The design of this extraordinary looking object says much about two consuming passions among wealthy Europeans during the 17th century: Chinese porcelain and tulips. It is one of a pair of seven-tiered flower pyramids, owned by the ambitious and wealthy court administrator, William Blathwayt, who amassed one of the most important collections of Delft in Britain, much of which can still be seen at his country seat, Dyrham Park, outside Bath. The short-lived trend for such vases was set by the English court of William III and Mary II. During her years in the Netherlands, Mary had developed a passion for Delftware and aspiring courtiers purchased these extravagant status symbols as evidence of their loyalty. This vase was made around 1690-95 by potters at the De Grieksche A factory in Delft, who specialised in this tin-glazed earthenware or faience with its distinctive cobalt blue decoration. It was designed to resemble the highly prized blue-and-white Chinese porcelain imported through Holland during this period and it is no coincidence that the tiers resemble a pagoda more than a pyramid. The decoration however, takes its cue from fashionable European gardens, Dutch formal parterres and floral arrangements framed by classical architecture, among other scenes. Each tier holds water and flower stems are inserted through narrow spouts modeled to resemble a serpent’s open jaw. In the 17th century, this would have been the perfect way to show off expensive ‘florist’ flowers. During this time, a florist was a specialist in the cultivation of a select few plants, among which tulips were the most prized of all. These precariously fragile objects were often placed inside empty chimneypieces, where they would have looked magnificent and were more likely to avoid the dangers of being accidentally knocked over.
One of a pair of De Grieksche A (Greek A) factory faience seven-tiered flower pyramids, painted in cobalt blue with garden scenes, made at the workshop of Adrianus Kocx, Delft, the Netherlands, c.1690-95. Vase part; vase base - rectangular base surmounted by seven separate sections, each with four animal head nozzles. The base has four lizard supporters for the super structure. Painted in blue with cupids and garden scenes on the base; grotesques colunms, urns, cupids, etc, on upper sections. Head of one lizard on base missing. Top of uppermost section damaged.
Aspiring courtiers used ceramics as evidence of their loyalty to William III and Mary II. As a result, many extravagant examples of bespoke Dutch faience are found in historic English houses. They are painted to resemble Chinese porcelain imported through Holland, and their shapes, often associated with cut flowers or growing plants, duplicate the inventive models furnishing royal interiors in England and the Netherlands. In November 1710, an inventory was prepared of the rich contents of Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire, a house acquired by the skilled and ambitious court administrator William Blathwayt (c.1649–1717) by his marriage in 1686 to Mary Wynter (1650–91), heiress to the estate. It lists over a dozen Delft flowerpots placed inside empty chimneypieces. ‘A large Pyramid Delf Flower Pot in ye Chimney’ was strategically placed in the red and white marble chimneypiece in the main entrance, the Cedar Vestibule, which was hung with gilt leather. In the ‘Best Bed Chamber above Stairs’, lined with ‘verdure’ tapestries and furnished with a crimson and yellow velvet bed and chairs, there was another Delft pyramid, also ‘in ye Chimney’, placed on the marble hearth-stone (‘foot-pace’) directly in front. Both Delft pyramids survive. Exquisitely painted in cobalt blue outlined with manganese black, they form a pair, as was usual, and were made at De Grieksche A factory between 1690 and 1695. Their square pedestals are supported on claw-and-ball feet surmounted with four salamanders supporting seven graduated trays. Each tray contained water for the flowers inserted through the tubular nozzles (in the form of a serpent’s open jaw). The pedestals have alternating scenes of Dutch formal gardens with parterres, perhaps the royal gardens at Het Loo, near Apeldoorn. In one, amorini arrange flowers in an urn, framed by classical architecture, and on the other, seen through an archway, they hold a flower-basket and garden pot. The pyramids, filled with a variety of brightly coloured flowers, a costly luxury changing with the seasons, enlivened dark baroque interiors. As they cannot be identified in a 1703 inventory of Dyrham, they may have been in Blathwayt’s house in Whitehall, London, or he may have acquired them later second-hand, since few were produced after Mary died in 1694. Blathwayt made major improvements to the fabric of Dyrham following his wife’s death in 1691. Fashionable goods from around the world were acquired on trips to The Hague and Amsterdam, drawing on the taste of William and Mary and their merchants. Even his magnificent garden was in the royal taste, with parterres, fountains and sculpture. A polylinguist, Blathwayt had become wealthy in his own right through lucrative posts as Surveyor and Auditor-General of Plantation Revenues (1680–88), supervising incomes from the colonies. Later, having bought the office of Secretary of War, he administered all aspects of the army and frequently travelled with the King. However, with William’s death, he was pushed out of office and into retirement. No invoices survive detailing his Delft purchases, one of the most important collections in Britain. Some may have been perquisites from William III, distributed following Mary’s death, or from Queen Anne, following William’s death. In the nineteenth century, the Delft was gathered together with other heirlooms in the Great Hall. Many of the flower vases were separated from their pedestals, as they were no longer used for their original purpose. Catalogue entry adapted from Patricia F. Ferguson, Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2016.
Indigenous collection purchased by Ministry of Works in 1956 and given to Dyrham Park in 1961
Marks and inscriptions
'AK' monogram in cobalt blue on top of one of the pedestals
Ferguson 2016: Patricia F. Ferguson, Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2016, pp.50-1