The ‘back-story’ behind some pieces can lead you in all sorts of unexpected directions. This was the case with a lovely little Worcester milk jug, known as a ‘sparrow beak’ due to its triangular spout.
Painted in colours with a rather niave pattern, it is known as the ‘Valentine’ pattern due to the obvious depiction of kissing doves on cupids bow, and the two hearts on the altar of love. Looking deeper, we find a tale that leads to one of the remarkable stories of exploration in the mid-18th century.
Its origins are in a Chinese Export pattern, and was produced at Worcester in the 1750’s and early 60’s. It appears on a range of Chinese Export wares just prior to 1750. The Chinese artists got the design from a special commission, which is well documented: it was designed by Lieutenant Piercy Brett for Commodore Anson, during their voyage around the world, which lasted 1740-44. Anton set off with 8 ships to disrupt the Spanish in their South American colonies, but things did not go well. He succeeded only at great cost – of 1,854 men setting out, only 188 were to return.
Born in Staffordshire in 1697, he is notable as the first British officer to visit mainland China. Previous visitors had only been allowed at the British trade ‘factory’ in Canton. While at the British factory in Canton that he put in his order for his ‘Valentine’ service – was he thinking of impressing someone back home on his return? It is said the 206 piece service was a reward by the Chinese Merchants Guild at Canton for his quick action in using his crew to extinguish a devastating fire that was spreading through the foreign factories zone. It was this quick action that also allowed him an audience with the local officials, who in reality were probably very happy to see him sail away: his ship bristled with cannon, and he was letting them off daily as a show of force – the Chinese had nothing to compare with a British man-of-war at that time.
The Chinese probably thought he was a pirate looking for a base, and in a way he was. He came up with a scheme to capture a Spanish treasure ship he had intelligence about, and set a trap for it as it sailed from Mexico to the Phillipines in 1743. This ‘Manila Galleon’ was the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, and it held more than one million pieces-of-eight, a vast amount of money at the time. This prize meant the redemption of his otherwise disastrous voyage, the wealth being very welcome back in England. His share of the loot set him & his family up for life.
A fascinating feature of the pattern is the slightly bizarre tree, with an entwined vine. This is in fact an impression of the encounter with the Polynesian ‘wonder food’, Breadfruit, encountered as Anson and his surviving crew members sheltered on the small Pacific island of Saipan in 1742. A sketch from this encounter was used in the original Chinese commission design; many copies later and it has emerged as something most definitely unique – although nothing like a breadfruit tree!
His ‘success’ on his voyage soon led to promotion – in 1745 he was promoted to Rear Admiral. He almost immediately resigned the position when Admiralty refused to confirm Anson’s promotion of his First Lieutenant, Piercy Brett, to rank of Captain while on the voyage. A few months later, and a change of Admiralty board brought about the acknowledgement of Captain Brett. He was, of course, the one commissioned to design the Valentines service for his Captain.
Promoted yet again, he becomes Vice Admiral and commander of the Chanel Fleet in 1746; he was raised to the Peerage in 1747 as Lord Anson; in 1761 he is promoted to Admiral of the Fleet.
He married in 1758 to Lady Elizabeth Yorke; was this the lady of whom Anson was thinking when he had the service commissioned? His wife was related to his mother through marriage, so they would certainly have been aware of each other before his great adventure in China and around the world. Perhaps she enjoyed using it in the years before they were married; in any case, it was a short marriage as the Admiral sickened, and died in 1762.