This figure group of ‘Britomartis unveiling Amoret’ is made of Parian porcelain. It was modelled by Joseph Pitts for John Rose and Co, Coalport, Shropshire, in 1851. It illustrates Book III of Edmund Spencer’s 16th-century epic poem ‘The Faerie Queen’. It shows the moment when the heroic female knight Britomart, disguised as a man, arrives to rescue Lady Amoret from her imprisonment by the evil sorcerer Busirane.
Scenes from the ‘Faerie Queen’ were a common topic for artists in the nineteenth century. The story of Britomart and Amoret was particularly popular as it served as an allegory for chastity (Britomart is the personification of female chastity, whilst Amoret represents married virtue). It therefore appealed to the Victorian preoccupation with purity and virtue.
This figure group is particularly interesting as it depicts the moment of Amoret’s unveiling by Britomart as an erotic exchange between two women. Britomart slowly peels the sensuously draped fabric from Amoret’s naked body, who is gazing longingly into her eyes. The use of Parian porcelain intensifies the sensuality of the cloth and Amoret’s naked skin, whilst simultaneously highlighting the supreme purity of the two women. This portrayal is true to Spenser’s text, where the pair engage in intimate and erotic talk. After Britomart’s revelation that she is a woman, for example, Amoret invites her to join her in bed for ‘hard adventures twixt (between) themselues (themselves) alone’. This is typical of representations of erotic contact between women in literature from the period. Such intimate relationships were generally accepted and viewed as ‘innocent’ displays of intense emotional bonds between female companions. They were seen as a means of preserving female chastity and preparing for the sexual demands of married life rather than infidelity.
Parian is a type of porcelain imitating marble, which was developed in the 1840s in Staffordshire. It has a dense, smooth marble-like surface that is resistant to dirt, which was an improvement on other materials in use at the time. As soon as this innovation was launched it proved very popular and a number of manufacturers made a range of figures with diverse themes taken from the bible, literature, classical art and contemporary events. Parian was not cheap and it was marketed as an artistic material, satisfying the tastes of the emerging middle classes. It was popular with collectors. Parian models were produced using the ‘slip-casting’ technique. ‘Slip’ is a liquid form of the material. This figure group was made by pouring the liquid clay into a plaster of Paris mould and then firing it in the oven.
It is thought that this figure group is one of the 70 pieces of pottery that were given to the Walker Art Gallery from the Melly estate in 1944. They are described in our records as being ‘from a Victorian drawing room’ and from the ‘Collection of George and Sarah Melly’. George Melly (born in 1830, died in 1894) was married to Sarah. It seems probable that the figure did belong to George and Sarah Melly rather than other members of their family living in the house later, due to the date that it was made.