Catherine of Braganza: How the copy of a 17th-century plate tells the story of design, consumer consumption, and the Washington Family

The concept of buying items to remember certain events or travels is commonplace today. Who goes abroad without bringing back a trinket naming the location? Is it possible to go antiquing without seeing an item that commemorates the wedding of Charles and Diana? Even the smallest item has the ability to tell a story through what it depicts. In our world of mass consumption, these items prove commonplace and relatively easy to obtain, but the concept is not new.

Charles & Diana memorabilia

Back in the mid to late 1600s, a potter by the name of Thomas Toft (d.1689) produced a series of plates depicting Charles II and his wife Catherine of Braganza. When Cromwell’s strict Puritan regime ended in 1660, the people of Great Britain rejoiced at the restoration of the monarchy. Charles II was an active king who enjoyed the arts and a good time. His marriage to Catherine, a Portuguese princess, in 1662 was a cause for further celebration, even if her Catholic faith raised concerns. Regardless, Toft had his market.

            A Scandinavian immigrant, Toft lived in Staffordshire, England, and specialized in slipware. Slipware involved the use of clay slips and a lead glaze to decorate a piece. Typically, a white clay slip, which is essentially, watered-down clay, covered the upper surface of a piece before the artist drew on the design. Dark brown and orange-red clay slips then helped bring the design to life. To complete the piece, the artist utilized a lead glaze to enrich the colors and seal it. Toft became one of the most famous slipware potters of the time due in part to his habit of prominently signing his works at the base of his cross-hatching border, which was unusual in the 17th century. He produced plates depicting the royals throughout his career. Toft’s pieces may not have undergone the mass production that they would today, but they fed a market that desired commemorative memorabilia.

Slipware plate by Thomas Toft depicting Charles II and the Royal Oak

You may be asking how talk of royals and artists from the 1660s connect to Ferry Farm? The answer comes from the desire to add a slipware plate to the house. As many will know, the items in the Washington house are replicas inspired by archaeological finds on site and pieces dating to the period. Until now, the slipware style did not appear in the house. Aiming to fix this, I went about choosing a design that would not only serve the desired purpose but also tell a story. In the end, I found a Toft plate that depicted Catherine, and the idea came to me.

Pieces of slipware found at Ferry Farm

John Washington (1631-1677), George’s great-grandfather, immigrated to Virginia in 1657. Motivation for this possibly derived from hardships faced by the Washington family after Cromwell came to power since the family had sided with the monarchy during the English Civil War (1642-1651) and business ties. With the restoration of the monarchy three years after their arrival, it seems likely that this would have been a cause for celebration in the Washington household. We know from finds at Ferry Farm and Kenmore that the Washington and Lewis families owned items depicting royal motifs up until the Revolution. So not only would the Washingtons of the 1660s have raised a toast to the King and later his bride, but they may have acquired items celebrating them. While we do not have evidence for the Washingtons’ owning a piece with this specific theme, items pass through generations, and we know the family brought older items with them to Ferry Farm in 1738.

In making the replica, I aimed to keep it as close to the original as I could, though the cross-hatching border proved impossible to keep as tight. The imagery itself prompts the telling of the Washington-Royalist-immigration story, so nothing major needed changing. Keen viewers, looking at the images below, will notice the addition of a “Q” and a “K” to help identify Catherine. While Toft’s work rarely included royal monograms, they did appear on other designs of the time, making it a simple and fitting addition. In these other pieces, Catherine’s first initial always appears as a “K.” While we may spell Catherine’s name with a “C,” there was no standard of spelling in the 1600s, and this may have occurred since her husband’s name also starts with a “C.” After prepping the plate with a base coat of paint, I sketched the desired design and painted over it in a way that mimicked slipware techniques. A clear coat of spray paint then sealed the design in place of the lead glaze.

  The plate will go on display in the Visitor’s Center, where we display and explore the topics of our blog. Next time you visit, be sure to keep your eyes peeled and let Catherine tell you her story.

Emma Schlauder

Research Archaeologist