Porcelain passion: a Chelsea shepherd and shepherdess

At Upton House, Warwickshire there's an exuberant sculptural figure group of a shepherd teaching a shepherdess to play the pipes. It's one of the largest and most important made by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory during the ‘Gold Anchor’ period (1756–59).

Depictions of shepherds and shepherdesses were extremely popular in the 18th century and subjects like this were employed to spectacular effect to signify virtue and vice. Could there be more than meets the eye to this sweet, charming scene?

The Chelsea Porcelain Factory

The Chelsea Porcelain Factory, established around 1743–5, produced some of the most desirable ceramic figures of any period. The secret of its success was in the quality of the manufacture and the choice of subjects. It often featured delightful rural scenes with romantic overtones and animal figures. These subjects were perfect in the mid-Georgian period, when there was a taste for highly decorative fantasy. 

'The Agreeable Lesson', modelled by Joseph Willems, Chelsea Porcelain Factory, about 1765, soft-paste porcelain, painted and gilded
Chelsea figure group
'The Agreeable Lesson', modelled by Joseph Willems, Chelsea Porcelain Factory, about 1765, soft-paste porcelain, painted and gilded

'The Agreeable Lesson,' inspired by Boucher

One of the largest and most appealing pieces made by the Chelsea Porcelain Factory is this piece known as 'The Agreeable Lesson’. Made in about 1765, it features a shepherd teaching a shepherdess to play the pipes, while her lambs sit in her lap and around her feet. A dog sits at the shepherd’s feet, gazing up at the couple.

Chelsea porcelain pipes detail ART COLLECTIONS

The subject of a shepherd teaching a shepherdess to play the pipes is taken from a print of 'L'Agréable Leçon', engraved by René Gaillard or Johann Esaias Nilson, after a painting by François Boucher.

Chelsea porcelain sheep detail ART COLLECTIONS

The profusion of flowers and vegetation, known as 'bocage' (French for 'grove'), was hand-modelled. 'Bocage' is highly characteristic of English rococo porcelain.

Erotic undertones

But there is more going on here than first meets the eye. The hundreds of small flowers in the blossoming arbour above the couple, along with the shepherdess’s hand resting on the shepherd’s knee create a heady sense of romance and sexual tension.

Erotic associations underscored depictions of shepherds and shepherdesses in 18th-century art
Detail of Chelse figure group
Erotic associations underscored depictions of shepherds and shepherdesses in 18th-century art

The composition is inspired by a print after a painting, 'L'Agréable Leçon', by the French artist François Boucher (1703–70). Specialist publishers and dealers often sold fashionable prints, which were used as templates for designs and decoration. Other porcelain factories, including Sèvres, produced decoration inspired by  'L'Agréable Leçon'.

Detail of 'L'Agréable Leçon', oil on canvas, 1748, by François Boucher, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Boucher painting
Detail of 'L'Agréable Leçon', oil on canvas, 1748, by François Boucher, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Prized porcelain

The pieces produced at Chelsea during this time were made of soft paste porcelain because European makers had not yet mastered the art of producing hard white porcelain. Pieces like this one were often displayed on mirror-backed mantelpieces in drawing rooms, where the light from candles or windows would have helped the bright colours and gilded porcelain gleam.

The Chelsea porcelain figures were very expensive when first made, and over the course of the next 200 years became prized collectors’ items. In the 19th century, leading ceramics collector Lady Charlotte Schreiber (1812-95) purchased her own example of ‘The Agreeable Lesson’ from Christie's for £364 (£22,000 today), the largest sum she ever paid for a piece of English porcelain.

The Long Gallery at Upton House, Warwickshire, with the ceramics cabinet at left
The ceramics cabinet in the Long Gallery at Upton House
The Long Gallery at Upton House, Warwickshire, with the ceramics cabinet at left

By the second half of the 19th century, the collecting of ceramics developed into serious connoisseurship. In the early-20th century, Marcus Samuel, 1st Viscount Bearsted (1853-1927) probably acquired this piece for display in his London house or country estate, The Mote, Maidstone, Kent. It was subsequently inherited by his son Walter Horace Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearstead (1882-1948) who acquired Upton House in 1927.

Seeing this treasure on display

Please check the property webpage if you wish to visit and see this object on display. You may need to book in advance before you visit.

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