Passion and fashion in Dyrham's Delft pyramid vases

Pair of pyramid vases on display in the Diogenes Room at Dyrham Park

At Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire there is an extraordinary pair of objects that say much about two consuming passions among wealthy Europeans during the 17th century: Chinese porcelain and tulips.

Learn more about the fashion for pyramid vases during the reign of William and Mary.

What is a pyramid vase?

Pyramid vases– also known as flower pyramids – are ceramic vessels with individual sections for displaying cut flowers, especially tulips.

These ingenious objects were made for export in the 1680s and 1690s by potters in Delft, Holland. Pyramid vases were painted to resemble Chinese porcelain, but they were actually made of faience, or tin-glazed earthenware.

In place of porcelain

During the first half of the 17th century, affluent Europeans developed an insatiable demand for Chinese porcelain. But due to dynastic instability in China, the export of porcelain came to virtual halt for more than three decades.

Delft faience, with its distinctive cobalt blue decoration, emulated the appearance of Chinese porcelain, temporarily filling the demand for this highly prized import. Samuel Johnson described it as ‘counterfeit China ware’. 

In England, the trend for pyramid vases was set by the court of Mary II and her Dutch husband William of Orange. During her years in the Netherlands, Mary had developed a passion for Delft faience and aspiring courtiers purchased these extravagant status symbols as evidence of their loyalty.

By the 1690s, faience of all kinds - including urns, jars, bottles, as well as pyramid vases - were coveted by England's elite consumers to furnish their tables, bedchambers and china cabinets.  

Costly luxury 

The pyramids consist of seven graduated tiers, with each tier acting as a recepticle of water for cut flowers. Flower stems are inserted through narrow spouts, modelled to resemble a serpent’s open jaw.

In the 17th century, these spouts would have been the perfect way to show off expensive ‘florist’ flowers. During this time, a florist was a specialist in the cultivation of a select few plants, among which tulips were the most prized of all. The pyramids, filled with a variety of brightly coloured flowers, were a costly luxury changing with the seasons, enlivening dark baroque interiors.

Detail showing the tubular nozzles, in the form of a serpent's open jaw, where cut flowers would have been inserted
Detail showing the tubular nozzles, in the form of a serpent's open jaw, where cut flowers would have been inserted
Detail showing the tubular nozzles, in the form of a serpent's open jaw, where cut flowers would have been inserted

Pyramid or pagoda?

In keeping with the emulation of a 'Chinese' appearance, the vase resembles a pagoda more than a pyramid. Delft potters excelled in the art of combining stylistic elements from Europe and Asia to produce hybrid, contemporary designs, and the pyramid vase is an excellent example of this. 

The scenes painted on the surface of the vase, however, take their cue from fashionable European gardens and Dutch formal parterres. In one scene, amorini (infant cupids) arrange flowers in an urn, framed by classical architecture.

A courtier's homage

The pyramid vases at Dyrham were owned by the ambitious and wealthy court administrator, William Blathwayt (1649-1717), who amassed one of the most important collections of Delft pottery in Britain. His country seat of Dyrham park was, in itself, a monument to the Anglo-Dutch taste of William and Mary.

Blathwayt acquired fashionable goods from around the world on trips to The Hague and Amsterdam, drawing on the taste of William and Mary and their merchants. Even his magnificent garden was in the royal taste, with parterres, fountains and sculpture.

A change in fashion

Blathwayt, who had administered all aspects of the army and frequently travelled with the King, was pushed out of office with William's death in 1702.  

No invoices survive detailing his Delft purchases, one of the most important collections in Britain. 

In the nineteenth century, the Delft was gathered together with other heirlooms in the Great Hall. Many of the flower vases were separated from their pedestals, as they were no longer used for their original purpose.Today, the pyramid vases can be seen in the Diogenes Room.

 

To learn more about the British taste for Delft faience and our incredible ceramics collections, see Ceramics of the National Trust: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces by Patricia F. Ferguson