Pugilism in English Pottery

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

By PAUL MAGRIEL; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January 1948.

Paul Magriel was formerly on the staff of the Museum of Modern Art, where he arranged a number of exhibitions on the history of dancing. His exhibition, The Ring and the Glove, on view at the Museum of the City of New York until April 4, 1948, is the first full-scale retrospective exhibition of the history of British and American boxing. Made up largely from his collection, it includes paintings, prints, sculpture, and ceramics of this subject, some of which are illustrated here. Mr. Magriel is editor of the Ballet Society, which has had published through Henry Holt & Company a series of monographs on the dancers Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, and Anna Pavlova. His newest book, Chronicles of American Dance, also a Ballet Society publication, will be out sometime this month.

The British interest in sports and pastimes has a long history. From the sixteenth century it has been manifested in the pictorial arts and the roster of the distinguished Stubbs, the Pollards, Ben Marshall, Herring, and others are as familiar to the English as are their internationally known masters, Hogarth, Constable, and Turner. In England, the works of the sporting painters have always been collector’s pieces and in many of the British clubs they were standard items of interior decoration. Indeed, an English historian said that these sporting pictures are the epitome of the British character and through looking at them we might better know the English that through reading the popular histories of Green and Macaulay.

This love for sport which found its fullest expression during the period of the four Georges was applied even to the potter’s art, and there exists today a full representation of the various popular sports and pastimes in the transfer printings on mugs, tiles, pitchers, and other ware. A large number of these transfer prints on pottery were copies from existing prints and paintings but there were also a number of original designs executed by artists working at the various English potteries.

One of the most interesting and certainly rarest of all the pottery of this type is the group depicting the prize ring. This typically British sport, which had its beginnings during the reign of George I, flourished during the precise period when the English potters were doing their finest work: from 1745 to 1820. This was the golden age of pugilism, when it was patronized by the nobility and gentry, yet it was by no means as popular a sport as fishing, riding, coaching, and hunting. Hence there exist today probably less than twenty pieces of these transfer-printed wares.

One of the rarest and certainly one of the handsomest of these is the Staffordshire mug in my collection (there is also an example in the Scrieber collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London) depicting the Humphreys and Mendoza fight at Odiham (fig. 1). It is a cylindrical mug with loop handle. On the front is a print, colored red, green, puce, and yellow, showing the prize fight principals with their umpires and seconds and inscribed below, HUMPHREYS AND MENDOZA. Fighting at Odiham in Hampshire on Wednesday, Jany. 9th 1788.

Fig 1-Stafforshire Mug (c.1790), showing Humphreys-Mendoza match at Odiham. Transfer print colored red, green, puce, yellow.

Above the figures are the numerals 1 to 8, and in the scrolls below, the following names in reference to the numbers 1. Umpire, 2. Umpire, 3. Isaacs, 4. Benjamin, 5. Mendoza, 6. Humphreys, 7. Johnson, 8. Tring. There is a brown line around the rim, and it is signed, “Ashley, Lane end.” It is five inches in height and three and one-eighth inches in diameter. The mug dates from 1790 and is of major interest as the Humphreys-Mendoza match was one of the most celebrated events in the history of the ring. Both of the contestants were so highly regarded at the time that no less an artist than John Constable painted a portrait of Daniel Mendoza; while Richard Humphreys, known as the first gentleman of the ring, was painted by his friend, John Hoppner, the most fashionable portrait artist of the time.

Another fine example of pugilistic pottery is a mug of similar style which is transfer printed in sepia, depicting the match between Tom Johnson and the giant Perrins at Banbury (Fig.2). This mug made at Leeds in 1789 is one of the earliest examples of prize-ring pottery. The print, which is a direct copy of the engraving by Grozer, realistically shows that this match was fought by men of unequal physical stature. It has the fine creamy-yellow glaze characteristic of some of the best earthenware of this period and seems to be of exceptional rarity. An example in the Willet collection in Brighton is the only one I have seen besides my own.

Fig 2-Leeds Mug (1789), with sepia transfer print of match between Tom Johnson and Perrins at Banbury.

Fine pieces of silver-resist earthenware with transfer prints are in themselves worthy objects to collect. To find one that fits in with a particular subject is of course a great piece of luck. For my collection I recently acquired a silver-resist luster pitcher with a print of the famous match between Tom Cribb, the great British boxing champion, and his American opponent, the Negro Tom Molineux (Fig. 3). This piece, which was made at Brislington around 1812, was very likely extremely popular as this match was one of the most widely publicized contests ever held. Numerous prints of the event were made by Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank and were widely circulated. The one on the pitcher derives from a study of these.

Fig 3-Silver Resist Pitcher (Brislington, c. 1812), with transfer print of match between Tom Cribb and Tom Molineux.

Another great event of the English prize ring was the match between Tom Spring, the champion of England, and John Langan, the Irish champion. This match which was held at the Worcester race course is the subject of one of the most beautiful of all boxing prints. It is an aquatint in color executed by J. Clements and J. Pitman after the painting by Gleadah and was published in London in 1824, the year of the match. This print was the basis for the fine earthenware jug made in the following year (Fig. 5). It is perhaps the fullest and most graphic representation of a prize-ring match on pottery that exists. On both sides of the jug the principal contestants are depicted with their seconds and bottle holders, while in the background, behind the ring enclosure, is painted a panoramic view of the spectators. This jug, lustered and printed in brilliant color, stands five and one half inches in height. The potter’s name is unknown but it is in every way comparable to John Aynsley’s admirable piece executed at Staffordshire some thirty-five years earlier.

Fig 5 (two views)-Earthenware Jug (1825), with luster, and transfer print showing match between Tom Spring and John Langan.

An interesting earthenware plaque showing the same prize fight is printed in blue transfer on opaque white ground (Fig. 4). It measures sixteen and one half inches by thirteen and presents a view of the fighters and their seconds in the ring as well as a view of the spectators. It is a decorative piece although somewhat less delicately executed than the jug. It was mad at Newcastle and dates from 1825, when two separate tiles showing these same boxers were also made.

Fig 4-Earthenware Plaque (Newcastle, 1825), with blue transfer print of the Spring-Langan fight.

 Among a number of other pugilistic pieces which are of interest for their rarity and artistic merit may be cited a fine Leeds pitcher (c. 1790) of the Humphreys and Mendoza match at Odiham which is transfer-printed in four colors. There are also a small blue-resist luster cup with a print of the fighters Molineux and Cribb, and a Liverpool pitcher printed with a floral design on the rim and depicting the boxers Spring and Langan. These pieces, I believe, represent the highlights of the potter’s art in pugilism, and form an unusual and decorative commentary on the bygone golden era of the English prize ring.


All illustrations are from the collection of the author.