Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Oscar Wilde Meets Charles Darwin in a Victorian Teapot

Aesthetic Teapot, 1881. Royal Worcester Porcelain Factory. Photo: James Fishburne on Huntington's Instagram feed
The Huntington is showing a rare example of the notorious Aesthetic Teapot (1881), a literally limp-wristed caricature of Oscar Wilde. The teapot, a recent gift of Elizabeth Babbitt Spelman, also has a surprising connection to Charles Darwin.

The figure shown is not strictly Wilde but Gilbert and Sullivan's caricature of him in the 1881 opera Patience. It involves two male poets vying for the hand of innocent milkmaid Patience. One, Reginald Bunthorne, is pretentious and effete, representing the art for art's sake movement. He sports a sunflower as Wilde did. (Wilde attended opening night and did an American lecture tour based on the pop-culture credibility the light opera had given him.)

As designed by R.W. Binns and modeled by James Hadley, the Aesthetic Teapot has two faces. One side is Bunthorne/Wilde; the other is milkmaid Patience, shown with a calla lily (below). The base of the teapot has the inscription: "Strange Consequences Through the Laws of Natural Selection & Evolution of Living Up to One's Teapot."

"Natural selection" refers to Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. The inscription thus connects the fluidity of species to the fluidity of genders, both seen as topical threats to Victorian normalcy. The latter part of the inscription is a self-referential allusion to Wilde's famous quip, "I find it harder and harder everyday to live up to my blue china."
"Patience" side of Aesthetic Teapot. At left is a Fairyland Lustre Octagonal Bowl, produced by Wedgwood, 1915-29.

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