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textA Pair of Porcelain Plaques
Qianlong, circa 1790, for the English or American market
L. 13 1/2" (34 cm)
Courtesy of Cohen & Cohen

A pair of Chinese export porcelain plaques, each of oval shape, finely painted in famille rose enamels with a European scene of children going to and from school.

This is an extremely rare pair of plaques painted in very high quality. The scenes on them are derived from the work of the painter Thomas Stoddart RA (1755–1834), engraved by Peltro W. Tomkins (1760–1840). The first scene shows children going to school, a boy and a girl, neatly dressed and holding hands being sent off by their mother who watches through a doorway; to the right, other children can be seen arriving at the school. In the second picture, the children are streaming joyously out of the schoolroom doorway, the original boy and girl now looking a little disheveled, and to the right some boys are playing marbles, this part possibly relating to an engraving by Bartolozzi after a painting by William Hamilton, published in 1788 by N. Palmer of 163 The Strand, London. Copies of Bartolozzi prints are known on other examples of Chinese porcelain.

Groups of figures from these two scenes are known in a much simplified form, and rather crudely drawn, on a child’s tea service made for the American market, now mostly dispersed in various collections (see the references below) but depictions of European children on Chinese export porcelain are extremely rare and these represent the best yet known.

The education of children was a variable and haphazard business in the eighteenth century and depended on many factors such as class, religion, location, and luck. The grammar schools of an earlier generation were often limited by deeds of charter and statutes prescribing methods of learning, and were poorly run often by some self-important clergyman, fat, red-faced and more familiar with gout that Greek, whose job was a sinecure in the gift of an ecclesiastical body that ought to know better—for example, The Perse School was under the management of Caius College Cambridge but all funds were diverted to the College, and in 1785 they abandoned all pretense of running a school until there was an outcry that forced them to recommence admitting pupils.

Other groups of schools included those small schools run by the Anglican church. The famous Dissenting Academies, the charity schools that had flourished at the end of the previous century, though, were declining by the 1730s, and the public schools of which the big five were Rugby, Westminster, Winchester, Harrow, and Eton.

The education itself could be very dull, consisting of much rote learning of rhymes and schemes of question and answer. Andrew Bell’s system of rote learning, adopted in some schools, was called “The Steam Engine of the Modern World.” From one similar book: Question: What is algebra? Answer: A peculiar kind of arithmetic. And from another, the all important:

It is a sin
To steal a pin.

Or it could be deliberately gloomy and severe. John Wesley said of a schoolboy: “Break his will now, and his soul shall live, and he will probably bless you to all eternity.” Joseph Butler, later Bishop of Durham, who was educated at the Dissenting Academy at Tewkesbury under Samuel Jones, also a famous orientalist, later wrote in relation to education of the young: “Enthusiasm is a very horrid thing.”

Much of the curriculum involved the Classics, though as the century progressed, the rise of the middle classes demanded a more “polite and commercial” education and the more enterprising headmasters added English and mathematics, history and even dancing, trying to attract fee-paying students. Some schools were unable to reform in this way as their statues forbad change. Leeds Grammar School declined steadily in the face of this free market competition and in a judicial review in 1805, Lord Eldon declared that its statutes did not permit commercially useful instruction. Humphrey Repton was removed from Norwich Grammar School at the age of twelve and wrote later: “My father thought proper to put the stopper in the vial of classic literature, having determined to make me a rich, rather than a learned man.”

The great public schools grew significantly during this century. They were strongly dependent on the individual quality of their headmasters and assistants, who were responsible for the teaching and the flogging. Most of the rest of school government was left to the boys, who ruled by way of a senate, and would occasionally rebel and riot. The education was quite liberal—the obsession with organized games was a nineteenth-century development, though boxing was popular then. The Duke of Wellington, as a twelve year old in 1781, famously beat Bobus Smith in one such contest at which he later claimed to have also “won” the Battle of Waterloo. The general culture was laid back and regarded as an initiation into the life of a gentleman—drinking, gambling, riding, fighting, and various styles of sexual experience. Henry Fielding had a schoolmaster say, in his novel The Adventures of Joseph Andrews, that the public schools were “The Nurseries of all Vice and Immorality.” He nonetheless sent his son to Eton.

These two important plaques show a more sentimental side of education but nonetheless act as windows on a major social change, one of many that progressed through the eighteenth century, as well as being two very beautiful works of art.

Howard, D.S., and J. Ayers. China for the West (1978), p. 290, no. 287: A teapot with the Bartolozzi print of the Marble Players; no. 288: A saucer with the two children going to school.

Hervouet, F. and N., and Y. Bruneau. La Porcelaine Des Compagnies Des Indes A Décor Occidental (1986), p. 92, no. 4.33, etc.: Several items with school children, including one of a group torturing a cat.

Williamson, George C. The Book of Famille Rose (1970), p. 132, pl. XLI: A small tea caddy with the central four children leaving the school.

Keyes, Homer Eaton. Antiques Magazine, June 1929, p. 491: Part of a child’s tea service with this scene, in the Miss Mabel Choate Collection.

Brawer, Catherine Coleman. Chinese Export Porcelain from the Ethel (Mrs. Julius) Liebman and Arthur L. Liebman Collection (1992), p. 123, no. 96: A pair of cups with children leaving school.

Gordon, Elinor. Collecting Chinese Export Porcelain (1979), p. 87, fig. 78: Part child’s tea set with the four central figures from “School’s Out”.

Herbert, P., and N. Schiffer. China for America (1980), p. 171: A 23-piece tea set illustrated with the three main figures from “Going to School”.

A similar saucer is in the Reeves Collection at Washington and Lee University, catalog no. 134.

Wirgin, Jan. Fran KINA till EUROPA (1998), p. 185, no. 198: A teacup and saucer, normal size, with a grisaille scene of small children reading books copied after the frontispiece of Elegant Extracts or Pieces of Poetry Selected for the Improvement of Young Persons, published 1790.

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