What does a biographer do when they learn something new about their subject after their book has been published? This happened to Jo Willett, author of The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu, when she found out about some porcelain linked with the 18th-century smallpox inoculation pioneer. We’re delighted that Jo is sharing her discovery with Historia.
In fact, there are seven different variations on the same pattern, but they are all dark blue with exotic birds, flowers and insects painted in panels within gilt frames. R L Hobson, an expert writing in the 1920s, dated the Lady Mary design between 1770 and 1780.
I immediately found myself questioning Hobson’s dates. Lady Mary lived in mainland Europe for some 23 years and only returned to London for the final months of her life. She arrived back in January, 1762 and died that August.
The husband she had been separated from for many years had predeceased her in 1761, leaving a controversial will. So, although Lady Mary knew she had terminal breast cancer, she made the brave decision to travel all the way back from Venice, “dragging my ragged remnant of life”, as she put it, to be reunited in London with her daughter and son-in-law, the Butes, and their large family.
They put her up in a rented ‘harpsichord-shaped house’ in Great George Street, far smaller than her palazzo in Venice. She would have brought very few of her possessions back with her. Her granddaughter remembered her jesting: “I am most handsomely lodged. I have two very decent closets and a cupboard on each floor.”
People came from dawn to dusk to pay her their respects to the old lady, who felt like an oddity, dressed as she was in outlandish Venetian fashions, very different from the London styles.
Once Mary died, on 21 August 1762, she soon attained an even greater notoriety. She had written a series of letters during a trip she made to Constantinople in her late 20s, accompanying her husband who had been appointed the British ambassador there. These she had edited with her mentor Mary Astell, and circulated among their friends, but the two had decided the letters should only be published after Lady Mary’s death.
On publication, the Embassy Letters immediately became a huge success and started a craze in England for All Things Turkish.
So my first instinct, seeing the design on the porcelain, was that it seemed strange it didn’t depict anything of that. If some fond grandchild or niece or nephew had commissioned the porcelain to commemorate her, surely they would have wanted to reflect her Turkish travels?
The Worcester porcelain company was started by Dr John Wall in 1751. The porcelain itself was underglazed in dark blue. White panels were left for the decorators, who painted them in enamel with images of birds, insects, and flowers copied from ornithological and botanical prints. As a final step, the white and blue borders were gilded with a mixture of gold and honey.
Mary’s porcelain was decorated by the well-known James Giles. Or at least the early versions would have been decorated by James Giles and the later by other decorators in his factory, under Giles’ supervision.
Gerald Coke, who has written the definitive study of James Giles, mentions a Christies catalogue of December 1769 which includes a single item of porcelain decorated with birds, which Coke believes to be a variation of Lady Mary’s design. So that implies that the original design for her porcelain dates from earlier than the 1770s. Coke, however, makes it clear that he believes Giles created her design in the late 1760s or early 1770s – after her death.
I consulted Lady Mary’s previous biographer, Isobel Grundy, who is far more knowledgeable than me. She too knew nothing of the porcelain. Isobel suggested I see if I could find any record of Mary’s descendants having commissioned something in her memory. My search proved fruitless.
Mary’s daughter and her husband had been keen to bury her as quickly as possible. Bute was prime minister at the time, and he was proving to be extremely unpopular, so the couple were keen to avoid any unwanted scandal from his eccentric mother-in-law.
They even tried to suppress the publication of Mary’s Embassy Letters, but luckily for us some tourists had borrowed a copy and made a transcript for themselves overnight, which then found its way to the publishers.
It seems strange that anyone in the 1770s would have wanted to remember Lady Mary by commissioning porcelain in her name.
Alec tipped me off that a note exists from a later Christies porcelain sale, this time in 1863. It states that a large amount of Lady Mary’s porcelain was sold at that point and “according to evidence produced in the room at the time of sale [it] cost her 150 guineas at the factory.”
This is likely to be the best piece of evidence we will ever uncover that Lady Mary herself bought the first set of porcelain – even if the design was then copied and adapted after her death. Sadly, the Worcester Manufactory’s account books of this early Dr John Wall period were destroyed by a fire in the early nineteenth century. So we have no definitive record of what was made and sold when.
We do know that the renowned decorator James Giles moved to London from Worcester and set up a factory in Kentish Town with his own kiln in 1756. I like to think of the elderly Lady Mary in 1762, tiring of all the visitors to her house in Great George Street and deciding to take a carriage out to Kentish Town for the afternoon.
Many years previously Lady Mary’s favourite sister, Frances, Lady Mar, had been admitted to an asylum in nearby Hampstead, which was known for the humane treatment of its patients. Mary had not seen her sister for over 20 years and Lady Mar had died there the previous year.
Perhaps Mary wanted to spend time remembering her sister and then stumbled upon James Giles’ factory. Maybe, to cheer herself up, seeing the beautiful designs, she ordered a set of porcelain. Then at least she could entertain all her many visitors in more style. And this is the design we still have today.
The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist by Jo Willett was published in March 2021.
Find out about Jo’s book.
Jo Willett is a producer of TV comedy and drama. She began her career on EastEnders, before going on to executive produce series such as Pie in the Sky and Love Hurts. She won a BAFTA for A Rather English Marriage and an Emmy for Dirty Tricks.
Jo has written more about Mary in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, mental health pioneer, which shows how Mary, as well as being a forerunner in inoculation against smallpox, had an enlightened attitude to caring for someone with a mental illness.
If you’d like to see more about inoculation, have a look at The Empress and the English Doctor by Lucy Ward, which documents Catherine the Great’s momentous decision to summon the English physician Thomas Dimsdale to inoculate her family. Lucy’s feature on the subject will appear in Historia soon.
- Pair of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu pattern dishes (detail): private collection, via Albert Amor Ltd
- Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Memoirs of Eminent Englishwomen by Louisa Stuart Costello (1844): New York Public Library via Wikimedia (out of copyright)
- Lady Mary’s Porcelain: ©Alec Cobbe
- Family at the tea table, detail from John, Fourteenth Lord Willoughby de Broke, and His Family by Johann Zoffany, c1766: Getty Museum Collection (digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program)
- Wedgwood and Byerley Shop, London, from The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics (1809): Wikimedia (public domain)
- Note accompanying 1863 Christies sale: ©Paul Crane