Object of the Month: April

Full oxThis enormous jug was made at the Coalport factory in Coalbrookdale, Ironbridge Gorge, which is usually thought of as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. It was acquired for the Fitzwilliam Museum by the Friends in 2014, at a sale of items from the collection of the Royal Agricultural Society of England at Dreweatts Auctioneers in London. It is not (in my opinion) a thing of outstanding beauty, but it tells a remarkable story of agrarian and social history.

The jug (described as ‘Rococo Revival’ in style) is 46 cm high (not as big as the Northumberland Vase, created for the International Exhibition of 1862, and the largest piece ever made by the Coalport factory)

The Northumberland Vase, now displayed in the Coalport China Museum.

The Northumberland Vase, now displayed in the Coalport China Museum.

and was not in ideal condition: the auctioneers note ‘Several stapled cracks about the neck. Handle has been off and glued. We suggest that images of these should be asked for.’ It is a tribute to the superb skills of the conservators at the Museum that you can still see the joins and staples (which are after all part of the history of the artefact), but you would be hard put to it to know that the handle had ever been off.

An old crack mended with a metal staple.

An old crack mended with a metal staple.

The twig-like handle.

The twig-like handle, and golden hops.

Was it ever used? It might have been an ale jug, though it would have been difficult to lift when full. It seems more likely that it was a commemorative piece, celebrating Earl Spencer’s prize Durham Ox, which won for its owner £20 and a silver medal at the Royal Smithfield Club’s Christmas Show in 1843.

Earl Spencer's ox, on one side of the jug...

Earl Spencer’s ox, on one side of the jug…

The ox is portrayed in a pastoral landscape on one side, and on the other is a similar portrait of three wethers (castrated rams) who won four prizes including twenty sovereigns and a silver medal for their owner, Mr Richard Hickson of Hougham, near Grantham, in 1837.

and Robert Hickson's sheep on the other.

and Richard Hickson’s sheep on the other.

The beautifully painted images are surrounded by curlicues of patriotic English oak leaves and acorns, hopbines and wheat and a compilation of appropriate agricultural implements.

Ears of golden corn ...

Ears of golden corn …

acorns and oak leaves ...

acorns and oak leaves …


the tools of agriculture ...

the tools of agriculture …

and the elaborate gilding of the spout.

and the elaborate gilding of the spout.

As to why two separate triumphs six years apart were commemorated in this way, I wondered if Hickson (who paid 10 shillings subscription to the Grantham Agricultural Association in 1833) was an improving farmer of the type the third Earl Spencer would have encouraged – was he perhaps even a tenant? The earl’s seat at Althorp is about 45 miles from Hougham, so they were not exactly neighbours, but like the Lunar Men, they may have travelled long distances (in terms of the road conditions of the time) to stay in touch with like-minded friends and colleagues. (Talking of travel, the three wethers were conveyed ‘in a cart 116 miles to the show’.)

The (Royal since 1960) Smithfield Club (which still flourishes today) had been founded in 1798 as the Smithfield Cattle and Sheep Society – Smithfield of course then being the great central livestock market of London – with Francis, fifth duke of Bedford (another agricultural improver, who set up a model farm on the family estate at Woburn, and also developed the Bedford lands in Bloomsbury, London – Russell Square, etc.) as its first president. The aim of the club was to organise a national livestock show, the first being held in December 1799 at Wootton’s Livery Stables, Dolphin Yard, Smithfield. The Smithfield show became a institution, with great press and public attention, held at Earl’s Court every year from 1949 to 2004, and it continues today, in show grounds around the country: the East of England one is held in Peterborough in November.

As to how the Royal Agricultural Society of England (founded in 1838, with the purpose of ‘the scientific development of agriculture’) came to possess the jug, did the Society buy it or was it a donation? And why did they decide to dispose of it, among with many other cups, medals and prize-related paraphernalia? They too used to hold a massive show (to which I went once, and a fine day out it was, at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire), but now focus on the transfer of scientific knowledge to agricultural practitioners, though they do still award prizes.

Turning to the livestock portrayed … I had a vague memory that the Durham Ox is a Thing (like Bewick‘s Chillingham Bull) – possibly because it has a lot of pubs named after it (and not all in Durham), plus a whole town in Victoria, Australia.

Thomas Bewick's famous engraving of the Chillingham Bull (1789).

Thomas Bewick’s famous engraving of the Chillingham Bull (1789).

The original Durham Ox was born in March 1796 on the farm of Charles Colling, near Darlington in County Durham. He was a follower of the selective breeding methods of Robert Bakewell (whom Darwin later cited in the context of ‘artificial selection’).

Robert Bakewell, by the livestock painter John Boultbee (1753–1812).

Robert Bakewell, by the livestock painter John Boultbee (1753–1812).

Bakewell worked on longhorn cattle, creating the Dishley Longhorn, and more than doubling the average weight of the carcass in the process. Colling and his brother Robert took the same approach to shorthorns, and a grandson of their original bull became first the Ketton Ox (after Charles’s farm), and then, as his fame grew, the Durham Ox.

The Durham Ox, by livestock painter John Boultbee (1753–1812).

The Durham Ox, also by Boultbee.

This portrait of him shows a grotesque beast with a leg at each corner. It is remarkable that he could walk at all, and in fact he didn’t have to, much, as he was a display animal, sold in 1801 (for the not inconsiderable price of £250) to one John Day of Lincolnshire, who had a carriage, which needed four horses to haul it, specially made for him. For five years he toured the fairs and agricultural shows of Britain, but alas, in February 1807 he had an accident descending from his transporter, and damaged his hip: the wound failed to heal, and he was slaughtered on 15 April (dead weight: 189 stone (1,200 kg), though he had weighed 216 stone in his prime).

The Durham Ox's image appeared in engravings and on ceramics.

The Durham Ox’s image appeared in engravings and on ceramics.

Self-evidently, the Durham Ox did not leave any progeny, but he was believed to be an ideal of improved breeding, and many other landowners and farmers sought to create their own. Earl Spencer’s animal is unusual among the other Durham Oxen painted at the time as being apparently brown all over, rather than spotted.

The curve of the jug makes the ox look even bulkier.

The curve of the jug makes the ox look even bulkier.

He had clearly been cherished, as his diet consisted of ‘swedes, mangel wurzle, cabbages, hay, oil-cake and bean-meal’, according to The British Farmers Magazine, which described the prodigy in approving tones.

The caption below the ox reads: 'Earl Spencer's Prize Durham Ox exhibited at the Smithfield Club Show, Xmas 1843'.

The caption below the ox reads: ‘Earl Spencer’s Prize Durham Ox exhibited at the Smithfield Club Show, Xmas 1843’.

The serious point behind this sort of breeding (which seems to us now similar to ‘largest pumpkin’ or ‘biggest leek’ contests, where the resultant produce is not necessarily very edible), was the necessity to feed a rapidly growing population, increasingly squeezed into towns which themselves were expanding on to surrounding agricultural land and reducing the space on which livestock for meat could be bred. The solution of Bakewell and other improvers like the earl of Leicester was to increase the weight of meat produced by each animal. Hence the purpose of these prize animals with tiny legs and heads and enormous bodies.

Richard Hickson's three wethers, in an appropriately pastoral setting.

Richard Hickson’s three wethers, in an appropriately pastoral setting.

The caption reads: 'Three Prizw Wethers Bred and Fed by Mr Ricd. Hickson of Hougham near Grantham which obtained 4 first Prizes in 1837'.

The caption reads: ‘Three Prize Wethers Bred and Fed by Mr Ricd. Hickson of Hougham near Grantham which obtained 4 first Prizes in 1837’.

Mr Hickson’s sheep have similarly tiny heads and bulky bodies, in their case of course made bulkier by the wool. Was this trio of 32-month-old sheep destined to be mutton, or were they valuable for their wool? The breed is unnamed (as the jug proudly states, Hickson had bred them himself): they have the desirable feature of a very straight back, which Bakewell’s New Leicester sheep were bred for, but much finer wool, it appears. Though of course, six years after their moment of fame, it might be expecting too much to find an accurate likeness for the ceramic painter to work from…

New Leicester sheep, bred by Bakewell.

New Leicester sheep, bred by Bakewell.

The Hicksons of Hougham (and their sheep) continued to flourish: a Richard Hickson (probably ‘ours’) was on the voting-list for the southern division of Lincolnshire in 1841, and was churchwarden of the parish in 1843: indeed, there is still a farm run by the Hickson family in Hougham today. The third Earl Spencer’s contribution to agriculture is commemorated at Althorp in the Sunderland Room, decorated with portraits of his prize animals. And their shared enthusiasm for the breeding of livestock is of course exemplified by this rather over-the-top piece of Coalport, currently on display in a case in the Fitzwilliam with other recent acquisitions funded by the Friends.


This entry was posted in Biography, Cambridge, History, Museums and Galleries, Natural history and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Object of the Month: April

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