“All the World’s a Stage”: Winterthur’s Theatrical Fireplace Tiles

By Emily Bach, ’22

A small table arranged for tea in front of the fireplace in Winterthur’s Simsbury Room invites visitors to imagine two people immersed in teatime conversation. Framing the fireplace are nineteen tin-glazed, delftware tiles that each portray a highly celebrated English actor or actress dressed as theatrical characters. When studied, these tiles represent Georgian England’s innovations in ceramic manufacture, development of theatre culture, and demonstrations of nationalism throughout the eighteenth century.

A Brief History of Delftware

Delftware, the term commonly applied to the tin-glazed earthenware crafted in the Netherlands and Britain, pulls its name from the city of Delft in Holland because of its numerous ceramic factories.1 As Chinese porcelain increased in popularity and demand, Dutch tilemakers sought to emulate porcelain’s desirable smooth, white finish and cobalt blue designs. Applying tin glazes to earthenware created an opaque white surface and, as a result, the Dutch succeeded in manufacturing a cheaper, and more accessible, imitation of Chinese export porcelain.2 These techniques spread overseas to Great Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as Dutch potters migrated to England and established ceramic factories at London, Bristol, and Liverpool, the city where Winterthur’s tiles were produced.3

During the mid-1750s, the English printers John Sadler and Guy Green experimented with transfer printing, the method of decorating pottery or other materials using an engraved copperplate and tissue paper to transfer an image onto a ceramic surface.4 This process and its history are further discussed in Naomi Subotnick’s Matieral Matters blog post, “The World on a Saucer: Stories from a Ceramic Transfer Print.”

Theatre Culture and Consumption in Georgian Britain

During the Georgian period, public spaces dedicated for leisure and entertainment rose in numbers and included coffee houses, concert halls, museums, and theatres.5 Public awareness of plays and famous actors and actresses expanded with the distribution of handbills, advertisements in newspapers, volumes that collected numerous plays together, and material objects. Not only could people enjoy theatrical performances in public venues, but material culture, such as theatrical tiles, brought public forms of entertainment into the home.

John Bell, Bell’s British Theatre (London: J. Bell & C. Etherington, 1776-1781).

 

Winterthur Museum 1969.4723.006. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont.

Aware of the growing popularity of theatre during this time, Guy Green and John Sadler pulled direct design inspiration from the popular publication Bell’s British Theatre, a multi-volume publication created by the English publisher John Bell. He commissioned from numerous artists hundreds of portraits of performers in the roles from accompanying plays, and Sadler and Green often sourced their tiles’ imagery from his works. For example, one tile that depicts the actress Mrs. Abbington is an exact copy of Bell’s frontispiece for “Rule a Wife, Have a Wife,” albeit in reverse due to the transfer printing process.

Garrick Mania and British Nationalism

Particularly demonstrative of the mass production of theatrical-themed goods and growing consumption of entertainment is the fireplace tile that illustrates the widely celebrated actor, playwright, and theatre-owner David Garrick. He was lauded as the most celebrated English actor at the time who revolutionized the field of acting in the 1740s.6 Garrick’s celebrity status stimulated trade of his image, and manufacturers took advantage of this by placing his visage on a variety of objects, which can be seen in Winterthur’s collection.

Winterthur Museum 1969.4723.018, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont.

A 1770s Wedgwood cameo features the silhouetted profile of David Garrick and, dressed in everyday clothing rather than a theatrical costume, Garrick stoically looks past the viewer in an 1810s print. Lastly, a late-twentieth century bust of Garrick meant to pass as an original eighteenth-century Wedgwood piece showcases the extent of Garrick’s fame. For three centuries, Garrick’s semblance and his impact on British theatre remained prominent in the minds of consumers.

Winterthur Museum 2006.0027, Gift of Lindsay Grigsby.

Winterthur Museum 1968.0394.080, Museum Purchase.

Winterthur Museum 2001.0039.002, Gift of R. Pretzfelder.

In a broader context, the mass consumption of British celebrities and classic literature exhibits a growing sense of nationhood and Britain’s attempts to show off its cultural superiority to the world. John Bell’s publications of theatrical works were praised for accomplishing such a feat. On December 13, 1790, the London Times published the article “The Competition of Bell, Boydell, and Macklin,” which commended Bell and his fellow competitors for reinvigorating the adoration of British classics:

To enterprises like the above is Britain indebted for the extension of her literary fame… Indeed we date the revival of, if not the original taste for, fine Painting and elegant Book Establishments in England, to the enthusiasm and perseverance of Mr. BELL…[He] awakened public curiosity, and invited emulation by his beautiful editions of the Poets of Great Britain and of our immortal dramatic Bard.7

In his play As You Like It, William Shakespeare, or “the immortal dramatic Bard,” wrote the famous monologue that includes the often-cited quote “All the world’s a stage.” For Georgian Britain, technological innovations in ceramic production and the widespread consumption of British theatrical goods became a figurative stage for the nation to show the world its cultural influence. An inundation of theatrical-themed objects flooded both British and American markets, and people enthusiastically partook in possessing such goods. Theatrical tiles, such as those displayed at Winterthur, transformed a fireplace and parlor room into a venue for displaying one’s artistic knowledge and immersing oneself in entertaining discussions of the latest theatrical performances. Forever performing on their ceramic stages, the actors and actresses of delftware tiles continue to reveal their roles in British cultural history.

  1. Rosemary Troy Krill, Early American Decorative Arts, 1620-1860: A Handbook for Interpreters (New York: AltaMira Press, 2010), 133.
  2. Josslyn Kay Stiner, “Piecing it Together: The Introduction of Delftware Tiles to North America and their Enduring Legacy in Charleston, North Carolina” (master’s thesis, Clemson University, 2010), 26-27.
  3. Madeline Hagerman, “Delft Tiles at Winterthur,” (fellowship thesis, Winterthur, 2018), 9.
  4. Anthony Ray, Liverpool Printed Tiles (London: Johnathan Horne Publications, 1994), 4.
  5. Goff, Goldfinch, Limper-Herz, and Peden, Georgians Revealed, 14.
  6. Kalman A. Burnim and Philip H. Highfill Jr., John Bell, Patron of British Theatrical Portraiture: A Catalog of the Theatrical Portraits in His Editions of Bell’s Shakespeare and Bell’s British Theatre (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998), 20.
  7. “The Competition of Bell, Boydell, and Macklin,” Times, December 13, 1790, accessed February 12, 2021, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CS51514253/GDCS?u=udel_main&sid=GDCS&xid=d34bfe5e.


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