Eleven 'Hen and Chickens' tureens were offered in the Chelsea sale catalogue of 1755, the first being described as: 'A most beautiful tureen in the shape of A HEN AND CHICKENS, big as the life, in a curious dish adorn'd with sunflowers'.
An obsession with rendering natural subjects in a particularly naturalistic way was an important aspect of British mid-18th Century taste. The upper-class dining-table of the period would have been a heady visual mix, a literal feast for the eyes, a game of trompe l'oeil. Cooked foods masqueraded as their uncooked ingredients, disguised in pastry, sugar, paper and marzipan. Some dishes were served in elaborate silver tureens formed as fish or turtles, and, from the early 18th Century onwards, European, as oppsosed to Chinese, porcelain was available for the very finest tables.
The intention was to arouse the senses of the honoured guest, both visual and gustatory, as well as providing amusement. The medium of porcelain was ideal for the purpose. In skilled hands it could be crisply and realistically modelled, and the enamel colours could closely simulate nature, allowing the manufacture of convincing illusions. Well-heeled British consumers had long imported Chinese porcelain for their tables, for which the Chinese made many novelty and zoomorphic wares. At the same time the British were importing Meissen porcelain, and were presumably aware of other European products. The Chelsea factory, although expensive, was ideally placed at the heart of fashionable London life to respond to the home market.
Little is known about who modelled these incredibly lifelike porcelain sculptures. Although the modeller Joseph Willems is known to have worked at Chelsea from 1749 until the year of his death, 1766, his work is largely associated with figure models, although it is certainly possible that he was responsible for these animal and bird models. However, a driving force behind the choice of subject matter was certainly Nicholas Sprimont. His taste for subjects drawn from nature, coupled with his instinctive knowledge coupled with his keen eye for commerce was expressed as his intent to impress them with '..a great Variety of Pieces for Ornament in a Taste entirely new' (advertisement published 9 January 1; see Elizabeth Adams, Chelsea Porcelain, London, 1987, p. 68). Perhaps the successful production of bird models drawn from engravings published by George Edwards in his Natural History of Uncommon Birds (London, 1743-51) paved the way in about 1755 for the production of the 'Hen and Chickens' tureen, taken from the popular print of the subject by Francis Barlow, first issued in the 17th Century, the first time that this print had been rendered in three dimensions. The factory also made other exceedingly ambitious 'life-size' tureens, including ducks, pigeons, rabbits and swans.
Although the Rococo was rather more a Continental than a British phenomenon, the Chelsea factory often looked abroad for of its stylistic inspiration and employed many leading Continental craftsmen. Its unique position as manufacturer and purveyor of fashionable porcelain meant that it absorbed and therefore also dispersed many aspects of the Rococo style. The realistic depictions of birds, animals and vegetation which are in many ways the most significant productions of the factory, although not inherently Rococo, have therefore come to be seen as the apogee of British Rococo ceramic art.
Other examples of this model are in British public collections. Two in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (one without a stand, from the Arthur Hurst Bequest [C.195+a - 1940] and the other, with its stand, from the collections of the 5th and 6th Barons Lilford [C.75 to b - 1946]). Another, formerly in the Gelston Collection, is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and illustrated by F. Severne Mackenna, Chelsea Porcelain, The Red Anchor Wares (Leigh-on-Sea, 1951), pl. 39, no. 80 and Elizabeth Adams, ibid, p. 98, pl. 81. Another is in the Cecil Higgins Museum, Bedford; see F. Severne Mackenna, ibid, pl. 39, no. 79. A further example, in the collection of Lady Willoughby d'Eresby, at Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, was exhibited and illustrated by Gervase Jackson-Stops (ed.), The Treasure Houses of Britain, National Gallery of Art, Washington (Yale University Press, 1985), p. 484, no. 421. Another, from the Campbell Collection, is now at the Henry Dupont Museum, Wintherthur, Delaware; see Selections from the Campbell Museum Collection (Camden, New Jersey 1983), no. 35.
Two sunflower stands from the Collection of the Dowager Countess of Enniskillen, Kinlock House, Dunkeld, Perthshire, were sold in our South Kensington Rooms, 22 September 1999, lots 234 and 235; and a single stand from the Margaret Cadman Collection was sold on 11 October 2002, lot 36.