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Ancestors of the Glass Hen Dish

Covered dishes modeled as hen's nests, either full of newly-hatched chicks or surmounted by a maternal fowl, have a much longer history than the Victorian period with which they are usually associated. Their origin dates back into the eighteenth century when they were made of much finer material than either the earthenware or pressed-glass examples of the Victorian years. At Chelsea, Bow, and Derby, a great variety of porcelain table services, individual covered dishes, and decorative figures were made in the form of wild fowl. Skillfully modeled and colored, they were listed as "partridge sets" in the London auction catalogues before 1770. The quantities of such sets sold show that they were much in demand at the time.

These dishes went out of fashion for more than a generation. When they returned to favor, about seventy years later, their manufacture had shifted to Staffordshire and the material used was now glazed earthenware. Instead of being modeled after wild fowl, they were now designed in the form of the domestic hen-an understandable change since they were destined to join the other cottage ornaments, popularly known as "chimney pieces," on the shelf above the fireplace.

The nest dish dates from between 1840 and 1850. The nest dish would be accompied by three newly-hatched chicks are brown with white beaks and bead-like eyes. The broken shells are cream white. The poses, even of the one just emerging from its shell, are so realistic as to suggest that the artist modeled it from life. The basket nest is straw-brown with slight touches of green. Pleasing as was the anecdotal character of these covered dishes, they were not made in large quantity. Today, they are much rarer than other Staffordshire cottage ornaments.

Whether they were a specialty of only one or two potteries in the area or more widely made, cannot be established. The limited number that have survived bear no mark of a specific pottery as far as I can find out. Yet they were obviously produced from carefully modeled molds and expertly colored in a naturalistic style.

The last phase of this type of dish took place in the United States where several Middle Western glass factories produced covered hen dishes in quantity from about 1870 on.

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Dresden porcelains presented no problem of provenance to our forebears. It seemed perfectly clear to them that a small statue of a Dresden shepherdess or a romantic group for sale in an American china shop must have been imported from the city of Dresden in Saxony. Few were aware that these little figures had a Chinese ancestry, similar ornamental objects having come from the Orient by way of the trade routes, and that those they were looking at were actually made in a town a few miles from Dresden, named Meissen.

There is now considerable confusion as to which pieces should be classed as Meissen and which as Dresden, especially as they all come from the same factory. A hard-paste porcelain, similar to that produced in China, was invented in Dresden in 1709, and shortly afterwards a factory was established in Meissen for making articles of this fine substitute for the Oriental ware. This factory prospered to such a degree that for nearly a century it set the fashions for Continental and English porcelains. During all this time, the wares made at Meissen were known as Dresden china because that city was their chief market.

About twenty-five years ago, museum ceramic experts began calling this porcelain made before 1850, "Meissen," and the ware made after that date, "Dresden," and this classification generally holds true today.

Dresden produced a group of two youthful lovers in bright costumes stand side by side before a white porcelain bust. At their feet are a dog and a lamb, and behind them an impish boy spying on them. These Dresden pieces continued to be made until after 1870 and can usually be identified by their colors, the excessive frilliness of costume, and the "smear-painted" hair on the heads of the figures, in contrast to the finer execution of the earlier Meissen figures.

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