Here is a treasure of English porcelain. The center is fully painted by Thomas Baxter with a still life of shells, naturalistically arranged among coral and seaweed, surrounded by a very wide gold band. The dark cobalt blue border has a fine classical anthemion and scallop design in raised gold. It is seven and three-quarters inches across at the longest section, with the impressed FBB and crown mark on the reverse, along with a printed mark referring to the factory’s royal patronage and using the Coventry Street address. Condition is excellent, with no damage.

The execution of the decoration is astonishing. The photos certainly tell the tale better than words can, but some background information will be helpful for appreciating this dish fully.

Thomas Baxter (1782-1821) was arguably the greatest ceramic painter of his time and one of the finest draftsmen of his generation. Born in Worcester, he worked at his father’s china studio in London decorating white porcelain blanks, chiefly purchased from Coalport but also from other factories. He studied painting at the Royal Academy under Henry Fuseli and sent his works to the Academy for exhibition 16 times between 1802 and 1821. He moved back to Worcester in 1814 and spent the next few years teaching painting at his private school on Edgar Street and decorating porcelain for the Flight, Barr and Barr partners at the Worcester factory. He painted flowers, landscapes, street scenes, portraits, shells, scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, etc. He instructed many Worcester artists, including Doe, Astles, Webster, Pitman, Lowe, Barker and Cole. In addition to passing on technical instruction, he imbued his students with his personal grasp of high artistic taste, learned in London. In 1816 he left Worcester to decorate for Dillwyn at Swansea, but returned to Worcester in 1818, where he worked for FBB again and then quickly moved on to Chamberlain’s. There he replicated some of the work he had produced at Swansea, and also created more of his superb shell paintings. Despite the fact that Baxter trained his fellow Worcester artists to paint in his style, no one else was able to attain his technical skill and artistic proficiency.

In this era, unusual shells were collected as curiosities by the wealthy all over Europe—they sometimes amassed thousands of them. The use of shells as decoration on porcelain probably originated in Paris, and started at the Worcester works around 1802, sometimes as transfer-printed designs. All the individually hand-painted shells at Worcester seem to have been done directly from nature, rather than by copying etchings or illustrations. Porcelain factories kept many illustrations and engravings on hand for use in decorating: not just of shells, but also of botanically accurate flowers, animals, country houses, churches and landscapes. It would be hard to believe that these artists were able to paint such delicate and convincing shadings of color in these shells simply by copying printed engravings. They must have had the actual shells in front of them. There is one tea service which has shells by Baxter, and they are titled on the reverse “Shells from Nature,” in Baxter’s hand. This suggests that he (or more likely the Worcester factory) had assembled a collection of seashells, or perhaps had access to a nearby private collection, and the painters arranged the individual shells in groups, then painted them as still-lifes. So we would expect that each shell painted at Worcester was part of a unique composition and was not a copy of a published etching or print either in whole or in part.

The border on this dish is distinctive. Some early writers theorized that items with this raised gilt “Baxter border” design were all created as individual and unique cabinet pieces for display. This border is used on two plates with landscapes as well as on both of his celebrated Tragic Muse plates, painted with a portrait of the actress Sarah Siddons. The border is also found on many of the finest Flight, Barr and Barr cabinet plates, all probably the work of Thomas Baxter. It is likely that Baxter himself designed this border pattern and supervised its execution. This view was suggested by his pupil, Solomon Cole, who wrote a reminiscence of his time as a painter at Flight, Barr and Barr many years later.

Some items with this border were in fact unique creations, but it was also used on several services. A number of matching shell-painted and flower-painted dishes with this border once formed part of one large dessert service, half the pieces painted by Baxter with shells, the other half with flowers. This dessert dish is from that service.

The original owner of the service has not yet been identified. One of the plates is illustrated by Henry Sandon in “Flight and Barr Worcester Porcelain” (1978), page 103. Sandon also illustrates an ice pail or tureen from the service on the dust jacket of his book, again on page 88 and again on page 104—the triple illustrations a sign of his high regard. It is now in the Dyson Perrins Museum, and has shells on one side and flowers on the other. This gives a clue to the number of other dishes that made up the service. Plates in two sizes are known with this border, painted with shells, and plates in two sizes are known with this border, painted with flower bouquets. So there would have been at least two options for table settings, perhaps three: the flower side, or the shell side, or perhaps both at the same time. If set out on a banquet table in the middle of a room, the major pieces such as tureens would have been placed in the center, with the shell sides facing outward one way and the flower sides facing outward the other, and having either shell or flower dishes arranged to match on the appropriate side of the table. If set out on a side table against a wall, either shells or flowers would have been displayed.

This particular border design is the same as used on several royal services, one for the Prince of Wales around 1808, and again on a different service for him around 1815. Sandon illustrates pieces from both set on page 19 of his book. Perhaps, without any firm evidence, he was able only to hint that a member of the royal family, if not the Prince of Wales himself, was the one for whom the service was made, or that it had been ordered by him as a gift. All pieces known with this border are extraordinary both in execution and in artistic excellence.

I have another dessert dish that matches this one in shape, and they are possibly the only two of this particular shape that were decorated with shells. (An equal number of dishes of this shape would have been decorated with flowers.) The number of large and small plates in the service is unknown, but they do come on the market on rare occasions, both with shells and with flowers. An oval platter with shells is known, and sold recently at Bonham’s for about $50,000 in USD. Only a handful of small plates are currently known to exist, so they are quite a bit rarer than the large plates. To my knowledge, this shape of scalloped dish from the service has never been publicized before. Moreover, it’s likely that only two dishes of this shape and decoration were made. They are certainly far rarer than the plates, which are themselves extraordinarily rare.

Note that attribution to Baxter must depend on style and the level of artistic skill. His signature is not on his works. At Worcester, the names of the artists were not added to the works they produced, but their names were usually sent to the factory’s London showrooms to accompany the items that they painted. At this time Worcester specialized in high-end items, and they used this kind of magnificent shell decoration on many shapes. A number of their painters painted shells—and I refer you to a vase with shells that I also have listed—but everyone agrees that the awe-inspiring shells on this service are by the great Thomas Baxter. I have several plates from this service that are not listed. Inquiries are welcome.


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ITEM ID
C519A
TYPE
Bone China, Ceramics, Decorative, Hand Made, Hand Painted, Porcelain
COLOR
Blue
CREATOR
Royal Worcester
STYLE
George III, Georgian, Regency
ORIGIN
England • English
PURPOSE
Decorator Plates, Dinnerware, Dishes, Displays, Plates, Trays
ITEM TYPE
Antique

Laureate Antiques

FBB Worcester Porcelain Dessert Dish, Shells by Thomas Baxter from an Extraordinary Service C1815 Flight Barr

$25,000

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