It is extraordinary to think that this rare and important charger was being used to feed chickens at Dorfold Hall in Cheshire in the early part of the 20th century. It was discovered by the present owner’s great, great, grandmother Julia Anne Elizabeth Tollemache (1845-1931), on a dresser at Haybays, the home farm on the estate, and it is very likely that it had always been at Dorfold Hall since it was made in the 17th century. 1 The master potter who made it, Thomas Toft, is the most celebrated of all Staffordshire slipware potters working in Burslem in Stoke-on-Trent in the latter part of the 17th century. Although very few contemporary records exist which would cast further light on the life of Toft, we do know that he was from a family of established Staffordshire potters, and both his brother and sons (one of whom was also Thomas Toft) were also involved in family business.2 Toft worked in the traditional method of slip-decoration, whereby ornament was piped or trailed in different coloured liquid clays. This accomplished charger emblazoned with the Royal arms illustrates his masterful abilities as a potter; it is both richly decorative and almost textural, with qualities closely related to carving and textiles of the period. Toft’s varied subject matter includes fabulous and heraldic beasts, mermaids and royal portraits, which are frequently combined with elaborate scrolling, flowering and fruiting plants that resemble 17th century crewel-work. This charger is much more than a work of ‘primitive’ decorative pottery, it is a statement of Toft’s artistic ability. He must have been proud of this charger, a tour de force of his artistic ability, as he very prominently signed the dish. Ronald G. Copper discusses the exciting discovery of the charger at Dorfold Hall in his seminal work English Slipware Dishes 1650-1850, published in 1968, in which he records all known examples of Thomas Toft’s work.3
The importation of slip-decorated pottery from Holland and Germany appears to have given impetus to English potters who reacted to the increasing demand for higher quality pottery. Local native sources of inspiration played an important part in the development of the designs and shapes that were produced in Staffordshire. Dr. Darron Dean discusses the great variety of graphic sources which were used by English potters in the 17th century in his article ‘Designs of English Slipware, 1600-1720’.4 Woodblock prints were widely circulated and local craftsman also had access to pattern or ‘emblem’ books such as the Booke of sundry draughtes for glaziers, plasterers and gardiners which was published in 1627. Thus motifs could be broadly disseminated and whole compositions or individual elements from these sources could be reinterpreted or adapted for use on different mediums, such as a range of furniture, metalwork or pottery for example. It is interesting to compare the similarities in design on pewter chargers of the same date which are correspondingly decorated with the Royal Arms.5
Royal subjects were amongst the most popular of subjects on slipware dishes, and Dr. Dean notes that the 17th century print seller Peter Stent sold more portraits of the monarchy and other famous people than other subjects.6 In this context Staffordshire potters responded to contemporary events and popular tastes by producing dishes decorated to celebrate an event such as a coronation or royal wedding. It is highly likely that the present dish was made to celebrate the coronation of Charles II and Restoration of the Monarchy. Depictions of Charles II and his wife, Catherine of Braganza, appear with some frequency on slipware dishes of this period. Following the politically turbulent times of the Civil War and his defeat at the hands of Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles Stuart was exiled to France. The political crisis following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 ultimately led to Charles’s return to England and his coronation as King Charles II on 23rd April 1661. After a decade of Puritanical rule under Cromwell, there was much celebration throughout the country. Staffordshire potters would have reacted keenly to this resurgence in Royalist support and dishes of this type could have been acquired by, or presented to, an individual with firm royal or political affiliations.
Sir Roger Wilbraham purchased the Dorfold estate in 1603 (the year of the accession of King James I) from the Earls of Derby. Sir Roger was a prominent lawyer and held important positions in the court of King James I, including Master of Requests and Surveyor of the Court of Wards and Liveries. On Sir Roger’s death the estate passed to his brother Ralph Wilbraham who built Dorfold Hall in the Jacobean style between 1616-21.7 It is interesting to note that the ‘King James Bedroom’ at Dorfold Hall includes a very fine plasterwork chimney overmantle which is dated 1621 and is decorated with the Arms of King James I. Such proud royal affiliations were clear for all to view and the present slipware charger, although produced half a century later, also encapsulates this very public show of Royalist support. Little is recorded about Ralph Wilbraham or his immediate heir, but it appears that the household of Dorfold Hall switched allegiances to Parliament and the Hall was plundered during the Civil War by Royalist forces in 1643. In the troubled years of the Civil War survival for aristocratic and landed families dictated the necessity for some families to switch allegiances. By the time that Toft’s dish entered the collection at Dorfold Hall (which is likely to have been close to the date of its manufacture) it appears that the Wilbrahams were once again firm Royalists. The symbolism and meaning that these items of Royalist slipware held would not have been lost on Toft or his contemporary potters. Toft’s depiction of the lion’s fur, the chain hanging from the unicorn and the central medallion are shown in detail on this dish. The plumage and ornament flanking the main motif capture the essence of the original arms of Charles II but have been reinterpreted by Toft, both successfully filling the available space but also giving the dish a lively and spirited charm. The potter’s bold interpretation of the Royal Arms brings to life this fascinating and tumultuous period of British history.
The majority of chargers signed by Toft are now in museum collections, and they rarely appear on the market. Seven dishes are recorded which are inscribed with Thomas Toft’s name and decorated with the Royal Arms.8 Toft’s signature varies from dish to dish; sometimes his Christian name appears in lower case and on other dishes the entire name or odd letters are capitalised. A dish signed by Thomas Toft, dated 1671 and decorated with the Royal Arms, is in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester; this example is also named for the recipients of the dish and is one of two known dated pieces by Thomas Toft.9 There is an example in the Burnap Collection, in the Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, which is very similarly decorated to the present dish.10 Another is in the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent (accession No. 2748, from the Twyford Collection), and a fourth from the Glaisher Collection is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.11 Another dish is in the Waddesdon Bequest and a further example is in the British Museum, London (museum number 1916, 0506.1). The present dish was not recorded by Ronald G. Cooper in his exhibition of The Pottery of Thomas Toft in Leeds and Birmingham in 1952 and it became an important addition to the cannon of documented work by Thomas Toft upon its discovery. Having been in the same collection at Dorfold Hall for many generations, this is a rare opportunity to acquire an important slipware dish made by one of the most celebrated of Staffordshire potters.
1. The charger is notably absent from an inventory of 'Things left at Dorforld' on 7 June 1888, but it does appear in a valuation dated 20 January 1902: 'a Rare Old Toft Dish decorated in brown slip upon cream ground with the Royal arms 'Garter mottoe' and makers name Thomas Toft. 20 1/2 in diam damaged 18 0 0.' It seems likely that Julia Tollemache made her discovery at some point between 1888 and 1902 and the charger was subsequently moved from Haybays to Dorfold Hall.
2. The scant biographical information that is known about Thomas Toft is recorded by Ronald G. Cooper, ibid., London, 1968, where the author notes that Toft was married in 1663 to Ellena Bucknall and he was buried in 1689. Alongside his brother Ralph, Thomas Toft is mentioned twice in the Hearth Tax Roll for Stanley, near Leek, Staffordshire in 1663 and 1666.
3. Ronald G. Copper, ibid., London, 1968, p. 56.
4. For the full article see English Ceramic Circle Transactions, Vol. 17, Part 2, 2000, pp. 230-244.
5. See the series of Wrigglework pewter chargers engraved with the Stuart Arms which may have been made to celebrate the marriage of Charles II and Catharine of Braganza. An example was sold in these Rooms on 1 May 2007, lot 123.
6. See Dr. Darron Dean, ibid., 2000, p. 235 where the author suggests that the print seller Peter Stent sold prints of portraits for as little as one or two pence each.
7. Dorfold Hall passed through five generations of Wilbrahams until it was sold to a prosperous Nantwich lawyer, James Tomkinson in 1754. In 1884 Ann Tomkinson (James Tomkinson’s great grand-daughter) married Wilbraham Spencer Tollemache, a direct descendant of the Wilbrahams of Woodhay, thus returning the house to the original bloodline. Their daughter Julia Tollemache, having inherited the house, married Charles Savill Roundell, altering the name of the owners of Dorfold Hall but not the descent.
8. All seven Royal Arms dishes are recorded by Ronald G. Cooper, ibid.,. London, 1968, pp. 55-57, nos. 145-155, 157-160.
9. Of the two dated dishes signed Thomas Toft, the second is dated 1674 and is decorated with ‘The Temptation’ (in Temple Newsam House, Leeds).
10. See Ross E. Taggart, The Frank P. and Harriet C. Burnap Collection of English Pottery in the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, 1967, p. 26, no. 21
11. The Glaisher Collection also includes a second dish also decorated with the Royal Arms, within a loop decorated border rather than a hatched border. This dish is signed ‘Thomas Taft’ and Ronald Cooper suggests this is probably a copy of Toft’s work by another potter executed during Charles II’s reign. For both dishes decorated with the Royal Arms in the Glaisher Collection, see Bernard Rackham, The Glaisher Collection of Pottery & Porcelain, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, London, 1935, pp. 20 (A) and 21 (A).