Chinese Export Porcelain Plate from George Washington's Society of the Cincinnati Service
ca. 1784-1785; and later
The dinner service is decorated in a pattern called “fitzhugh,” which refers to a group of Chinese export porcelain having certain identifying characteristics made between about 1780 and 1840. The decorative elements of this group include a central device—a medallion, eagle, monogram, or coat of arms—surrounded by four clusters of flowers and emblems associated with the four accomplishments of the Chinese scholar: music, painting, analytical skill, and calligraphy. The whole is enclosed by an elaborate border, either a trellis-diaper and spearhead border often called “Nanking,” or a complex design made up of butterfly, cell diaper, and floral motifs. Some examples that fall into this group, such as George Washington’s Cincinnati china (see Acc. No. 72.27), lack the four floral and emblematic clusters. The clusters and borders may be painted in blue, brown, orange, green, yellow, rose-pink, lavender, gilt, black, or gray.
The name and definition of the Fitzhugh group developed over a long period of time.1Sir Algernon Tudor-Craig was the first to suggest that Fitzhugh may have been a corrupted pronunciation of Foochow (Fuzhoy), for the port, but J.B.S. Holmes pointed out that Foochow was not a Western port until the 1840s and was not associated with making or shipping china during the period of the Fitzhugh pattern’s greatest popularity. See Howard 1974, 53, for a discussion of Tudor-Craig’s first use of the term in 1927 and his 1929 explanation of origins; see Holmes, 130–31, for his explanation. In 1966 J.B.S. Holmes discovered that members of the English Fitzhugh family had played important roles in the British East India Company over three generations. In England, true Fitzhugh porcelains are those that mimic pieces associated with William FitzHugh, a supercargo (agent) at Canton who shipped china to England in the late 1700s. His pattern displays the characteristic center medallion, four floral groups, and the trellis-diaper and spearhead border.2Holmes suggests that the name may have been used in America during the nineteenth century, and Jean McClure Mudge confirms his suggestion by citing references to the pattern in American manuscripts of the early 1800s (see Mudge 1981, 165).
Fitzhugh patterns seem to have been more popular with Americans than with the English, reflecting the rise to prominence of the American traders at the time. Consequently, there is more variation in American-market Fitzhugh porcelains. The present set centered with an eagle, bearing a ribbon with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM and a shield with floral cluster, is a characteristically patriotic American adaptation of the Fitzhugh pattern.
Ellen Paul Denker and Bert R. Denker
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.