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‘Talking Plates’ at the MNHA

Pottery depicting historical events and legends has been around for centuries. One notable example are ‘assiettes parlantes’ or ‘talking plates’, a fashion phenomenon which became popular during the 19th century. These transferware plates featured an enormous range of illustrated designs and captions, and proved extremely popular throughout Europe with customers from all walks of life. Ceramics manufacturer Villeroy & Boch was one of many to embrace this trend, producing many talking plates at its factory in Septfontaines (Rollingergrund) in Luxembourg. The National Museum of History and Art is home to a wonderful collection of these plates produced by both Villeroy & Boch and other European potteries.

The talking plate emerged from two technical achievements developed in England in the previous century. The first was fine earthenware, which made the Septfontaines factory, founded by the Boch brothers in 1766, so successful. This very plastic clay was of superior quality than coarse earthenware, and offered a considerably less costly alternative to porcelain. The second was transfer printing, a technique was first used in Septfontaines in 1823. It involves using an engraved copper or steel plate to print a design onto paper and then pressing it onto the ceramic piece. The combination of these two advances enabled fine earthenware factories to reduce their costs, increase production volumes and lower sales prices. Ceramics were no longer the preserve of the elite; instead companies could reach a much larger and more diverse customer base.

The talking plates owes much of its popularity at the time to the public’s appetite for illustrated magazines, which are the equivalent of the plates in terms of the support of the engraved image dealing with events of this epoch. The plates portray all manner of different themes, including hunting, religion, customs, history, politics, travel, current affairs, stories, myths and moral tales. This wide variety of topics shows that these pieces were intended to have a wide commercial appeal, offering something for everyone, no matter what their social background or class. The 19th century also saw a shift in dinner etiquette from service à la française, where all the dishes were served at the same time, to service à la russe, where dishes were brought to the table sequentially. This new practice meant there was space for more crockery on the table and therefore increased demand for individual plates.

Most talking plates come in sets of 12, although sets of six or more do exist. Each plate in the set carries a different stand-alone image and caption (sometimes a number and title as well) but all are linked by an overriding theme. Originally the plates were used as tableware, the designs sparking conversation among diners as they were gradually uncovered during the meal. In time, however, they became decorative items displayed on walls and dressers, which came to affect their shape. The original plates featured a main motif on the well at the bottom of the plate and a secondary design around the rim (flowers, leaves, animals, etc.). As their practical use diminished, however, these plates were gradually replaced by flat designs with the main motif spreading right across the whole plate.

The central illustration could be serious or humorous, even satirical, and was designed to educate the public on political, religious or moral matters. Some of the illustrations were original works created by the pottery’s own engraver (Nicolas Liez, for instance, produced many landscapes during his time as engraver at Septfontaines between 1837 and 1851), commissioned from an artist or purchased from a specialist business. Others were copies from other works, such as paintings, travel books or tourist guides, novels or illustrated magazines, or even other talking plates. These copied images were often cropped or simplified for use on the plates. Sometimes potteries even reused engraved copperplates from other factories in order to replicate their designs. In fact, it was not unusual for two potteries to sign commercial agreements to share their designs, ideas and engraved copperplates, just as Villeroy & Boch Septfontaines and Sarreguemines did in 1837/38.

Hunting

Hunting was the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy until this privilege was abolished following the French Revolution. In the 19th century, anyone could go hunting if they had a permit, and the sport was fast becoming a very popular pastime. This development is reflected in many talking plates depicting the different phases of the hunt, as well as different hunting techniques and the animals hunted. Following the growth of colonial empire, you also find scenes featuring exotic animals, which were valuable trophies. There are also many amusing sets depicting naive, blundering and incompetent hunters.

Military life

War and military life are dominant themes on many talking plates – which is unsurprising given abundance of conflicts during the 19th century and the significant role of the army in society. The wars depicted are both contemporary (such as the Crimean War) and historical, sometimes dating back to Alexander the Great. Without exception, the army, its leaders and its generals are painted as heroes. The illustrations seek to glorify the army and engender a sense of admiration and patriotism. In contrast to this serious imagery, however, some plates do provide a humorous, even caricatural, insight into life as a soldier living in barracks, with illustrations portraying daily chores, the absurdities of military service and anecdotes about new recruits and their mishaps.

History

Plates depicting historical events were best sellers for the 19th century potteries as customers were drawn to the familiar themes from recent and ancient history. The purpose of these plates was to inform and educate, to teach diners about history and encourage them to share knowledge and anecdotes with others at the table. The plates portray all manner of events in Europe's history, but the most sought-after sets were undoubtedly those celebrating Napoleon I, the wars and campaigns he led and other key moments in his life. The rim of these plates is also decorated with symbols of empire such as the Napoleonic N, encircled by a laurel wreath, or the Imperial Eagle. Villeroy & Boch started producing such historical designs in Septfontaines in around 1837, for both the Luxembourg market and customers abroad. The local population collected these plates to satisfy a sense of nostalgia for the time of the First French Empire when Luxembourg was part of the French territory.

Religion

Having been suppressed during the French Revolution and the First French Empire, Catholicism enjoyed something of a resurgence during the 19th century thanks to a renewed interest in religion and revival of traditional faith. Plates were designed featuring illustrations inspired by the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary (the 19th century is dubbed the Marian century due to a revival of Marian devotion) and the saints, as well as scenes from the Old and New Testament, and a host of different religious practices, festivals, vices and virtues. Their purpose was to promote good morals, manners and proper social conduct, and strengthen people’s devoutness to God and recently revived religious fervour.

Proverbs, fables and other stories

These plates were very popular in the 19th century, and still are today, thanks to their fun and playful storylines and amusing illustrations. Humour is the order of the day, but the plates are clearly also intended to educate and even reform. The designs prompt people to reflect on their actions and invite both discussion and debate. When producing these plates, the potteries sought inspiration from popular sayings and proverbs, as well as fables, legends and stories, mostly from French culture or German influences in the pieces produced by Villeroy & Boch in Septfontaines.

Current affairs and politics

The talking plates tell the stories of their time. By depicting significant events, discoveries, scientific advances, fashions and political stories, these plates kept the public informed. For politics in particular, the designs usually centred around images of the leaders, as the plates provided a way of disseminating these portraits across Europe.

Society, daily life and typical scenes

There were no limits when it came to the subjects for the talking plates. People of all ages, from all different classes and all walks of life are portrayed in the designs. Most common were images of family life and romantic scenes featuring young members of the bourgeoisie, as well as country scenes and pictures of children from all classes at play.

Landscapes, travel and geography

The Industrial Revolution brought with it a major expansion and improvement of the transport system. For the first time, many people could discover the world beyond their own front door and the population was gripped by travel fever. This new-found mobility is reflected in many talking plates featuring monuments, historic sites, cityscapes and landscapes from many different regions and countries. As was the fashion at the time, there is a romantic quality to many of the designs, with images of atmospheric ruins set against luscious natural backdrops. Certain sets, including those produced by Villeroy & Boch in Septfontaines, exude a strong sense of patriotism and national identity or were even created as souvenir items for foreign visitors in order to boost a country’s image abroad.

The Industrial Revolution transformed the ceramics industry, as technological advances enabled potteries to mechanise their production processes. Faster production and simpler decoration techniques meant companies could turn out large volumes of designs to cater for all tastes and social classes. The talking plates provide a fantastic illustrated account of the period, from both a historical and artistic perspective, and give us a wonderful insight into 19th century society. The wide-ranging designs show that these pieces were not just created to satisfy local demand; they were also intended for export. Moreover, the trend did not stop at plates: illustrated designs also found their way onto many other pieces, including coffee pots, cups and barber’s dishes. Yet despite their popularity, interest in these designs didn’t last and the designs gradually fell out of fashion after the First World War.

Further reading

Minovez, Jean-Michel (dir.), Faïence fine et porcelaine : Les hommes, les objets, les lieux, les techniques, Toulouse, Presses universitaires du Midi, 2003.

Thomas, Thérèse, Rôle des Boch dans la céramique des 18e et 19e siècles. La création de l'entreprise Villeroy & Boch, Mettlach, 1971.

Verboomen, Monique et Van Schoute Roger, Dictionnaire des motifs de la faïence fine imprimée en Belgique, Bruxelles, Ed. Racine, 2006.

Text

Noémie Montignie

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