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The Billing Birds on Counters

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Huge numbers of counters show the picture in a roundel of the ‘billing birds’, lovebirds or doves, however you choose to name them and this decoration was particularly common on counters from around 1760. Why they are there has always intrigued me; after a while one just comes to accept that they are there. The story of their introduction and popularity is an interesting one and emphasises once more the close links with armorial porcelain and also the fact that counters are a fascinating reflection of the history of the period.
The story starts with a little history. Commodore George Anson is famous for his circumnavigation of the globe between 1740 and 1744, having been sent to try to break the Spanish domination of the South Seas and to try to capture their treasure. During this epic voyage he lost most of his crew to scurvy; six of the seven vessels in the fleet were also lost. At one point, he landed on Tinian Island, a Spanish possession in the Pacific, with his crew in a very sorry state; here he found a beautiful tropical island with breadfruit in abundance. They stayed there for some time and feasted on the local produce. He eventually returned home victorious with forty-two wagons of treasure, and cuttings of the breadfruit tree. He was later to become Baron Anson and the First Lord of the Admiralty.
The breadfruit tree plays an important role in history. It actually led to the mutiny on the Bounty: in 1792, Lieutenant William Blye was sent to transport cuttings of the breadfruit to the West Indies where it had been singled out as a very suitable crop for feeding the slaves on the plantations. The breadfruit cuttings proved so thirsty on the journey, that Blye was forced to ration drinking water which naturally caused great unrest in the crew. The rest is history!
It is related in Chinese Armorial Porcelain Volume 1 (D.S. Howard) that while he was at Canton in 1743, Anson’s men were instrumental in saving Canton from a fire which would otherwise have destroyed the whole city. In recognition of this, an armorial service (image #1) was commissioned for him with his crest and arms; what was distinctive about this service was that it was decorated with items drawn from the sketches of his resident artist on the voyage; some these were to be published later. There are several recognisable elements: two doves sitting on cupid’s quiver containing arrows, with a bow; an altar upon which burn two human hearts; a breadfruit tree and numerous breadfruit; a palm tree; two dogs pining for their master beneath another tree. There are several allusions to absent loved ones, not surprising as they had been away from home for over two years; the pattern became popular and was used on several different armorial services. It became known as the Valentine pattern. The illustration below shows an armorial plate made in around 1745 for Stewart, Lord Blantyre with precisely the same decoration; it is reproduced with the kind permission of Heirloom Howard.

The pattern was also used on some non-armorial porcelain and clearly was in demand. Illustrated (#2, 3) is a teapot with many of the elements discussed. It is decorated in over-glaze grey (grisaille) and was made in around 1745 - 1750. As ever, the design was adapted and here the dogs are omitted. The breadfruit are depicted in a distinctive way on the right of the scene, and some hang in a garland.

Some of these elements were then used on counters; as the counters were often made to accompany porcelain services, it is perhaps not surprising. Illustrated below is a very fine armorial counter (#4) made at precisely this time for a French noble family, the Marquises de Verac. The doves are seated on the quiver; the breadfruit are present and so is the altar with the hearts.

The depiction developed on other counters (#5); here the picture is rather more stylised and the breadfruit are not immediately recognisable as fruit. Again a crested counter, but what is interesting is that the doves are no longer sitting on the quiver, but on a variation on an armorial ‘torse’; these would normally have six twists, but here there are only four.

The very rare counters illustrated (#6-7) show another development: the breadfruit garland is becoming even more stylised and is almost unrecognisable.

In a distinctive variant style of which there are two illustrated counters ( #8-9-10), the whole picture is even more stylised. The doves are sitting either on the ground or on what appears to be a small branch; the breadfruit are either stylised or completely omitted.

Eventually, as in the four counters illustrated below, showing variations on a theme, the doves are stylised and are all that remains of the original pattern; they have become a pseudo-armorial, looking to all intents and purposes like a crest. Sometimes with breadfruit, sometimes not. I suspect that counters showing the breadfruit are earlier versions.

From then on the billing-birds (#10) were very popular as designs for non-armorial counters, even outnumbering the ubiquitous pagodas!
It is very rare for the billing-birds to appear on the reverse of armorial counters, and the latest example dates to around 1770-1780. However, all these portrayals of the billing birds are found in much larger numbers on non-armorial counters. The versions relate exactly to all these styles. As I have pointed out before, it is only by reference to the armorial counters that more precise dates can be suggested for the counters: no records were kept of the various styles of non-armorial counters. The billing birds became the standard decoration on fishes: I suspect that these were produced beyond 1780 but that remains conjecture. I wonder if Baron Anson was aware of the impact he made on gaming counters?

CAP volume 1: D.S. Howard The Choice of the Private Trader (illustrated from the Hodroff Collection): D S. Howard

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