In light of our upcoming Punch Party (September 29), I am reviving some notes on a Gallery Talk I held last October, on a curious item from Rienzi’s collection—a punch pot, from 1765, by the Worcester Porcelain Manufactory[i] :
Alcoholic punch was consumed throughout the eighteenth century, however, the punch pot – a form resembling an overblown teapot – appeared in England only at about 1750, falling out of fashion by 1780. Up until then, the drink had been served from a wide communal bowl from which individual cups were ladled, usually into glass tumblers. Punch bowls are not known to predate 1680, but even by then the very distinct ceramic shape was standard. They were often decorated with a slogan or insignia, indicating the reveling tone that punch-drinking parties often took: “Drink fair, don’t swear,” or, “fill up the bowl, let us not our wife us control.” (This second example underscores the point that the drinking groups were more often than not male.)
Remaining examples of fine punch pots such as Rienzi’s example are relatively rare, and there exists very little written or visual documentation as to their use. The overt reference to a teapot, in shape if not size, is a very curious development – just as tea-drinking was widely understood at the time to be central to polite socializing, punch and punch-drinking was understood to be on quite the other end of the spectrum (see the accompanying etchings of raucous punch parties by William Hogarth).
This new form, a covered pot, serves as a visual cue for a different kind of etiquette, one that would have significantly changed the nature of a punch-drinking occasion. It was a lidded vessel, less open to the excess of a shared bowl, and it was more likely to be served in a controlled manner by one person who poured, rather than dipped into by each participant. The reference to tea clearly links it to polite social behavior, and is reiterated by the very refined decoration. It seems both physically and symbolically, to demonstrate a level of restraint.
To place this pot in its proper context, some background is needed on where and how it was made: Rienzi’s punch pot was made by the Worcester Porcelain Manufactory around 1765, during a period in which the firm was becoming known for high-end wares. (This “early period” is also the most coveted by collectors, and items from this era were collected as early as the nineteenth century.) The early success of Worcester has a lot to do with its formula for porcelain. The firm hit on the use of soaprock, a chalky stone mined near Cornwall that gave their porcelain great durability but was also quite thin, enabling the ceramic wares to withstand hot liquids. Worcester became known for tea and coffee services, or in this case, hot punch.
Along those same lines, Worcester’s painted enamel decorations are unique in that they brought together a number of influences. Rather than try to directly copy the patterns of imported Chinese ceramics, like so many porcelain companies were doing at the time, they developed their own distinct style combining various Asian styles as well as influences from other European firms. The pattern of the dark blue background is referred to as “Bluescale,” a wash of dark blue with darker blue-dot pattern layered on top to resemble fish scales, and is one of the firm’s most famous early patterns.
To create this effect, each stage of the design would have been carried out in a division of labor within the factory. White areas, called “reserves,” would first be marked out; blue was applied over the pot in a light wash, and darker dots would be applied over the first layer. This required great skill because once the pigment was absorbed directly into the clay, alterations would be impossible. Highly skilled enamel painters would then filled in decorative images, including intricate bird and insect designs. The third element of the design would be the elaborate gilding, for which Worcester was well known. Though made to serve alcohol, this was also a large, hand-painted item, made to order, and extremely expensive.
By adopting the form and even the decorative motif of a teapot, Rienzi’s punch pot could easily have been integrated into a home environment. The ritual of tea was one governed by women, and by the mid-eighteenth century, had developed into a whole new way of socializing in the home. The juxtaposition of teapot to punchpot is provocative, and reasons are unknown. It is possible that later in the eighteenth century, punch had lost some of its riotous party connotations, and that more women were drinking punch amongst company in the home. By the mid-eighteenth century, for instance, more women were frequenting coffee houses in English cities. As suggested by historian Karen Harvey, the form of a punch pot might even have served as a something of a visual pun between tea and alcoholic punch.
The punch pot form was made for only a brief period of about 30 years and then falls out of favor. Punch itself lost popularity towards the end of the eighteenth century, and was considered somewhat “old fashioned.” This is partly due to the fact that it was such a labor intensive drink to prepare, but also because other alcohols become fashionable heading into the nineteenth century.
[i] Karen Harvey discusses the material culture of punch and punch-drinking, and its juxtaposition with that of tea in her article, “Barbarity in a Teacup? Punch, Domesticity and Gender in the Eighteenth Century” Journal of Design History 21 (2008): 205-221. Discussion about the venues and etiquette appropriate for punch consumption in the eighteenth century, as well as their implications for gender, has been largely derived from this source.