Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Imperialism and the Decorative Arts: Cairo by William T Copeland and Sons

[F]rom 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35% of the earth’s surface to about 85% of it- Edward Said, Orientalism

Cairo is a multi-motif transferware pattern on English pottery by the Staffordshire manufacturer William T Copeland and Sons.  The design was introduced in 1881 and appears to have been made throughout the decade.  As a pattern Cairo is a strange mixture of Japanese elements and style combined with Egyptian motifs.  The Far East component of the pattern links Cairo to the wider Aesthetic Movement in which Japanese art became a major influence on the decorative arts of the West in the 1870’s and 1880’s.  English pottery was especially inspired by Japanese art producing a myriad of patterns.  All pieces depicted here are from my own collection.

1. 13” Platter


Although multi-motif Cairo does possess some common elements among its types.  The border in the pattern is an arabesque which is a form of decoration made up of rhythmic linear patterns of scrolling and interlacing leaves and tendrils.  The arabesque is a  common feature of Islamic art  and its presence in the Copeland pattern nicely connects with the Egyptian motifs found in the design such as obelisks, pyramids, domed mosques and minarets.


In this 13” platter an Egyptian obelisk viewed from across a river (The Nile?)  is pictured in a fan cartouche layered on top of a ground of bamboo.  A smaller round cartouche overlaps the fan and depicts 3 small birds in flight.  This layering of elements with insets with their own images is very reminiscent of Japanese art which is also recalled by the fan, the bamboo and the 3 birds.  This layering design creates a sense of space and dynamism on the flat surface of the pottery.

2. Vegetable Bowl

In this 11.25” vegetable bowl the design on the bottom of the dish exhibits the same layered elements as the platter discussed above.



Instead of a fan cartouche, here there is an unfurled scroll that pictures a domed mosque and minaret seen from across a river.  Beyond the horizontal scroll is another unfurled vertical scroll with some type of flower.  The ground of the dish is decorated with what is perhaps some type of prunus with a  flowering branch.  The scroll and the flowering branch suggests Japanese motifs as does the layering design.

3.  6.5” Plate



This small 6.5” plate features the same flowering branch ground as the vegetable dish overlaid with 2 fan cartouches.  One depicts a heron or stork; the other pictures minarets on a river with boats.

4. 8” Small Tray



The same flowering branch also appears on this 8” small tray.  The piece features 2 cartouches.  The larger one depicts what looks like a  Chinese junk.  Not surprisingly European often confused and conflated Japanese and Chinese elements.  The boat cartouche overlaps a patterned cartouche which is reminiscent of a Japanese mon or heraldic device and may also be influenced by Japanese textiles.

5. 7.5” Plate



This 7.5” plate features a ground of irises with a large bird above in flight.  Two interlocked and overlapping fans act as cartouches.  One shows 3 birds in flight and the other building seen across a river (the Nile?) with 2 palm trees in the foreground.

6. 8.75” Plate



This luncheon plate exhibits the unfurling scroll revealing a landscape with a prominent minaret with a river in the background.  Overlapped by the scroll are 2 round mons with intricate patterns which could relate to Japanese textiles.  An iris is portrayed on the ground of the plate.

7.  10” Cake or Biscuit Plate



The ground of this cake or biscuit plate consists of a flowering branch and 3 birds in flight.  The next layer features 2 mons with elaborate patterns.  The top layer is another unfurling scroll cartouche portraying a 2 men walking and another riding a camel.  This motif is also found on 10” dinner plates.

8.  9.75” Soup Bowl



This soup bowl has a background of a flowering branch on which are perched 2 charming birds.  Also, on the ground of the bowl are 2 bugs- a butterfly and a fly.  The scroll cartouche features a river scene with bamboo in the foreground and boats which perhaps reminds one of the type of vessel seen on the Nile.

9.  8.5” Soup Bowl



This smaller soup bowl has a ground of flowers and foliage.  It has one mon on the lower right.  The forward element is another unfurling Japanese scroll depicts a view of 2 pyramids seen in the distance across a river with a large tree and plants in the foreground.  The pyramid is of course the symbol par excellence of Egypt.

10.  Pickle Dish



The pickle dish has only 3 elements to its design.  A flowering branch on the left as seen in almost all the other Cairo examples depicted here.  On the left side of the dish are 2 cartouches, one a mon and they other depicting an Egyptian obelisk with figures amongst trees and seen from across a river.  This motif is the same one found in the large 13” platter just reversed.

11. Coffee Can and Demitasse Cup






The coffee can design features a flowering branch overlaid with a mon and yet another unfurling scroll.  Pictured in the scroll is a domed mosque with a minaret on a cliff  with water and a boat in the foreground.  The presence of water is in almost all of the Cairo examples depicted here.  It is not farfetched to think that the designers of this pattern wanted all of these depictions of water to suggest the Nile to the spectator and the users of this pottery.  The Nile like the pyramids is the paradigmatic symbol of Egypt.

The final example of Cairo is demitasse cup.  On the cup there is the familiar unfurled scroll and mon, yet the building portrayed within the scroll seems more European than Egyptian.  The saucer of the cup has a ground of a flowering branch and bamboo with 2 cartouches- one of 3 birds in flight, an element which appears on the 13” platter.  The other cartouche depicts ruined columns.  The capital of the large column seems to suggest an Egyptian column and of courses ancient ruins were also part of what was understood as Egyptian in the West.

12. Imperialism and Cairo

I began this post with a devastating and mind boggling fact from the late Edward Said”s Orientalism.  By 1914 Europe controlled 85% of the surface of the globe.  Perhaps the greatest European imperial power was the United Kingdom.  The sun never sets on the British Empire.  Cairo was first introduced in 1881 and the British occupation of Egypt occurred in 1882,  The closeness of these events does not strike me as a coincidence.  Cairo becomes a tool of imperialism, an expression of the British Empire.  It is not simply a cultural artifact, a piece of pottery, an example of Aesthetic design.  It is embedded in a historical and political moment  and for that reason it is all the more appealing to me as a collector and thinker.

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