People of Color in European Art History

  1. Various Designers

    British Porcelain Dessert Figurines of Black Servants

    England (1760s-70s)

    Soft-paste porcelain painted with enamels and slightly gilded.

    The earliest porcelain figures were made for the dessert course of grand dinners and replaced the sugar paste and wax figures made since medieval times for royal feasts. Originally intended as expressions of dynastic power and to celebrate political allegiances, allegorical themes had been introduced into these table settings by the 16th century. By the 18th century many were entirely decorative. Meissen in Germany was the first factory to make porcelain figures for the dessert. It set the sculptural conventions followed by porcelain factories elsewhere.

    During the 18th century dessert was the course on which the greatest effort and expense were lavished. The food served and the fine porcelain which accompanied it reflected the wealth and good taste of the host. The increasing availability of porcelain through factories like Meissen, and sugar from the West Indies meant a greater number of people could enjoy decorative desserts.

    Black Africans offered exotic associations and were a marker of luxury within the English home. In the 18th century about 10,000 Africans are estimated to have been living in England. Many worked as, often unpaid, domestic staff.

    -Victoria and Albert Museum

    These figurines show how depictions of Black British in the 1700s began to shift away from individualism in many ways, and become more objectified than in previous works from earlier centuries. These figures are symbols of wealth and ownership, rather than being portraits of individuals. They also are a harbinger of mass-produced factory items; although these were not cheap, many of the same were made.

    The V&A description of these people as “Black Africans” is othering; it’s safe to say that these figured represent British people of African descent, who had been living in England in great numbers since the Middle Ages.

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