Satire, that great British tradition of puncturing the pomposity of the great and good is the topic of a new ceramics and print display at the British Museum.

Drawing on the British Museum’s own prints collection as well as loans from a private collection, this exhibition reveals how political blunders and royal scandals were caricatured for the pleasure of Georgian society.

© the Trustees of the British Museum

Ceramics are rarely confrontational, yet when printed with political messages with a powerful agenda, they are transformed. The invention of fine creamware and the development of transfer-printing on glazed clay in the 1750s coincided with the great age of British printed satire.

Hand coloured prints parodied the political and social elite, and humour dissipates the uncomfortable truths in these single sheet works published in London between 1770 – 1830.

William Hague once said that a dictator could never take over the UK, as we’d just laugh at them, and the display shows how British cartoonists lampooned mainland Europe’s little popinjays.

Satire is also a way to often distilling complex arguments into simple visual soundbites. While the posh pottery was sold to the urban upper-classes, a more widespread audience in inns, taverns and cottages also saw the cartoons on common table wares.

On loan from Private collection

Satirical cartoons on pots were displacing religious messages in stained glass windows as a narrative that could be understood by the illiterate.

This is the first exhibition at the British Museum to focus on the display of printed ceramics alongside their engraved counterpart prints and includes 80 objects, some of which have not been on display for decades.

They are primarily mugs and jugs, associated with hard drinking, ballad singing, public houses and other masculine spaces. The impact of satirical prints however spread beyond ceramics, and other items included in the display are a cotton handkerchief with the “Peterloo Massacre” of 1819 and a grisly folding fan with hidden profiles of the executed French sovereigns, dated 1794.

In all the objects, British values are on trial and any threat to social stability becomes a cause for ridicule.

On loan from Private collection

Some entrepreneurs approached political controversies like the public reactions to the Papists Act 1778, allowing Catholics to own property, the campaign for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, and the threat of a French invasion during the Napoleonic War.

The images became increasingly hard-hitting, especially during the threat to Britain and its empire from Napoleon Bonaparte.

British potters also printed ceramics for the American market during periods of tension. They frequently made printed pottery for both sides, and later even recycled these images for the domestic market.

However, few of the ceramic manufacturers marked their ware, perhaps preferring anonymity in a time of political strife, where to be on the wrong side after a war could have fatal consequences.

© the Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition, Pots with Attitude: British Satire on Ceramics, 1760-1830 is free to visit and open until 13th March. It’s in Room 90a, Prints and Drawings, which is at the top of the rear main staircase.

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