Derby porcelain was manufactured in the town of that name from around 1750. It was known for its high-quality bone china, producing primarily tableware and ornamental items. The factory underwent several changes in ownership, but from 1890, more than a century after this piece was made, the Derby factory became known as the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Company and it still exists.
In the homes of the aristocracy and the upper classes in the 18th century, dining was often an opportunity for the wealthy to impress their guests. As a decorative arts expert at the Carnegie Museum of Art has written, “…for the first time the dining room became a clearly defined space with a house dedicated to one particular purpose: the service and enjoyment of food and all the pomp and circumstance that can surround it.” Grand centerpieces, vases, and porcelain pieces were sought to go with the elaborate dinner services; so much food and art was put out that a long centerpiece usually with a mirrored surface, called a surtout-de-table, was invented to cover the large formal dining tables to hold and better display it all.
It is believed that such charming, delicate figures as these were put out at dinner during the dessert service to impress one’s guests, especially if the host’s wealth was somehow dependent on England’s increasingly important agricultural products, including sheep.
There is something more artful in Georgian porcelain figures than in the much later, more mass-produced ones. You can see it in the features of this pair. As these are early figures, even the backs show the same detail in the trees and the sheep as on the front, rather than the flat backs of the much later, 19th century Staffordshire Victorian Staffordshire pottery models that appear cruder in appearance by comparison.
This exquisite matching pair of Derby porcelain sheep stands out in part because of the beautiful and delightful bocages that are part of the figures. Each bocage has many detailed flowers painted in several colorways. The fine painting on the sheep is indicative of this early porcelain. The blotches of brownish-orange color of the fur stand out, while the finer painting of the faces brings expression and personality to each.
Each sheep has a small amount of 14-carat gold leaf applied to a rococo-like swirl on the base. Both have wonderful green leafy bocages filled with flowers that add greatly to their decorative appeal. The combination of sheep, flowers, greenery and a small turquoise-blue stream in each makes for a most charming pair. The modeling of the porcelain is of the highest caliber. The legs and tails are individually modeled and the faces capture an aristocratic appearance. Beautiful quality pieces such as these are increasingly challenging to find in true pairs, and especially in such fine condition.
This piece has provenance as it comes from the collection of the English porcelain expert, Dennis Rice. He wrote the books, “English Porcelain Animals of the 19th Century” and “Dogs and English Porcelain of the 19th Century.”
The condition of this pair is excellent considering its age of well over 200 years. There is the typical loss of some points to the green leaves and the flower petals in both figures. One has a loss, I believe, of a small flower, though this is difficult to ascertain. However, such losses of edges of petals and points in the leaves are fairly typical for this type of porcelain. The soft, sage green paint is still deep, giving off a wonderful background color for the animals as well as the flowers. On the back of one of the figures, there is a small amount of paint loss where one’s thumb would be. The gold leaf is still luminous. One ear on each sheep is rough at the very tip. Some of the leaves on the bocage have losses, and the ram figure is missing a piece of leaf on the back side.
Each sheep measures about 2-3/4 inches wide and 4 inches high.
Pair of Late 18th Century Derby Sheep with Encrusted Flowers
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