality in the working classes. The miniatures of Samuel, the Guardian Angel and other mawkish semi-religious statuettes ran parallel to the strongly-religious imagery of Madonnas and saints. It is likely that they also appealed to non-Catholic working classes. Showing that both Italian image-sellers and sentimentality were ubiquitous and went hand-in-hand, Samuel, along with the Sleeping Beauty, appeared on the dusty streets of the Australian gold-rush town of Bendigo in 185969. Strangely, unlike the Sauvage boys, the Infant Samuel figurine has since vanished (those smashed by the P.G. Wodehouse Society had to be specially made), although reproductions of the original painting are still available. Taste is unreliable.
Sentimental miniatures of little children in varying degrees of déshabillé continued to be popular — two can be seen on the tenement shelf in Chapter 5 Figure 28, bracketed oddly by figurines of British royalty. There are elements of mawkishness here, as well as an eroticism that would probably raise surprised and horrified eyebrows if pointed out. Similar figures available today disguise their eroticism by presenting their subjects as mythical beings, especially fairies and elves, as cartoonish characters , especially those from anime and similar media, or as ballet dancers and the like (see Chapter 2). That eroticism surrounding children and underage teenagers that is evident today (see Chapter 2) was no doubt present on the nineteenth century mantelpiece.
On the whole, however, sentimentalism had boundaries that blurred with the popular genres of classical themes: choosing a bust of Clytie could be an act of good taste, beautification, intellect or sentimentality. She might, like other classical figures, be regarded as the equivalent of a "pin-up". Of course that she could be any of these, and it was important that people had time and opportunity within challenging lives to be sentimental, that they were fond enough of little children to celebrate them on their mantelpieces, even in ways that could be dismissed as mawkish by their "betters".
Bric-à-brac: objects of dubious virtue
Not all objects can be read in the same way. This is because some of them are bric-à-brac(Shears and Harrison 2013, 2)
Objects acquired new importance as they became more numerous during the Industrial Revolution. People began to be identified by the things with which they surrounded themselves, as well as using objects to create aspects of their own identities. When those objects were regarded as "bric-à-brac", they conferred a number of attributes on their owners, not all of them, according to contemporary observers, positive. Bric-à-brac possesses a form of agency. Viewed and defined by one group, those individuals claiming the ability to measure "good taste," it confers on another group, its owners, a cluster of characteristics including "poor taste". Of course, to their owners, the objects almost certainly meant something completely different, usually positive. They were not originally desired and acquired because they were bric-à-brac, but for the slew of reasons that this study explores. The deliberate acquisition of objects defined as bric-à-brac or kitsch is a twentieth century phenomenon.
Bric-à-brac is a word of (probable) French origin that may have originally been neutral in meaning but in the nineteenth century acquired an air of disapproval70:
Bric-à-brac was a general term that advisors used to refer to a catalogue of decorating errors.(Leavitt 2002, 118)
We can learn something of its various meanings by looking at its etymology. This 1881 answer to a question in the journal Notes and Queries is more positive than most: "The word probably comes from an old French expression, de bric et de brogue, which, literally translated, means from right and from left—from hither and thither...of late years it has been used to indicate objects of artistic value, made in olden times, and esteemed by modern collectors" (Sikes 1881). It has also been suggested that the word is onomatopoeic, resembling the sound of breaking or rattling ceramics.
I have been able to find hardly any nineteenth century or present-day writing that extols the virtues of everyday ornaments — bric-à-brac, knick-knacks, trinkets and the like — other than the enthusiastic outpourings of present-day consumers of "collectibles" (or "collectables"). A rare exception is Harriet Spofford, who in her book Art Decoration Applied to Furniture, despite being generally cautious about the presence of bric-à-brac, when writing in 1878 about "our thousand and one fancy things" admits that "all these babioles can be made to illuminate a room and help its picturesque idea, even if they amount to nothing at all in the eyes of a dealer in bric-à-brac" (Spofford 1878, 224). Generally, however, almost since these objects began to be mass-produced, they attracted a stream of disdain, scorn and invective, some of it simply belittling, some dismissive, some downright aggressive.
The same is true of more recent commentators, though the criticism is perhaps more muted and often just implied. "In the twentieth century writers sometimes recoiled in mock horror from the bric-à-brac and whatnots, the proliferation of ornaments that seemed to crowd the parlour. In 1933, for instance, Osbert Lancaster referred to the "objects of dubious virtue" that "the jackdaw strain inherent in every true Victorian led to the constant acquisition of" (Logan 2001, 8).
Nineteenth-century bric-à-brac: "all monsters and dust"
During the nineteenth century, attitudes toward bric-à-brac were divided between jocular and hectoring, with, in between, plenty of unasked-for advice thrown in.
"What a load of rubbish! Utterly worthless I should say…just now, of course. But I shall leave it to my son, and he to his son. In the day of my grandson it will be bric-à-brac!"(Manawatu Standard, NZ, May 13th 1902)
In 1889, an anonymous piece published in an Australian local newspaper, The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, looked back at earlier in the century and remembered "old fashioned bric-à-brac," which was displayed on a piece of furniture, the "whatnot", rather than the mantelpiece: "Upon these shelves the household bric-à-brac was placed. The ornaments were not graceful and costly Worcester ware, or Dresden china, or silver and gold ornaments". Instead the whatnot contained "a motherly-looking old hen of white china...china dogs and sheep and highly coloured, puffy-faced angels and seraphim".
The New York Times published at least two stories about bric-à-brac that presumably reflected the opinions of many of its readers. According to the first, bric-à-brac, while difficult to define, could be regarded as "elegant rubbish". Echoing the theme of this section, the writer continues "it is essential to the bric-à-bracarity of a thing that it should be utterly useless...a room cumbered and cluttered with bric-à-brac is an offence" (New York Times, July 12th 1875). The second New York Times piece claims that the late nineteenth century was "The Age of Bric-à-brac" and the writer reported an "invasion of bric-à-brac" much of which was "inexpressibly ugly". Ugliness was "the fashion", pointing to the popularity of "pug-dogs" ("the pugger the dog, the more 'swell' he is"). The article defines bric-à-brac as "anything that is quaint and ugly" and reports that drawing-rooms were becoming "curiosity shops" (Anon 1879). The article was probably focusing on middle-class mores, but what it describes almost certainly applied to working class homes.
Spofford warns that it was possible to achieve "a perfect Sodom of worthless baubles" but this can be avoided by the presence of "a single righteous individual" in the shape of "some small but characteristic treasure." But she warns against "the presence of a multitude of the smaller affairs that have no especial value, for they declare a too eager love of acquisition and a less fastidious taste than full purse" (Spofford 1878).
Bric-à-brac was often the inspiration for humour. An anonymous poet in an Australian local newspaper of 1883 uses a familiar nineteenth century scenario: a bashful young man and a frightening young lady, and also includes an unworthy older rival in love to poke fun at both clutter and the social posturing of the times: "For my fair Elsie was cultured/In the most aesthetic style...And her bric-à-brac collection/Was the treasure of her heart". The courtship ends in disaster when the young man "toppled o'er a table/Full of strange Pompeian-ware," and the young lady was left "To the worship of her art" and to marry "old Golding...flabby, fat, and sixty—So a valuable antique"71.
Oscar Wilde joined the nineteenth century's contempt of bric-à-brac: "...the mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-à-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value" (Wilde 1890, 10). Mark Twain quotes those who made fun of "Byng, who wrote a book called 'The Bric-à-Brac Hunter,'" and who chased "after what they choose to call 'his despicable trifles'; and for 'gushing' over these trifles; and for exhibiting his 'deep infantile delight' in what they call his 'tuppenny collection of beggarly trivialities'" (Twain 1890, 187). Another humourist, and rival of Mark Twain, also brought up the problem of bric-à-brac in his book Elbow-room: "My wife is the most infatuated bric-à-brac hunter I ever heard of...she's filled my house with the wildest mess of bric-à-brac and such stuff you ever came across outside of a museum of natural curiosities" (Clark 1870).
At the beginning of the twentieth century, those who had experienced the fin de siècle were cautioning ever more strongly against bric-à-brac. Lillie Hamilton French wrote: "I sometimes believe that the proper furnishing of a parlor means nothing less than a question of ethical values or a problem in psychology" (French 1903). "If there is an excess in this period, it is found oftenest in the use of decorative ornamental bric-à-brac" writes Parsons (Parsons 1916 np). We are told that "'foolish' bric-à-brac, calendars, photographs and general litter should especially be weeded out"(Eberlein et al 1919, 182) and that "innumerable inappropriate grotesqueries, decoratively intended, must be severely dealt with and banished either to the ash-barrel, the store-room, or the gift-box" (Quinn 1914, 54).
The French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan72, noting a "rage for collecting, the piling up in dwellings, of aimless bric-a-brac…established an irresistible desire among degenerates to accumulate useless trifles" (Saisselin 1984, 62). That these objects possess some sort of devilish agency that "must be severely dealt with" is echoed by the appetite of the "whatnot" lurking in the corner: "The old-fashioned 'whatnot' with its hungrily gaping shelves, is responsible for many crimes committed in the name of bric-à-brac, and calls to mind sundry specimens with which proud owners were wont to satisfy its greed" (Laughlin 1912).
Bric-à-brac still had its supporters, including "W.B.G." in a 1902 edition of the journal Amateur Work: A Monthly Magazine Of The Useful Arts And Sciences: "It makes the home our home. These small, or even large, decorative accessories are in a way the outgrowth of the lares and penates of the old Romans. In fact, some of the very clay images that the old Romans used as their household gods, now grace the cabinets and mantels of our own homes. But art objects have another use. They are the final touch, the bit of addition that makes or unmakes all the rest" (WBG 1902, np).
Trash and trumpery
It is the bric-à-brac, the curious trifles, the movable ornaments and gewgaws used for filling up the picture, for giving an enhanced brilliancy, and creating interest — the things that "notable housewives" call trash and trumpery — that have about as much to do with the impression a room conveys as the heavier articles and their arrangement do. Indeed, a few moments' observation in the drawing-room of any family will usually give much information concerning the grade of that family's culture by nothing more than the character of the bric-à-brac to be seen there(Spofford 1879, 224)
Before the Industrial Revolution and the growth of mass-production, elites could be confident that their position in society was not only secure but was tangibly and visibly far more materialistic than the "lower orders". Their homes were furnished with expensive decorative objects and often-highly decorated utilitarian objects.
Where once there was a huge, uncrossable gap between the elites and the lowest classes, during the nineteenth century that chasm began to disappear. It was bridged first of all by an expanding, economically-active middle class, keen to demonstrate that it shared many of the features of the upper classes — for example, manners, respectability and culture. For a while the lowest classes could be kept in their place by austerity, but inevitably the capitalist system demanded that they become consumers. Class distinction could no longer be based solely on the possession of non-utilitarian objects, because ownership of these now depended mostly on income rather than "taste". Mass-production increased the availability of cheap and cheerful purely decorative objects, leading to the necessity to create less easily crossed barriers of taste in order to demonstrate moral, cultural and intellectual superiority.
I suggest that this resulted in the alacrity with which the accumulation of bric-à-brac was attacked. The "lower" classes could be accused of displaying inherent poor taste through their choice of "barbarities" and those middle class people who displayed poor taste by cluttering their homes were letting the side down. In contrast, the upper classes demonstrated their superiority by having uncluttered houses and small amounts of expensive objets d'art.
Keen to distinguish themselves from those they regarded as beneath them, but also anxious to be respected by those above them in the Victorian social hierarchy, perhaps the middle class embraced "good taste" as a differentiator that was difficult to eliminate without education and wealth, even if the disadvantages of humble birth were overcome. A good example of this attitude is the suggestion by Alice Kellogg that people should separate their own tastes from those they put on display. Writing about the ideal parlour, she suggests: "Bric-à-brac and other decorations may be chosen for the enjoyment of those who come into this room, and not be an expression of the individual tastes of the family" (Kellogg 1905).
The upper and middle classes were aware that what distinguished them from the huge working population was now a matter of nuance. While it seems at first that a vast difference existed between those working people who cluttered their homes and crowded their mantelpieces with "trash and trumpery" and those upper middle class bric-à-brac hunters who toured the world collecting objets d'art that would be proudly displayed in their drawing rooms, the two behaviours are blurred.
In an unpublished paper presented at the recent Victorian Paraphernalia conference, Anne Anderson surveys those gentlemanly amateurs who had the time and money to go "antiquing", collecting for pleasure (Anderson 2015). Their sometimes vast, often random accumulations of "old things" were at best admired and valued both aesthetically and monetarily. At worst they were regarded as harmlessly eccentric. As Anderson reveals, these objects, though individually usually very unlike those on working-class mantelpieces, there are striking similarities in the meanings attached to them. She quotes Walter A Dyer, who felt in 1910 that "a few old things...will add distinction to your home" (Anderson 2015, 2). The display of a handful of cheap figures of notables or mythological beings would also have added "distinction" to more humble homes. Anderson writes that "bric-à-brac, as a means to fashion the 'self', constructed a persona through decor; the amateur de curiosite was also a decorateur or metteur-en-scene, and inventor of interiors" (Anderson 2015, 2). Figurines and other bibelots would have just as effectively invented the working-class interior.
Anderson quotes Teresa Barnett who believes that bric-à-brac exposes "the relationship between humans and their things, the emotional connections and investments, the bond between the living and the dead and the processing of mortality and loss". They help us to understand the Victorian obsession with things as they commemorated 'moments', 'associations', 'relationships' and even 'feeling' (Ibid). Paul Mullins, writing about "two miniature porcelain figurines depicting two characters seated on chamber pots...a curious motif with relatively bewildering meaning" suggests that: "it is tempting to simply ignore them as quaint but inconsequential whimsies. With a modest rethinking of material symbolism, we can begin to see these objects as penetrating, albeit oblique, observations on turn-of-the-century society." He also considers that: "Like most late-19th century bric-à-brac, these curious chamber-pot figure were not mirrors of the real world as much as they were distorted symbols of what their possessors wished it to be (Mullins 2004, 95).
"What's them things made of?" asked an old lady of an Italian image vendor. "Plaster of Parees, madam. Vera beautiful." "I've heerd a good deal lately 'bout this Pasture of Paris, an' I suppose it's all the go. I guess I'll take them two cupids for the settin' room".(Sausalito News, CA, March 25th 1886)
A casual, jocular combined misogyny and ageism is not only typical of its time but also comments wryly on the following of fashions that included mantelpiece ornaments.
Godwin doesn't tell us much about the Plumtree Court household, but the objects on the mantelpiece help us to identify the input of an unseen, anonymous feminine influence (Ajmar 1999, 76). Although working-class women are portrayed by often anonymous but presumably male writers as gullible, foolish, wasteful, amusing and possessing poor taste, the objects they had the power to purchase and display on millions of mantelpieces tell us otherwise. For they were the buyers not only of spotted cats and parrots, but of reproductions of fine works of art, of representations of playwrights and poets. They created "object worlds" with little money and in sometimes horrendous surroundings.
It is apparent that women were the principal customers of image-sellers (Figure 45). "As a general thing the bargaining is done by the fair sex in the absence of their liege lords", wrote The New York Times in 1874 in an article entitled The Image-Vender and his Wares.
It continued: "as they invariably shrink with horror from the prices asked, they are usually inveigled into giving in exchange for a bust of Clite or of Niobe, or a statuette of the Venus de Medicis, an amount of cast-off male clothing worth about four times the price demanded"73. The impression given by the New York Times piece is borne out by my investigations. Of the 29 illustrations that show both image-seller and customers, children appear in 17 (58%), and are the sole customers in 8 (27%). Of the 20 that show adult customers (70%), women are present in 16 (80%) and are sole customers in 6 (30%). Men are sole customers in only 2 illustrations (10%). The issue of gender within working-class homes and beyond was more complex than the overused "women's sphere was that of the home" trope. The home was for many also a workplace. Women are always present in active roles. It is difficult to identify the status of these female roles from both illustrations and texts. They may appear in some cases to be subservient and in others to be reasonably equable. It could be argued that women held positions of importance that in the home workplace that included power over the domestic economy.
The surroundings in the illustrations of interiors from both sides of the Atlantic show many decorative details that can be identified as "feminine". Scenes with women present, with drapery, pictures, tablecloths, ornaments and displayed ceramics differ significantly from mostly-undecorated male-only environments, though it has to be said that the latter are mostly shared lodgings. The ability to obtain, by buying or exchange from street sellers, ornaments for the mantelpiece, gave women a power of consumption of non-utilitarian objects that was not overtaken until the rise of the low-cost department store and the catalogue reached levels where prices were low enough to enable almost universal involvement in these retail opportunities.
There are a few references to men purchasing images, but they are usually sentimental objects bought for a woman (e.g. a "kneeling Samuel...to be a joy and pleasure to his wife" and a "dimpled cheeked girl" as a surprise for his wife74). Because image-sellers were active in the streets, both sexes had equal access opportunities, but women, from servant girls though lodging-house landladies to respectable matrons were the principal purchasers of home decorations. They might use a breadwinner's income to finance the purchase, however. It is not clear whether women purchased figures of what today we would regard as more "masculine" originals, such as sportsmen, criminals, politicians, military heroes, Napoleons and so on.
These apparently strong, powerful women, even if their power was limited to a few pence of disposable income that could be spent on what the New York Times called "superfluities", discomforted many middle-class observers, as the sexism in newspaper and other accounts shows. If home was women's domain, Godwin's descriptions of filthy interiors were a subtle criticism of the women who ostensibly ruled over those hovels. Interestingly, Judy Attfield suggests that working-class women used a crowded but dust-free mantelpiece as evidence of their labour (Attfield 1995, 234).
"The plaster of Paris man finds his harvest"
The largest source of humour and scorn was reserved for women who traded their husband's clothing for figurines. This activity suggests that if women did not have access to sufficient ready cash, they improvised, and were confident enough to do so. It may have been, of course, simply an overworked joke, though an internationally shared one, appearing particularly frequently in the US. I have already quoted Henry Mayhew's account of a London costermonger in 1849 who declared that women often sold their husband's clothing in order to buy china ornaments for their mantelpieces (Mayhew 1849, 368). With a mixture of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and wry sexism, towards the end of the nineteenth century newspapers repeated the story of a wife exchanging her husband's winter coat, or something similar, for plaster of Paris or ceramic images. The Ohio Jackson Standard in November 1873 included a column-filler:
About this time the frugal housewife finds herself compelled to admit to her inquiring husband that she traded off his winter overcoat last July for the plaster image which Johnny broke75.
The Massachusetts Cambridge Chronicle advised in 1877 that because an image-seller was in town: "all the married men in Burlington wear their winter clothes and ulster overcoats to the store, and go to bed in them at night. It's the only safe plan"76. When October arrived, the Kansas Iola Register enthused about the autumn colours that created an "enchanting scene" that "fills one with sublime emotion, and makes him imagine himself an angel, until a blast from the north suddenly wakes him from his daydream, only to realise with all its disagreeable force that his wife unfeelingly traded off his last winter's ulster for a pair of plaster-of-paris images"77. A few years later, a Christmas edition of The Highland Weekly News (OH) warned that "on Christmas morning the plaster-of-paris image man finds his harvest" and that the head of the family might find that his ulster, with its "fish-horn buttons on the back" had been replaced by "a plaster-of-paris cat in seven colours"78.
Pants were also at risk, while the Ashtabula Telegraph (Ohio) reported that "next Monday night the 'old men's debating society' will discuss the question. 'Are motes more destructive of winter clothing than plaster of Paris image peddlers?'"79 In New Zealand, the Taranaki Herald warned that "before a woman trades off her husband's second-best suit for a seven cent plaster image, she should feel in the pockets for the letters she gave him to post last winter"80. Amongst a score or so of examples, a "Philadelphia Dame" proudly showed her husband an "elegant Parian marble statuette" for which she exchanged his overcoat, according to the Philadelphia Record in 1889. When her shocked husband exclaims that his coat was worth $25 she tells him that the seller had informed her that the statuette was worth $40 and "came from the Vienna Exposition". He duly points out that her prize is actually a plaster image made around the corner by an Italian and is worth ten cents81.
"[The average servant girl] will trade five old dresses for a quarter's worth of plaster of paris images and think she has made a big bargain" claimed the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1889, suggesting that "those who often wonder how these same peddlers live forget the servant girls and their foolishness"82. Clothing was the most frequently pawned possession amongst the working class (Stallybrass 1998, 194). This, and their trade for ornaments implies that garments were often of exchangeable quality.
Landladies, chambers of horrors and mysterious animals
The Graphic decided in 1874 that the often-told story of image-sellers deliberately colliding with people to earn compensation for their "accidentally" destroyed wares could not be entirely true, because it did not account for "the existence of those numerous plaster busts which ornament the fanlights of shabby-genteel lodging houses"83. In an era when lodging houses were common, much is made of the poor taste and pomposity of landladies. William Dalton writes of "Mrs Rasper," who was horrified by her tenant's "handsome busts" of Shakespeare and Milton. "Why sir, the top of my sideboard made into a common image-board; I won't have them two ugly old men's heads...if I had let the room to a common foreign vagabond of an Italian image-boy it could not have been worse off" (Dalton 1849, 217).
Punch makes fun of both landlady and tenant with a Charles Keene cartoon in which we can identify Bonaparte on horseback on one side of the mantelpiece and probably a matching Wellington on the other. Fadsby, "a martyr to the decorative art of the Nineteenth Century,' begs his landlady, "Mrs Grabbit," to "remove those chimney ornam—ugh!—those two—fictile abominations" from his room (Figure 46).
Landladies were not the only female target. A writer in the Oregon Williamette Farmer had a poor opinion of his neighbour's taste that also describes the doubtful quality of some figures. We are told that she had "a perfect chamber of horrors in a collection of scriptural and historical personages in plaster, ranging from a praying Samuel whose legs, owing to an entirely original conception of the artist, seem to terminate at the knee, to an 'eyestrian state' as she calls it, of George Washington, who seems to have gotten on horseback with great difficulty, and to be in a very doubtful state as to what he is to do there, and how he is ever to get off"84.
Women were regarded as easy prey for the wiles of image-sellers. Following the sale for a tremendous price of a peachbloom vase in 1886 an image-seller offers "a Rockland woman" its twin: "a gombanion biece, only…larger" for a bargain $2.50. The woman eventually purchases the piece, "besplashed with much red and yellow paint" for 35 cents "and a last year's calico dress"85. In 1870, the Illustrated Sydney News mentioned some examples of women's "strange and noticeable taste...in the cheap chimney ornament line. Mysterious animals (shapen with equal fidelity to a horse or a pig) are banded, and spotted, and ringed, as surely never four-footed beasts were before! Rare specimens of pink-nosed poodles, and of spotted tom-cats with ferocious whiskers and gooseberry eyes, predominate; but the popular fancy also inclines to members of the Highland brigade done in crockery, and to likenesses of Napoleon crossing the Alps on a jibbing horse, and pointing at nothing in the distance" (Illustrated Sydney News December 24th 1870).
Finally, the Montana Philipsburg Mail, in 1901, offered women of a certain age a mixed compliment when it compared a middle-aged woman to a plaster of Paris castle: "white and smooth and flawless and inane these castles were, until, a lighted candle being placed within them, the tiny windows became radiant and the small structure a thing of beauty"86.
The love of art
Cheap plaster images...though coarse and rude, are not altogether unserviceable in developing a love of art among the people(Alger, 1889)
John Bedford, writing in 1964, mistakenly but understandably claimed working-class ignorance of things classical:
Somewhere about the beginning of the Victorian era there was a change of spirit. The enormously increased demand for ornaments from an expanding population with increased spending power set up a need for something cheaper, and therefore simpler to make, less sophisticated than the imitations of porcelain — who among this new public had ever heard of Apollo or Ceres? All these factors combined to produce a new and vigorous kind of folk art — except that it had a strong flavour of the new urban populations rather than the peasant countryside(Bedford 1964, 43)
Like many, Bedford was apparently not aware of plaster of Paris images, which would already have been gracing the mantelpieces of the "modestly endowed" by the start of Victoria's reign. He was wrong in claiming that, early in the nineteenth century, although there was "an expanding population with increased spending power" — "who among this new public had ever heard of Apollo or Ceres?" The expanding population of Sydney, Australia, had indeed heard of Ceres, for in 1847 a minor drama took place in Church Hill, when Mary Ann Collins, "a person of singularly repulsive exterior" stole a chimney ornament of the goddess Ceres, worth two shillings (a considerable sum) in order, she told the court, to defend herself against "a man wot wor a taking on liberties with her." It is instructive that a figurine of Ceres harvesting wheat sheaves should be for sale in Mrs O'Brien's shop in the Rocks area of early Sydney, which, although the commercial hub of the growing city, nevertheless had a doubtful reputation87.
Leigh Hunt, writing in 1834, called the cargo of an "image boy" a "moving miniature sculpture gallery" that offered "new treasure of old art" that was "accessible to eye and pocket"88. It is important to underline Alan Gowans' contention that "what we call 'art' today is a different kind of activity from what we call historic arts" (Gowans 1981, 16-17). So Godwin's claim that the working classes loved "art" and the claim that image sellers were educating their customers in "art" referred not only to the objects that hung on gallery walls but also to a different set of principles. Gowans lists them as "substitute imagery", "illustration", "beautification" and "persuasion/conviction" as well as "artistic expression" (Gowans 1981, 17-18). These aspects of material culture could be seen in the 1851 Great Exhibition, but are also well represented by the objects on the Plumtree Court mantelpiece, as well as the trays on the heads on nineteenth century image sellers in New York and Boston and the crates of Staffordshire pottery figures in the holds of ships heading for Australia.
An anonymous writer in the January 1841 edition of The Art Union asserted that: "There are, to be sure, individuals who would prefer the contents of the show-board of an itinerant image vender [sic] to the frieze of the Parthenon; but such a circumstance will not prove the inferiority of the one description of art, and the superiority of the other" (Anon 1841, 10). "C.B.A." was still chewing over the subject of "art" and the common man in an 1870 edition of George Godwin's magazine The Builder, some 15 years after the editor's visit to Plumtree Court:
It will surely then be seen that the art of common things is a matter of importance and interest, and the chimney ornaments on the chimney shelf of a working man's room, and the pictures hung round the walls of it, may come to be tests of his educational advancement; and perhaps the Government inspector himself may actually find out what sort of education the workman's family of sons and daughters are receiving by a simple inspection of the chimney ornaments and pictures in his possession, and even get in time and idea of art himself(C.B.A. 1870, 402)
Godwin had called the objects on the Plumtree Court mantelpiece "barbarities" in 1856, and C.B.A.'s opinion of working-class ornaments was no more positive a decade later, but then neither was his appreciation of more costly creations:
If among the very worst of these trumpery 'ornaments' we take the vilest and the most worthless and the cheapest—say a small earthenware figure of a man and dog, the man with a daub of red, and the dog with a daub of blue, and compare with a very expensive modern line engraving of a like subject—I say it would puzzle the most expert of art analysts or art critics to determine with accuracy which of the twain is the emptiest and the most artistically worthless. A real and practical change in art and in the practice of it will certainly come about when the time has come for even the commencement of a new order of things on the chimney-shelf and walls of a common room!(C.B.A. 1870, 403)
A point worth exploring is that nineteenth century working class people were "literate". Carl Moritz had noted, in the late eighteenth century, that: "the common people of England read their English authors". Jonathan Rose, who quoted Moritz, briefly surveys working-class cultural literacy in the nineteenth century, suggesting that "autodidact culture flourished" (Rose 2001, 189). They may not have written in ways that matched the output of their middle-class contemporaries, but they nevertheless appear to have been familiar with Shakespeare, Milton, Walter Scott, Homer and other literary luminaries, and to recognise a varied cast of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, and wished to have them on their mantelpieces. The possession of a miniature bust of Homer, Milton or Shakespeare could display a wish to absorb their intellectual output as if by osmosis. It could also indicate that their owners had read their readily-available works, often at very little cost. Individual Shakespeare plays could be purchased for a halfpenny in 1864, and in 1868 Thomas Wright wrote that "the books necessary for a complete course of self education can be obtained for a few shillings. 'Shakespeare's Complete Works' are advertised for sale for one shilling" (Murphy 2008, 4-5).
In the cross-section of a tenement depicted in Figure 47 the only identified room in the building is a "Reading Room". In this context this might at first seem surprising. After all, the illustration is supposedly of poor living conditions. However the objects that the street sellers of "images" sold, and which working class people desired, bought and displayed in their homes suggest strongly that there was more awareness of Shakespeare, Milton and Venuses than we tend to assume from our twenty-first century vantage point.
The working classes, in their delight in the gaudy parrots and colourful figures, would probably not have realised that the middling and upper classes saw the miniature Homers and plaster of Paris goddesses as improving both the workers' appreciation of beauty but also their morals, but Godwin was perhaps right in suggesting that the mantelpiece filled with "barbarities" offered a "bridge" between the classes. Whether anyone crossed that bridge is debatable. The stubborn survival of cats and parrots and sentimental little boys from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries, and the enduring popularity of Bonaparte, suggests that the working classes retained and retain their own views as to what was/is "art", as displayed in the galleries balanced on the heads of "image boys".
Alan Rauch suggests that "literacy, at whatever level of accomplishment, is not a prerequisite for making sense of or telling stories about figurines" and goes on to consider these objects might themselves be "knowledge texts" that use the relatively inexpensive media of pottery or plaster of Paris as an alternative to more costly printed paper (Rauch 2013).
To suggest, as Glassie does, that the "majority" during the nineteenth century "were non-literate and...they did not write" (Glassie 1976, 8) is perhaps misleading. I think he means that they did not write about their lives, rather than they were illiterate. A few did write of course, and their informal records, mostly letters, diaries and journals, are being researched by a small number of archive-based programmes such as the "Writing Lives" project at Liverpool John Moores University (www.writinglives.org). This project, itself based on the work of John Burnett in the 1980s, perhaps demonstrates lack of interest in this area until very recently in that as of June 2015 one cannot yet carry out a keyword search of this collected material, which makes it at present an unwieldy source.
Many children could read. A "ragged school" had been established in Plumtree Court in 1847 (London City Press, 25th September 1858), and Thomas Archer describes another ragged school in one of the most deprived areas of London, only a stone's throw from Plumtree Court, "filled up-stairs and down with children" with a hundred scholars who were lent books to take home to read (Archer 1865, 67). This was repeated many times in industrialising countries. Eduard Charton stresses how important the itinerant image seller has been in educating the public, and he points out that although the objects that are present in working-class homes are perhaps not of the highest standard, they nevertheless reflect "a marked upward movement in the intellectual education of many" (Charton 1850, 589).
There were very many opportunities in the nineteenth century, especially in its second half, for interacting with the distant past and the changing present. There were a number of exhibitions through which "the working man might be usefully educated in his leisure time" (Greenwood 1888 cited in Snape 2010, 23). London working people could have attended the North London Working Classes Industrial Exhibition (1864) or the Workmen's Exhibition held in 1888 at the People's Palace for East London in Mile End Road, which featured 400 exhibits representing seventy trades. The archaeologist Flinders Petrie wrote in 1901 that "some workmen would spend their whole dinner hour" at his exhibition at University College London of material from the excavation of Abydos (Thornton 2015).
An example of the sort of institution in which working-class people could participate was the Ancoats Art Museum. In 1877, in the heart of the densely-populated Manchester industrial suburb, Thomas Horsfall opened an Art Museum, created to "alleviate the miserable dullness and emptiness of the life lived by a very large proportion of the inhabitants of Manchester"89. Stuart Eagles writes: "Art, extended to the poorest members of the community, became a social mission" (Eagles 2009). The museum, which displayed painting, sculpture, architecture and domestic arts, included a "Model Workman's Room" and a "Model Dwelling's Sitting Room". Eagles describes Ancoats as "cramped back-to-back jerry-built housing, with a densely-packed, largely immigrant population all competing for a gasp of the industrially-polluted air that swirled around the cotton mills, iron foundries, coal wharves and slaughter houses, squeezing through the tight alleyways and narrow canals…the Art Museum at Ancoats stood as a cultural beacon on the edge of the dirtiest, dreariest neighbourhood". Interestingly, Thomas Horsfall thought that in the mid century, class divisions were less marked (Ibid).
The then editor of Harpers New Monthly Magazine, S. S. Conant, was concerned that the US should follow Europe in having public galleries of art "as in Paris, Berlin, Munich and London with free access". He wrote in 1876 that "there is many a working-man in Paris who knows more about pictures and statues than the majority of cultivated people in this country...enter the galleries of Paris, of Munich, or Dresden, on a holiday, and you will find hundreds of people belonging to the working classes, men, women, and children, feasting their eyes on the treasures of art, and filling their minds with love for the beautiful" (Conant 1876, 693). Powers' Greek Slave caused a "commotion" amongst people S.S. Conant accused in 1876 of lacking "culture", although he hoped that "prejudices like these, the fruit of ignorance, are happily dying out" (Conant 1876, 693).
Image-sellers were still educating the public at the beginning of the twentieth century:
They know more about the masterpieces of sculpture than do many of the self-satisfied art critics, and, when one comes to think of it, is not a community greatly benefited by their presence? In the pursuance of their labor they really do more to improve the general taste, to place copies of known sculpture within the reach of all, and to familiarize the public with what is good, then any school (which only a few can attend), then any gallery (which the working classes seldom visit), or any other institution in the country(The Sunday Journal, January 25th 1903, Indianapolis)
Calboli quoted French and Italian intellectuals who considered that image-sellers nurtured people's passion for art:
M. Carina, cité par Giannini a pu dire avec raison que "la vente des stucchini a contribué dans une large à la diffusion de l'art". M. Fournel dans son livre: çe qu'on voit dans les rues de Paris dit que "les marchands de statuettes en plâtre répandent et entretiennent dans le peuple le sentiment des arts90(Calboli 1909, 117)
Miniatures were and are often displayed at the heart of the home, above or near the hearth, a location vulnerable to the ingress of evil spirits and 'Old Nick' himself. In medieval times the hearth was often protected by magical graffiti. The popularity of miniatures such as Staffordshire dogs, always wide-eyed, alert and awake on the mantelpiece, watching over both hearth and living room, could be evidence of a subconscious wish to guard this risky area. In a number of cases miniatures have been found amongst objects hidden in walls, and their occurrence in less obvious places, such as a battlefield, could indicate that they were carried as charms.
The chimney is an always-open portal to the outside world, with the fireplace at its base. The mantelpiece might therefore be associated, even unconsciously, with the folk memory and superstition that has been associated with the hearth since at least medieval times: for example Welsh and Manx fairies were rumoured to take over the fire once the family had gone to bed (Rhys 1994, 2). Outside in many a garden stands a vanguard of small figures, gnomes, which "[hark] back to the dark fairy-tale forests of Europe" (Pendle 2016) and are ready to scare away any malevolent spirits. But should an invader reach the chimney and arrive in the hearth, they then face a posse of dogs, small humans, lions, frogs or whatever, all wide-eyed and alert, guarding the entrance into the vulnerable world of the household. They may have acted as apotropaic devices. There is a suggestion in Jay Loomings' blog that there might be a connection between Staffordshire dogs and hobgoblins (Loomings 2013). These objects, if small enough, could also be carried as charms. Others might be the basis of small, disparate collections that might be regarded as 'shrines' (which might be another explanation of their continued popularity in the face of criticism of clutter and bric-à-brac).
Miniature tripod cauldrons offer a curious example. Already mostly obsolete in the nineteenth century, when few urban houses had a fireplace big enough to allow the installation of a fire crane, and when many homes possessed small ranges and others engaged in communal cooking, the tripod cauldron, or at least its miniature version, continued to play a seemingly important role. Multiple examples are listed in the English Portable Antiquities database (2,361 records in September 2016). As unstratified finds grubbed up by metal detectorists those in the PAS database are dated pretty much by guesswork, but it is significant that they occurred on nineteenth century mantelpieces (Figure 48) and are still collected today (Figure 49), at least 200 years after they were last in common use (see also Chapter 5).
Are they examples of nostalgia? Or sentimentality? Or could it be an unconscious association with magic and superstition? Neela Banerjee notes that on a wiccan mantelpiece are: "two candles, a tiny cauldron, four stones to represent the elements of nature and a small amethyst representing her spirit" (Banerjee 2007). I'm not suggesting that people (other than wiccans perhaps) consciously create these collections of objects as shrines, just as I don't think that garden gnomes are bought deliberately to repel evil spirits. But perhaps there is a sort of material folk memory present in these objects. For example, the writer of the "Copper and Wood" blog acquired a Staffordshire dog figurine, which she placed on her hearth along with a plastic miniature dinosaur (Figure 50). "No-one will steal my fire now!" she blogged, sharing a sentiment that would be understood by someone from the Neolithic (Anon 2013).
The Alasitas fair in La Paz, Bolivia, is a celebration of the magical power of miniaturisation. By buying miniature objects, people believe that they can influence their futures. A miniature house will lead to the purchase of a full-scale home. Miniature luggage will lead to travel. Miniature money will result in the real thing. The objects are blessed either by a catholic priest or an indigenous shaman. Miniature objects sold at the fair include representations of mobile phones, televisions, vehicles, cameras, food and building materials. The miniatures are then gifted to those in need of whatever they represent, hence the popularity of marriage certificates, miniature babies and, ironically, divorce papers.
It seems that some miniature objects possess a sort of magic memory, or memory of magic, but on that subject I should share some appropriate words from a Terry Pratchett children's novel: "Magic is just a way of saying 'I don't know'" (Pratchett 2008, 175).
On the coping of the wall, an image-seller had set out his wares. They were a dream of fair women, classic and modern. The solemn majesty of the great Venus was contrasted with Phryne hiding her eyes in a spasm of modesty91. Clytie, with the perfect fall of her shoulders, rising from the lily leaves that fold back as if unwilling to hide so much beauty, stood droopingly beside the proud nakedness of Falguiere's Diana92. The boy who presided over this gallery of loveliness — a meagre Italian, his facing nipped with frost–stood a hunched up, wretched figure, his eyes questioning the passers-by.(St Paul Globe 25th September 1902)
Classical themes added a subtle eroticism to the stock in trade of image sellers. While ceramic figures, usually sculpted by the anonymous designers of workaday potteries, remained relatively crude (see Figure 8), their plaster of Paris competition based its models on Greek and Roman originals (Figure 9).
Adhering to the nineteenth century's double standards, a respectable working-class mantelpiece could now display any number of naked or semi-robed figures. That this disturbed some was indicated by the 1827 arrest by a "street keeper" of an Italian in the City of London for offering for sale a sleeping Venus. The Examiner published a poem that poked fun at a "sad Macaroni" called "Giannone":
From indecency screen us—
Go, shut up that Venus;
She hasn't a rag to put on!93
A street-keeper in Walbrook had charged Andrea Giannone with offering "that there image for sale" — a sleeping Venus which the street-keeper thought to be "indecent, not to say indelicate". The Chief Clerk supposed that "persons of the street keeper's delicacy will shortly seize our Apollo Belvedere" (a full-size cast of which had been placed in the Egyptian Hall by the "Corporation Committee of Taste") "and break it to pieces, to prove the superior purity of their ideas". The Italian did not seem to understand English and simply laughed. The Lord Mayor told him that it was "no laughing matter" but let him go, advising him that if he was caught again he would be punished. The Italian was advised that he must not come again into the city unless he put "petticoats on his figures" because 'all the taste is on the other side of Temple Bar, where he must keep". The Italian "went away laughing".
The heathenish wench may be pretty;
But unless she thinks best
To have herself drest,
Hang me if she comes in the City.(The Examiner, November 4th1827)
It is easy to visualise the scandalised street-keeper, the amusement in the courtroom, the mystified Italian laughing at the whole affair and the smile on the official's face when he remarked that good taste could only be found the other side of Temple Bar, then the gateway to the City of London. We can also glimpse the double standards of the time, which approved of nudity (especially of the female form) in art but were scandalised by the exposure of more than an ankle.
The popularity of statuettes of subjects such as the Farnese Hercules, the Apollo Belvedere and Powers' Greek Slave sometimes caused offence. Statuettes of Powers' nude became popular, much to the horror of some of the more sensitive. In 1857 two image-sellers were arrested in Mobile, Texas, for offering statuettes of the sculpture, because they were considered to be "immoral and indecent". While the Daily Dispatch of Richmond VA considered that "the good people of Mobile seem disposed to carry their modesty a little too far" the Burlington Free Press considered the statue to be "an incendiary document" (perhaps with tongue in cheek)94. Nevertheless the image-sellers' stock in trade often included both male and female nudes, and indeed some commentators regarded classical works to be valuable in improving education and taste.
There was likely a thriving trade in erotic, bawdy and pornographic images, though this was rarely recorded and few examples, if any, have survived. A case recorded in London in 1845 expressed sympathy with a "luckless Italian Image seller" who had been entrapped into showing an agent of the Vice Society some pornographic bas-reliefs. These were "of so loose and libidinous a description that the Vice Society's man, in a fit of virtuous disgust, seized his whole stock and gave him in charge to the police". Dominique Barsatti, described as "an Italian itinerant vender of plaster casts", had a box of "fancy medallions". These were described to Alderman Hunter at the Guildhall as having "no pretensions to be of a classical nature, but were copies after some of the vilest French pictures for illustrating infamous books". The unfortunate Barsatti claimed he'd brought them with him for a gentleman he'd expected to meet and hadn't brought them out until asked for them by the stooge, but this was rejected by the court, and he was sentenced to a month's imprisonment. A significant detail that emerged from this case was that the offending objects were manufactured in Cow Cross, near the southern end of Farringdon Street, not far from Plumtree Court. The Satirist or Censor of the Times wrote that "it is, as we view it, especially hateful to see men entrapped into an offence against the laws. The immorality of this practice is hardly better than the other kind of immorality it seeks to suppress"95.
"An interesting contribution to the history of ideas comes from a mass of broken, late 19th century clay pipes and porcelain figure fragments recently recovered from near the City Custom House" wrote Geoff Egan in 1996. "These proved to be imported pornography in the round, seized and smashed by the Customs authorities under legislation introduced in 1857. Although ceramics can be made smaller, it is very difficult indeed to get them to disappear altogether...these finds may be the only specific evidence available for just what, in ceramics, was considered too outrageous for Victorian England" (Egan 1996). It is fascinating that these colourful objects subsequently vanished from the Museum of London, a comment on prevailing attitudes to this type of material (Jeffries 2012 pers comm).
There was a more acceptable face of eroticism that also involved image-sellers, whose stock often included miniature versions of nude or semi-naked female and male statues. Henry James, a great describer and critic of material culture, wrote rather stiffly of these figures "so undressed, yet so refined, in sugar-white alabaster, exposed under little glass covers in such American homes as could bring themselves to think such things right" (James 1903, 114).
A writer in the New York Times in 1853 found that his pair of soldiers, a Huguenot and a Catholic, bought from an Italian image man for a dollar each, was "eclipsed" by his roommate's acquisition of a presumably more erotic Nymph and Satyr that looked "so exceedingly expensive"96. It is telling that New York Times readers would understand the contrast between the humdrum soldiers and the statuette of the entwined and naked demigods, the possession of which could be excused by the fact that they appeared expensive.
Such legs as these
Another erotic focus was on a single woman, Madame Vestris (see The Archaeology of a Ballad). While there were many miniatures made of her, in both ceramics and plaster of Paris, there was also a minor trade in casts of her famous legs, which she often showed off to her advantage97 (to overcome the contemporary disapproval of women's exposed legs, she often dressed as a boy, and acted in male roles). Sadly, like most plaster of Paris originals, none of these casts have survived.
An 1831 print by Henry Heath (Figure 51) suggests that her legs were life-sized, so not appropriate for this study, but the Pennsylvania Lancaster Daily Intelligencer reported in 1882 that her foot: "the symmetry of which was said to be unparalleled...had been sculpted and plaster casts were on sale by Italian image boys in the streets"98. It is remarkable that Vestris's allure was still surviving some 50 years after the peak of her career, and 25 years after her death. Heath's caricature of A Connoisseur! sketches the (imagined?) interior of a workshop, that of James Papera, who in February 1831 charged one his workers, Thomas Papera, with stealing a number of casts that included one of Madame Vestris' legs. Heath's scurrilous caricature includes a goat, presumably referring to the expression "old goat", and the words "Beautiful! beautiful! no doubt equal to the Originals, but the Pair would be too much for me.—I wish some kind friend would divide them with me" and the verse:
Oh Cunning P— thou'rt perfect Master,
Of taking forms in Paris Plaister:
And woe unto the Man betide,
Who would such legs as these divide!
Sweet M—d—m V— would soon discover,
If you sold one without the Other!(Heath 1831)
Bollards — a mystery?
One of the most common repeated elements of the illustrations of image sellers is the bollard, a prosaic piece of street furniture often made, during the nineteenth century, using a redundant cannon with a cannon ball hammered into its mouth99.
A bollard also appears on the cover of the ballad Buy Image! (link) and Buy My Images (link). The bollards are usually depicted as vertical, but some lean to one side (see The Fall of Napoleon, link). I haven't carried out a large-scale survey, but at first glance bollards appear more frequently in illustrations of image-sellers than other "street cries" and cartoons/caricatures. It may be that these innocent-looking objects are phallic symbols.
A bollard at a jaunty, definitely phallic angle featured on several tongue-in-cheek nineteenth century Valentine cards (e.g. Figure 52. The verse reads: With knowing eye and betting book,/Waiting some poor flat to hook,/In vain your tackle you display,/I shall not nibble, sir, today.). A bollard has been identified as a phallic symbol in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Found (1854) (Bullen 1998, 63). Along with Paul Pry's phallic umbrella and the brooms of the broom seller this may be another indication of the peculiar sexuality of the nineteenth century, which at its outset would allow Rowlandson to produce cartoons that were robustly pornographic as well as commenting on the double-standards and hypocrisy of his times.
Figures of fun
Joseph Pollet exhibited Une Heur de la Nuit at the Paris Salon in 1848100. The nude was immediately popular, enough to become one of the figures offered by image-sellers. In his 1852 "humorous illustration" (Figure 53) John Leech depicts an image-seller with two of these figures on his board. He holds out an Apollo Belvedere, a work that has been described as "the highest ideal of art" (Vatican Museums web site). Nevertheless, the "flunkey" knows better.
Throughout the period of this study, woven through the network that I am untangling, is a thread of humour. When surveying humour of the past it is important to remember that old adage "you had to be there". What was amusing nearly 200 years ago reflected contemporary mores. To modern tastes some nineteenth-century humour could appear cruel, bigoted, racist, demeaning and at best insulting. This was a period when a defendant in a court case could be described as "of loose character" when another was identified as "notorious for freedom in the use of her tongue" (The Queenslander February 27th 1869), and when Italians were routinely called "Dagos" in the press101. Some of the humour is crass, some of it gentle, and some is still capable of making me, at least, laugh. The humour often displays what to modern tastes are cruelty, racism, misogyny and xenophobia. A few of the writers are still known today, Jerome K Jerome and Mark Twain being the most obvious examples. However most are anonymous.
Nevertheless, humour surrounding attitudes to bric-à-brac, working-class tastes in ornament and the activities of the image-sellers and those who bought their wares shed light on another neglected corner of nineteenth-century life – what made people laugh, or at least smile.
The magazine Punch, or The London Charivari made use of "images" and their Italian vendors as a source of satirical metaphor throughout the nineteenth century. Punch stirred together a mixture of noisy boys who could be relied on to get into mischief, the figurines of politicians, nobility and royalty, as well as the notorious and criminal, the fragility of both plaster of Paris and ceramic "images" with snobbery and pomposity. The figures on image-sellers' trays could be replaced with caricatures of whoever was in the news at the time. In its relentless pursuit of Lord Brougham, Punch used image-sellers at least twice (Figure 54 and Figure 55). Mantelpieces of the ignorant middle classes and of the over-aspiring working classes, who sometimes threatened to get above their station in life, could be populated with images that underlined poor taste or gullibility. Although intending to amuse, the anonymous writers and artists do sometimes provide some corroborating evidence as to the objects displayed on Victorian mantelpieces.
The funny side of bric-à-brac
Casting a sidelong look at the pretentions of the art market, Punch announced that on April 1st 1884, there was to be a lottery (tickets costing 1d) held by the "Umbrella Art-Union" consisting of "the print-umbrella proprietors...and cheap image-men — the picture-dealers and sculptors of the million". (Anon 1844b, 110). Amongst the works of art were "A plaster-cast of a Cat, with an oscillating head" (Figure 56), one of "a Poll Parrot, coloured from life" and "a Bough-pot102: painted (a great way) after nature". Under the heading "Overdoing it" The Sheffield Independent reported the case of an unfortunate maid who, thinking her mistress's ornaments could do with cleaning, soaked them in a bucket of water, only to find that they dissolved103. An enthiusiasm for bric-à-brac could sometimes lead to fashionable confusion — Mrs B, shocks a philistine vistor by declaring that she has become an "atheist" (meaning, of couese, aesthete) (Figure 57).
Nearly a century later, The Star joked: "Mrs bric-à-brac: 'Good gracious, Bridget, how could you have broken that precious vase? Why, do you know, it was four hundred years old'. Bridget (calmly): ''Oh, if it was an ould thing like that, yez can take it out av me nixt week's wages'"(The Star, January 14th 1902).
The merry mantelpiece: a "museum in miniature"
In "the Museum of Mr Spinkey" (in his front parlour in Canonbury Road) Punch found a "Model of a Swiss Chalet, in plaster of Paris. This exquisite work of art was purchased of a talented foreigner, who walks about at evening with a whole village on his head" (Anon 1843a, 122).
Punch explores Mr. Snook's back parlour for "works of art" (Figure 58) and discovers a "museum in miniature" on which stands "a small white figure, purchased by Mr. Snooks of an Italian artist who passed through Pentonville on his way from Genoa; and it is said by Mr. Snooks himself to represent either Milton or Shakspeare; but from the imperfect account given of it by the foreign vendor, the point has never been settled" (Anon 1842b, 152-3). At the time, Pentonville, once a comfortable suburb on the edge of London, was heading rapidly downhill, and Punch's fictional Mr. Snooks was probably a resident of one of lodgings created by sub-dividing its larger dwellings. His plaster bust, which from the illustration appears to be of Shakespeare (not the contemporary spelling), was obviously bought from an Italian image-seller. The confusion over whether it was Shakespeare or Milton is more likely to be Mr. Snooks', who is no doubt also guilty of over-egging the status of the "artist" from Genoa, though there is a strong likelihood that many image-sellers took advantage of the credulity of their less educated or more pompous customers.
We learn of a headless plaster of Paris cat on a chimney-piece in Saffron Hill (Figure 59), the seat of "Fantail Joe"104, who, with his "insinivating [sic] manner and knowledge of the noble science of self-defence" had "spent most of his life in collecting dust from all sorts of localities" and had "realised a splendid collection of rubbish".
Working-class people, like middle-class people, furnished homes with care and with an eye to display. Indeed, working-class wealth was often put into items that could be displayed and could shore up the family's respectability. These included Sunday best clothing and elaborate funerals, but also included home decorations, such as figurines that were display displayed on the mantelpiece (which might cycle in a lot of pawnshops, weekly or in times of difficulty).(Steinbach 2012, 2)
It was necessary that Susie Steinbach's working-class people were active consumers of material culture both utilitarian and purely decorative for the 'system': the mass of little shops, the pawn shops, the black market, the hawkers, the street markets, thieves, the Italian Boys, the makers of cheap china, the manufacturers of "toys", all supported and were supported by a working-class economy. The livelihoods of the image-sellers, as mentioned above, depended on the sales of low-priced plaster of Paris and earthenware figurines and busts, to people with not much money. "At the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century, the urban working class entered the world of consumption beyond the necessaries" (Steinbach 2012, 108). Steinbach echoes a familiar refrain, one perhaps encouraged by Paul Johnson's earlier paper on working-class consumption, which similarly focused on the late Victorians (Johnson 1988). But from the activities of image-sellers it is apparent that the working classes had long had enough disposable income to enable the purchase of at least a few possessions that were unnecessary.
Figure 60 shows that interest in "images" and "image-sellers" as shown by stories in newspapers and other media was high in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Illustrations had begun appearing at the end of the eighteenth century. The graph is skewed by the absence of a significant number of undated illustrations, especially postcards, which appeared at the end of the century and the beginning of the twentieth and which indicate a burst of revived activity and interest, at least in France. The increase in newspaper coverage may be the result of increased circulations rather than reflecting the amount of image selling activity. However it does indicate the continuity of the trade.
The spread of activity shown in Figure 60 argues against those writers who at various times predicted the demise of "images". The Memphis Daily Appeal had noted the passing of "the Italian plaster image makers" in 1867, putting their extinction down to "the cheapness of engravings"105. The Graphic wrote in 1874 that: "It is seldom now that we see about the streets that familiar figure of our youthful days, the Italian image seller, with his plaintive cry 'Buy my images'"106. In the same year The New York Times uses almost the same words: "One seldom sees in New-York — the more's the pity — the familiar figure to Londoners of the Italian image man"107. Other stories however told of new arrivals from Italy, new image-sellers in town, new workshops being set up and of thriving businesses108. That Paulucci di Calboli published his book Larmes et Sourires de L'émigration Italienne (Tears and Smiles of Italian Emigration) which exposed the abuse of young image-sellers in France, as late as 1909, implies that the trade was still significant, at least in that country (Calboli 1909). It appears that there was a steady demand for "images" amongst working-class people throughout the nineteenth century. The decline towards the end of the century may indicate changes of taste and fashion, and the rise of photography. The "entry into the world of consumption" claimed by Steinbach may instead indicate a marked increase in disposable incomes rather than a basic change of working-class consumer behaviour.
And when that income faltered, the ornaments could be always pawned: Stallybrass quotes Ellen Ross, who explained that: "the 'bank' of ornaments" on a working class mantel was indeed a bank, since it represented the scarce resources which could nevertheless be pawned and turned into cash in times of need (Ross 1993:46). Objects, and the memories attached too them, did not stay in place for the poor. They could rarely become heirlooms" (Stallybrass 1998, 196). This suggests that even though they were cheap and cheerful, "images" had monetary as well as emotional value. That monetary value resulted in them being the targets of thievery, as shown by the proceedings of the Old Bailey (see Appendix III), and this criminal activity continued in various ways throughout the nineteenth century.
Victorian Staffordshire figurines, in their day relatively inexpensive ornamental objects that were mass-produced for the masses, sold for a pittance wholesale and rarely much more than that retail, and were fashionable only among the poorer classes, whose mantelpieces they graced in great numbers(Schwarzbach 2001, 7)
Schwarzbach calculates that Staffordshire produced at least 1,000,000 figures each year, and that "double or treble that amount is not an unreasonable figure…hence their cheapness at the time...and their availability to working class families living on very modest incomes" (Schwarzbach 2001, 13). He suggests that this number of figurines was sold annually by street sellers. However he fails to take into account that the image-sellers were also selling plaster of Paris "images". Many presumably sold nothing but plaster of Paris figures. This either means that the street sellers sold significantly fewer than 1,000,000 ceramic figurines, in which case how and where were the remainder sold, or that they sold, in total, considerably more "images", both ceramic and plaster of Paris. The figures in the various illustrations and paintings, and those mentioned by writers, appear to be mostly plaster of Paris.
I have examined two sources of costs. The first is within cases recorded in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey (see Appendix III), the second is US newspaper stories (see Appendix II). Given the wide range of objects the prices cover, and lack of detail in the records, both will only give approximate costs, but are nevertheless valuable. The values recorded in the Old Bailey proceedings are bound to be higher than those in the newspaper reports because thefts would be biased towards higher quality objects in higher-class contexts. Indeed one case was of theft from an earl. They may have been "replacement with new" values, very approximate estimates, inflated by the victim or were second-hand or pawnshop values.
I found that British prices ranging from a farthing to £2/5/0, excluding an exceptional "Old Bow China" pair entitled The Four Seasons, which were valued at £20. The average price from 54 records was 5/-. However if I exclude all records over 1/- the average cost is 6d, from 28 records. The US prices ranged from 10 cents to 50 cents, with an average of 30 cents from 17 records.
In the mid-nineteenth century a servant in London was paid about 1/- per week, so 6d represents a significant outlay on a non-utilitarian object. There is some conflicting evidence here. According to Mayhew the prices of these objects fell in the mid century and that there was no second-hand trade "in images or chimneypiece ornaments". "Why," said one dealer, "I can now buy new figures for 9d, such as not many years ago cost 7s, so what chance of a second-hand sale is there!" (Mayhew 1851, 23). Yet they were considered valuable enough to be stolen and pawned. Mayhew may have encountered the fake pessimism of an entrepreneur wishing to conceal his real income.
Value: crime and the chimney-piece
That mantelpiece ornaments were highly esteemed by their owners and had exchange value as second-hand or pawned objects is revealed by their attractiveness to thieves and burglars. A number of cases where "images" and "chimney ornaments" had been stolen were listed in the proceedings of the Old Bailey, as well as in newspapers across the world. Image sellers also occasionally got themselves into trouble, and were in addition the victims of crimes ranging from casual violence to murder109. It is certain that these accessible records are just a small sample of the worldwide total.
Although examination of court records around the world would provide much information, within the scope of this study a survey was limited to digitised Old Bailey proceedings, and newspaper stories in the UK, US and Australia. I have included a number of edited extracts from Old Bailey proceedings in Appendix III. The range of extracts is limited by the number of records that have been digitised to date (December 2015) and the spotty survival of original material.
Last updated 25th April 2020
"Chalkware" figures are displayed in some North American museums, but in the main are either described as examples of "folk" art or are misattributed to Pennsylvania (Anon 2008b).
I have yet to find any other examples of low-quality German wares.
King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) of France always carried an umbrella except when wearing ceremonial dress.
General Julius Jacob von Haynau (1786-1853) was an Austrian who put down insurrections in Italy and Hungary.
Carrie Nation (1846-1911) was a temperance activist who wielded an axe on several taverns in Kansas.
Probably James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett (1866-1933): heavyweight boxer.
William J. Bryan (1860-1925) was a leading Democratic politician.
Emilio Aguinaldo (1869-1964) was the first President of the Philippines, having led the country to independence from Spain in 1898.
"Battling Nelson" was the nickname of Oscar Nielsen (1882-1954), Danish boxer and world lightweight champion.
Using the name Cassie Chadwick, Elizabeth Bigley (1857-1907) passed herself off as Andrew Carnegie's illegitimate daughter and defrauded several banks.
May Irwin (1862-1938) was a vaudeville actress and singer.
Presumably referring to the Bastille?
"Tick" was slang for credit. These were trusted customers who had bought from Roberts "on tick" and who owed him money
Dunville's Special was a liqueur whisky blended in Belfast by Dunville & Co, founded by John Dumville, who changed the spelling of his surname in the 1820s. It may be that the original spelling survived in common parlance into the Edwardian period about which Roberts was writing (or perhaps it was simply a typo).
Battle between the French and an allied army of British, Germans, Dutch and Belgians, two days before the battle at Waterloo, 1815.
The common people.
I have used the spelling bric-à-brac throughout but followed the spellings used by quoted authors
Valentin Magnan (1835-1916) was a French psychiatrist who studied "degeneration".
Thomas Horfall (1844-1932) was a friend of John Ruskin and came from a wealthy Manchester cotton family.
Madame Carina, cited by Giannini, could rightly say that "the sale of stucchini has contributed significantly to the dissemination of art". Monsieur Fournel in his book: Ce Qu'on Voit Dans les Rues de Paris wrote that "plaster statuette sellers spread amongst the people and nurture their passion for art". (my translation)
In 4th century BC Greece, Phryne was a famous courtesan, not known for her modesty. Figurines of her were usually of a naked woman, modestly shielding just her eyes..
Falguiere's 1882/1891 statues of a nude Diana were much criticised. One commentator wrote that she was too plump, was "not Nudity but Nakedness" and the statues were merely "clever".
"...Madame Vestris] was to be seen in every form of chimney ornament, placard, and print..." (Empire November 11th, 1856).
Ironically the exhibited version was a plaster model.
"Fantail" might refer to the small sail on a windmill that turned the main sails towards the wind. "Fantail Joe," with his insinuating manner, would readily change loyalties and direction./p>