Recent research has shed light on the provenance and history of a unique object in the Rienzi Collection. The charming punch bowl made by the Lowestoft Porcelain Manufactory offers insight into the importance of specially commissioned commemorative objects, England’s ritualized nature of punch drinking, and the circuitous path objects travel into museum collections.
The soft-paste punch bowl known as The Judas is decorated in beautiful enamel colors of pink, brown, red, and green. The decoration of lattice, scrolls, fish scales, flowers, and insects is attributed to Thomas Curtis, a painter and later shareholder at the Lowestoft factory. His standardized patterns, known now as “Curtis style,” were commonly in use at the factory from the 1780s onward.
However, the most striking feature of the punch bowl is the delicately rendered lugger, or fishing vessel, in the bowl’s interior. The lugger illustrated in full sail with its name, The Judas, inscribed underneath. Ownership of the vessel has been traced to Messrs. S. & D. Peach, who were successful herring fishermen in the late-18th century in the English town of Lowestoft.
Lowestoft was a popular coastal resort destination, and the fishing operations of men like S. & D. Peach were an important part of its economy. The fashion for imported porcelain was at its height in the mid-18th century and, in response to the demand, competing English porcelain factories began to appear in the 1740s. The first porcelain factory in the region of East Anglia was established in Lowestoft in 1756. No other English factory produced so many dated-and-inscribed pieces that allow for such a personal account of a particular town. Lowestoft’s new merchant class, with its increased wealth, commissioned such items to commemorate weddings, christenings, and even deaths. The town became particularly known for inscribed personal wares for tea and coffee; Thomas Wedgwood even sent an employee to bring back samples for closer study.
As a result of increased trade between Europe and the East at the latter part of the 17th century, punch—a mixture of imported sugar, spices, citrus, arrack (an Asian distilled spirit), and water—was introduced to England. Initially the drink of sailors and sea captains, punch quickly gained popularity in England. The increased passion for the drink saw the rise of new accoutrements specifically intended for punch’s consumption.
This distinctive punch bowl, specially commissioned by Messrs. S & D. Peach in 1790 to commemorate their ship, would have been prominently displayed. They filled it with punch to drink a toast before and after each successful fishing voyage. As late as the 1860s, surviving residents of the town could still remember The Judas and its celebratory owners.
The punch bowl remained with the Peach family until the mid-19th century, when it passed to the collection of Thomas Balls, a local auctioneer. Upon his death, it passed to the collection of William Rix Seago, a prominent local gentleman and the Lowestoft town clerk. As a testament to the high regard in which Lowestoft porcelain was held, The Judas was singled out from Seago’s impressive porcelain collection to be exhibited at the South Kensington Museum (later named the Victoria and Albert Museum) from 1866 to 1868. In Llewellyn Jewitt’s comprehensive 1878 study The Ceramic Art of Great Britain, the author devotes a section to discussion of the historical value of Lowestoft wares and gives particular attention to the Judas punch bowl.
In 1895, The Judas went to the collection of genealogist Frederick Arthur Crisp. In the 1908 addition to William Chaffers’s important Marks and Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain, Frederick Litchfield discusses the factory at length and lists individual pieces of particular note, including The Judas. Upon his death and the subsequent sales at Sotheby’s of Crisp’s personal library and collections in 1935, the bowl passed to the collection of a Mrs. Coleman of Norfolk, who owned it until 1948.
The Rienzi Collection
During one of his many trips to England, Harris Masterson—who, along with his wife, Carroll Sterling Masterson, donated the Rienzi Collection and mansion to the MFAH—purchased the punch bowl from a shop in Norfolk in 1958.
At the time, Masterson was building his extensive collection of English porcelain, and he had a particular interest in personalized items like the “Judas” Punch Bowl. The bowl was one of many gifts given by the Mastersons to the Museum over the years and has made a fascinating addition to Rienzi’s English porcelain collection.