One reading of an object
In our first year on the History of Design course, Colleen, Zara, Alex and I chose a porcelain figure of a woman breastfeeding a child on which to do our presentation. The Victoria and Albert Museum records for this object give it the title ‘Figure’ and inform us that it was made by Chelsea Porcelain Factory around 1753-1755, modelled by Joseph Wilems. It is made out of soft-paste porcelain and painted in enamels and gilded; it stands at about twenty centimetres tall.
Our first reaction to the object was that it was obviously made for decoration within a home. While we are very used to encountering nude figures in home decoration, it seemed rather bizarre to us to have a figurine that depicted a woman in the act of breastfeeding. It now seems quite apt considering the recent Claridge’s breastfeeding row! It seemed interesting that it was a woman involved in a crucial act of motherhood so we decided that it would be an engaging object to research. The V&A does not just have one of these figures in their collection but three; they are all identical in form and the other two are on display in a cabinet just opposite the one that we initially discovered. The only difference is in the decoration; the one below was left completely unpainted, while a third was painted in a similar palette to the first figure with a patterned skirt in the place of the patterned apron.
Chelsea porcelain was set up by two Frenchmen who had moved to London, on a a silversmith and the other a jeweller, who. The manufactory which operated from 1744 to 1784, was known for making luxury soft-paste porcelain for rich clientele.. Both Chelsea and Bow (Chelsea’s main competitor) porcelain companies had developed ways to mass produce porcelain in moulds, meaning that the array of porcelain products was more varied and cheaper than ever before. Liquid porcelain was poured into a mould and left to set for a little while. It would then be poured out of the mould, leaving behind a thin layer that would result in the delicate hollow porcelain figurines that we see. These would then be baked in the kiln and glazed, so that they looked like the plain figurine above. They would then be painted; in earlier porcelain pieces the paint appears on top of the glaze as technologies to apply paint before glazing, as with most modern ceramics, was not developed until later.
The ceramic factories are one of the earliest examples of factory models that we encounter in modern times. One finds that there is a clear division of labour; the role of the men was to run the kilns and create the porcelain models with the younger apprentices transporting the objects to and from the kilns. It was often the role of the women to paint the porcelain; these were usually sent out of the factory for them to paint at home. This mean that the way the objects were coloured could have depended in some way upon the views of the decorator.
That is how it was made, but it does not explain the unusual subject matter. If one looks at the profile of the unpainted version on the V&A’s ‘Search The Collections’ it is called La Nourrice: this could be an interesting clue. If one is to translate this into English it means ‘The Nurse’, which suggests that this is not a mother feeding her child but a wet nurse feeding someone else’s baby. This fact makes this piece of decoration even more bizarre to a modern audience. Who would want to adorn their home with the representation of a woman being paid to breastfeed someone else’s child? Searches other museum collections reveals examples of this porcelain figure everywhere: The Metropolitan Museum in New York has several Chelsea porcelain ones that are very similar to the V&A’s but significantly, they own several that pre-date Chelsea porcelain. One is dated 1579-1640 and made of lead glazed earthenware, which demonstrates some of the changes in technology over two-hundred years. This one is thought to have come from a ceramic studio run by Berthélémy, from whom the French King Louis XIII used to make purchases in his youth. His physician even describes Louis purchasing a figurine of the same description as this one to give as a gift in 1608. This suggests that the subject of the wet nurse was not only popular but ‘fit for a King’!
One of the most obvious interpretations of this would be that it recalls Christian imagery of the Madonna and Child, a common holy subject matter in the Catholic Church. Whilst this is one reading of the imagery of nurturing, I believe one can investigate this object further to explore aesthetic ideals of the time. Ian Wardropper, historian of European sculpture, speaks of a desire during the sixteenth-century to return to a more simple existence, describing how the “noble shepherd, emblem of the simple life, captured the imagination” of the upper classes. This ‘honest peasant’ woman feeding a child is not only depicting a stereotypical occupation of a lower class woman, but is a representation of morality. As a wet nurse one had to be married and have recently given birth, signs of a good, fertile and principled woman. Our particular wet nurse and her likenesses have been dated to the eighteenth century, which suggests that romanticisation of the pastoral continued long past its original conception.
The various dialogues of gender, space and social hierarchy in this piece are really quite fascinating. A depiction of a lower sort female feeding a middling sort’s child, that was intended to decorate the shelves of the upper sorts. It is a image of someone who would be envisioned as out on the fields that is intended to occupy an interior domestic space. This object has been designed, modelled and made by males, possibly painted by a woman and probably intended for an upper sort female, in fact we even have one account of a male giving it to a female.
If we are to place this object within a modern context, what can it tell us? Breastfeeding is sometimes seen as something that should be done in a domestic and private sphere, much like the space this object would have been displayed in. In the eighteenth century, women, especially women belonging to the upper sorts, were associated with the domiciliary, performing activities and consuming items appropriate to this domain. One such activity would be child rearing. Whilst in the twenty-first century, women have moved far beyond notions of the home, it seems that ideas of motherhood have not. For some, to see a woman breastfeed in public is still quite shocking, though she is performing an act of nutrition, fundamental to the child’s health. In this object, notions about ideal womanhood and domesticity are at the fore. Despite vast changes in attitudes, in the nineteenth century breastfeeding was seen as a private act that was venerated and worthy of display; in a modern context this object is becomes a valid reminder of the honour and naturalness of motherhood.
 C.29-1938, Victoria and Albert Museum Collections http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O337008/figure-willems-joseph/  Soft-Paste Porcelian: called ‘soft’ due to the lower kiln temperatures it is fired at. It was the European attempt to mimic the highly desirable Chinese porcelains of the period and consisted of a paste made out of several ground down composites such as glass, feldspar and kaolin. Each porcelain manufacturer tended to have their own slightly different recipe which were closely guarded secrets.  Ian Wardropper, ‘Pastoral Charms in the French Renaissance’, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/past/hd_past.htm