SLAVERY AND CERAMICS

Gwendolen Parnell, The Planter’s Daughter

Readers will know that I’ve been finding out about English figurative pottery in the 1920s and 1930s. Most has to come from looking at it because it’s almost completely undocumented, but from doing so one can uncover some of its influences and sources. Charles Vyse, for example, shared the contemporary idealised view of Romany life with Augustus John, Laura Knight and Alfred Munnings, and both he and Munnings drew Romanies at Epson Races.

Gwendolen Parnell designed one of her rare figure groups for Royal Worcester Porcelain in the 1930s, The Planter’s Daughter, which depicts a lady in 18th-century dress (Parnell’s stock in trade) attended by a Black servant. It directly parallels Continental European figures by Valley Wieselthier and Paul Scheurich for Meissen.

Vally Wieselthier, Vanity, 1925
Paul Scheurich, Figure Group

That was not a common theme in ceramics but it has a long pedigree in painting, dating at least to the 16th century.

Titian, Portrait of Laura dei Dianti, c. 1523

There’s now a debate about these servants, who were acquired as status symbols and paraded in public: were they free labourers or were they actually slaves? The Planter’s Daughter suggests a setting in the USA unique in Parnell’s work, which case the servant would be a slave, though the title is unexplained. Parnell, distantly related to Charles Stewart Parnell, may be referring to the Irish poem of that name, but then why the Black servant?

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