Plate from the ‘Frog Service’

Oval, cream coloured earthenware plate from the 'Frog Service', painted with a view of the lake at West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

Contributor: Elizabeth McKellar

Location: London, Victoria and Albert Museum, British Galleries, Room 118; The Wolfson Gallery, case 3

Description: This dish, for serving meat or vegetables, held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, forms part of the ‘Frog Service’, a huge 50-person dinner and dessert service. It was commissioned by Catherine the Great from Josiah Wedgwood in 1773 and reflects Catherine’s passion for English landscape aesthetics and gardening. It exemplifies one way that such Anglophone tastes travelled across Europe at this time.

The Frog Service comprised 952 pieces consisting of everything from plates and sauce boats to soup tureens and ice bowls at the then staggering cost of £2,290. The name of the dinner service derived from its destination, the Kekerekeksinensky Palace (1774-77), one of a number of imperial summer palaces set around St Petersburg, along with Peterhof, Tsarsko Selo and Oranienbaum. The new palace was designed in the Gothic style, another passion of the empress, and was built in a frog marsh some miles outside the capital. Each piece thus includes a green frog, painted in a shield within its border; a humorous salute to its Russian location. Each, however, was also hand painted with one of 1,222 views of British landscapes and antiquities (particularly Gothic ones).

The images which ornament the Frog Service were chosen from the wealth of existing black and white or sepia prints of English scenery, with the main source being Samuel and Nathaniel Buck’s Antiquities (1726-42) (excluding their numerous town prospects). Many other topographical views were also selected, including Thomas Smith of Derby’s views of the Peak District and Yorkshire and Jean-Baptiste Claude Chatelain’s engravings of the gardens at Stowe and his depictions of London landscapes, such as Chiswick and Kew. Wedgwood’s partner Thomas Bentley selected the views to go onto the service. When there were no extant prints of interesting places, Wedgwood commissioned them, or bought existing original drawings for his painters to copy. The ceramics were first made at the Wedgwood factory at Etruria, Staffordshire and then painted at the firm’s decorating studio in Chelsea, London. This piece features the gardens at West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, which were laid out by Sir Francis Dashwood between 1739 and 1752. The painter copied this view from an engraving by William Woollett (1735-1785). In the event this particular dish was not sent to Russia, probably because it was replaced by one with a more ‘interesting’ view.

This imperial commission was one of the most prestigious ever received by Wedgwood and, although it made him little profit, it increased the fashionable reputation of his products. On completion it was displayed at Wedgwood’s new showrooms in Portland House, Greek Street, London in June 1774 and once in Russia, it was shown in the palace as a spectacle for visitors. Through the medium of publications, exhibitions and copying in numerous formats the Frog Service reached an international audience. Print culture thus enabled a British-made dinner service, destined for one of the most flamboyant courts in Europe, to become an international public event discussed and debated across Europe. The Frog Service, however, was not just international and inter-textual but inter-material as well, demonstrating how increasingly sophisticated design and manufacturing techniques enabled the transfer of ideas across media and borders. In line with this international audience items from the Frog Service can now be found in museums across Europe with the most important collection being at The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. The Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, which offers an invaluable display on the products and operations of the Wedgwood business, also has significant holdings.

Date: 1773-1774

Creator: Josiah Wedgwood and Sons

Subject: Josiah Wedgwood/Catherine the Great

Media rights: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Object type: ceramics

Format: creamware (Queen’s Ware), painted in enamels

Publisher: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Digital collection record: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O8065/frog-service-plate-josiah-wedgwood-and/

Catalogue number: C.74-1931

References

M. Raeburn, L. N Veronikhina and A. Nurnberg eds. The Green Frog Service, Cocklegoose Press, London, 1995.

Hilary Young ed, The Genius of Wedgwood, ex-cat, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

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