Essay by Dr. Anne Forschler-Tarrasch Chief Curator of the Birmingham Museum of Art & Marguerite Jones Harbert and John M. Harbert III Curator of Decorative Arts
The story of the renowned ‘Green Frog Service’, commissioned in 1773 by Catherine the Great
of Russia from the potter Josiah Wedgwood, has well been told. Wedgwood and his partner Thomas Bentley’s largest and most ambitious assignment, this elegant creamware service consists of a dinner and dessert set for fifty people, a total of 944 pieces. Painted in a monochromatic sepia color scheme with a splash of green enamel for the frog, the Service includes 1,222 different views of Great Britain – landscapes, castles, ruins, churches, abbeys, stately homes, and gardens – and each piece has a different subject, drawn from both older and contemporary drawings and engravings. Each individual piece of the Service has a number enameled on the reverse that corresponds to a printed catalogue prepared by Bentley and which was sent to Russia with the Service for presentation to the Empress. The catalogue, written in French, identifies in numerical order each piece of the Service and the topographical views represented on them. The Service was commissioned for the Empress’s neo-Gothic palace Kekereksinen located on the Moscow Road south of St. Petersburg, and named for the traditional Finnish term for the area meaning ‘frog marsh.’ For this reason, it is believed that a green frog crest was chosen for the Service.
The entire Service took two years to complete and once it was finished it was displayed for a period of almost two months in Wedgwood’s new Greek Street showrooms in London beginning in June 1774. From the start, the Service garnered much interest. Josiah Wedgwood himself traveled to London for the exhibition, and Queen Charlotte paid a visit to the showrooms along with her brother the German Duke Ernst Gottlob Albert of Mecklenburg, who had followed his sister to England after her marriage to George III. In August the Service was packed up and sent to Russia. It arrived in St. Petersburg sometime around October 1774 and was installed in Catherine’s palace upon its completion in 1777. Today, the Service, which is now housed in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, consists of 770 pieces decorated with 1,025 views. About 80 pieces are on permanent public view.
Although pieces from the Frog Service have been broken over the years, there is no evidence that any have ever left Russia. Nonetheless, a handful of pieces exist outside of the country today and there has been much speculation about their origin and whether or not they were part of the original Service. The pieces in question fall into two categories: those decorated in a monochrome sepia tone with the same borders and green frog crest as those pieces in Russia, and those with the views painted in delicate enamel colors, traditionally described as trial pieces. The polychrome pieces differ from the main Service not only because the scenes on them are in color, but also because they are not numbered and they lack the green frog crest. Additionally, they have the place name painted on the front, just below the scene itself.
It is now accepted that these polychrome pieces were made after the original Service was completed, specifically for display and sale in Wedgwood’s Greek Street showroom. Sensing a potential marketing opportunity, Josiah wrote to his partner Thomas Bentley during a stop on his way home from London in June 1774 suggesting they may paint more without the Frog, to be shown in Greek Street. Twenty two of these polychrome pieces made towards the end of 1774 are known to exist today.
More interesting are those monochrome pieces – twenty-three in all – that today reside in various public and private collections throughout England and North America. While it was once believed that these pieces were stolen or sold from the original Service, today it is understood that these were originally made to be part of the Service, but were then withdrawn either because they were defective in some way, were duplicates, or because they were not of the aesthetic quality that Wedgwood had come to expect. Wedgwood had a specific plan for these pieces when he wrote in 1774, I think the fine painted pieces condemn’d to be set aside, whether it be on account of their being blister’d, or duplicates, or any other fault, except poor & bad painting should be divided between Mr. Baxter & Etruria. ‘Mr. Baxter’ was Alexander Baxter, an Englishman and member of the Russia Company, who was appointed Russian consul to London in 1773. It was through Baxter that Catherine ordered both the Husk Service from Wedgwood in 1770 and three years later, the Green Frog Service. While those pieces retained at the Etruria factory are believed to have descended through the Wedgwood family – several of which are now in the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston – it is believed that those pieces given to Baxter eventually ended up in the hands of Stoner & Evans, London dealers in fine pottery and porcelain. In 1909, Stoner & Evans advertised the discovery in England of a group of plates and platters from the Frog Service, all of which were ultimately sold, and today can be traced to various public and private collections.
Recently, an unrecorded piece has surfaced as part of a private American collection. The dinner plate, purchased in France from an aristocratic family via a Parisian art dealer, carries the oak leaf border and bright green frog crest. The plate is numbered 156 on the reverse and bears an old label that reads,
Plate of the celebrated Dinner Service made by Josiah Wedgwood for the Empress Catherine of Russia. Wedgwood spent 3 years in forming his collection of views for the Service and the green toad or frog painted upon each piece was intended to show in which Palace it was to be used. See full account in Jewitt.
When sold to the current owner, the scene on the front of the plate was identified as the “Southwestern view of Syon Abbey in Middlesex County.” Furthermore, it was indicated that the view duplicates the scene on a 12-inch dish illustrated by Michael Raeburn in his book on the subject, and that it was painted by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who had designed the park at Syon House in 1760.
In actuality, the plate – decorated as were all others at Wedgwood’s Chelsea Decorating Studio under the watchful eye of Thomas Bentley – features a “Vue d’un port Anglois” – one of the views catalogued by Raeburn as “miscellaneous” and believed to be one of the few topographical scenes used for the Service that is completely imaginary. A variation of this scene is featured on the cover of a sauce tureen, numbered 588, part of the original Service now housed in the Hermitage.The source of the view is John Smith’s An English Seaport after Jean-Baptiste Pillement, published in 1773 by Robert Sayer. The scene was first engraved in 1761 by Pierre-Charles Canot, a Frenchman living and working in England, as part of the series Petite Marine Anglaise. It belongs to Pillement’s early work in London that includes attractive landscapes and seashore views that were based less on reality than on the imagination. The “genre pittoresque,” as the style came to be known, combined the most beautiful from nature with fanciful elements that led to more ideal compositions. The result was the image of peaceful countrysides with peasants happily going about their everyday tasks. Indeed, the scene on the plate shows a pair of busy peasants on the banks of a calm, sailboat-filled river with an ivy- covered ruin on the far shore.
George C. Williamson, an independent scholar, published an English translation of Thomas Bentley’s catalogue of the Frog Service in his 1909 history of the Service. It is noteworthy that number 156 is absent from the catalogue, which moves from number 155 directly to number 157. Michael Raeburn gives us an overview of the numbering system used by Thomas Bentley. Bentley numbered the pieces in the order produced and the catalogue records these pieces in numerical order with a description of the scene or scenes on the piece. When an item was rejected, its number may have been reused,although more often than not, the number was simply omitted from the catalogue. This is the case with the plate in question: it was removed from the Service and thus simply deleted from the catalogue. It was no doubt replaced with another plate of the same size and shape, one given a different catalogue number.
Although attractive in its composition, and in good condition, there were other reasons why Wedgwood should choose to omit this plate from the Service. It is possible that he acquired or was given views of a country home or estate not already represented on the Service and chose instead to create a new plate with a different scene. Josiah Wedgwood always wanted to please or flatter his important patrons, and once members of the aristocracy heard of the commission, they no doubt wanted their homes illustrated, too. Or, perhaps Wedgwood decided not to include such a prominent image of an imaginary landscape scene, as the Empress had requested that the pieces be decorated with “real views” rather than those created in the mind of the artist. It is noteworthy that none of the wholly imaginary views used on the Service comprise the sole decoration of a piece.
Unfortunately, a complete provenance of the plate is not known. It was not one of the pieces sold by Stoner & Evans in 1909. It is possible that it was one of those retained by Etruria, which was then later sold or given away, eventually making its way to France. It will take its place amongst those items created for the great Frog Service but held back by the factory. Perhaps more of these intriguing pieces will surface.