17 May 2012

Spode and Polar Exploration

I wrote this blog in 2012 when there was a lot in the media about the history of polar exploration as well as fascinating exhibition, TV and Radio programmes. And, at the time, here 'Up North', it snowed so it seems appropriate to think of polar regions!

What possible connection can there be between the Spode company and polar exploration? 

Surprisingly there are 2 important connections not just for Spode enthusiasts but also for those with an interest in the history of the polar regions. The renewed interest this year is prompted by the one hundredth anniversary of Scott's death and focuses more on the Antarctic, whilst the Spode connections found so far are relevant to Arctic exploration.
Milk Jug,badge detail and other backstamps
The Spode company, under the ownership of the Copeland family, made the services for the ships for the Arctic Expedition of 1875. I don't know if the company tendered for the order with other manufacturers and won it, or if Spode was the expedition's first choice, but the expedition organisers certainly wanted, and got, quality ceramics to go with them into the unknown.

The attention to detail in the design for the wares for the two ships The Alert and The Discovery is lovely. The main information on these pieces for the expedition of 1875 comes from the late Robert Copeland who researched the subject for the Spode Museum and wrote up the results in the Spode Society's Review (May 1991). Since Copeland's article more pieces have come to light on different pottery bodies, such as stoneware as well as earthenware, and also pieces printed in different colours. This illustrates how difficult it can be to know just what was made in the absence of records of orders, details of customers and invoices for these special commissions.

I find the other polar connection, though, much more interesting, it is earlier in date and has a bigger impact on the history of the polar regions. In 2004, whilst I was working as curator of the Spode museum, Robert Copeland donated a small quantity of papers to the museum: a random selection, featuring manuscripts from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s.

As Robert handed over the papers a small piece fluttered to the floor. It was about the size of a postcard and folded twice as if used a bookmark which I just popped back into the pile. When I came to catalogue the papers I was astonished at its contents.

Handwritten, it was entitled 'Esquimeaux' and at first, wide-eyed, I only understood part of it. But a quick Googling session and I began to understand what it was all about. This little scrap of paper, which could so easily have been discarded, tells a fascinating story. It is not addressed to anyone so I don't know to whom it was sent and it is not signed but a careful bit of thinking leads me to believe it was written by Richard Pirie Copeland (RPC) who was W. T. Copeland's (WTC) son and Robert Copeland's grandfather.

It is addressed to someone who visited the Copeland's home but RPC was out. Writing a note (of which this must be his copy) he endeavoured to provide information to the caller who seems to be borrowing items connected with polar exploration. The note is as follows:

'Esquimeaux
Bone Walking stick presented to W T Copeland by Sir John Ross after his expedition to the North Pole I believe in 1828.

The stick is carved out of the solid horn of the 'Narwhal' and is a wonderful piece of the native work, the knob has unfortunately been lost for very many years. If I had been at home I would have lent The Painting of the Copeland Islands in Boothia Felix named after my father & Sir Felix Booth both sheriffs in 1828 presented to my mother by Sir John Ross.

Sir Felix Booth found £20,000 for The Expedition and was made a bar't.'

The Copeland Islands
This little document shows how exciting dusty, torn papers can be! It touches on Spode under the Copelands; the Copeland family; WTC's position as sheriff of London; as friend of Felix Booth (wealthy gin magnate - yes that Booth), almost certainly as a friend of Sir John Ross (one of the major figures of nineteenth century polar exploration), the history of Arctic exploration; sponsorship for such adventures; natural history (I didn't know what a narwhal was!), history of the world with land named for Copeland and Booth: 'The Copeland Island's and the area known as 'Boothia Felix '...and more. The Spode Archive never ceases to amaze me.

Glasgow University Library Special Collections has much more about Sir John Ross's expeditions with details of the book (which is a contender for the longest title ever): 'Narrative of a second voyage in search of a north-west passage and of a residence in the Arctic regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833: including the reports of James Clark Ross and the discovery of the northern magnetic pole'. And there are more references to consult if you are longing to know more.

And a polar bear connection in Art Deco form can be found under P on my Spode ABC.