It would seem that no aspiring middle-class family of the Victorian era would have considered the furnishing of its drawing-room as complete until it could adorn a side table or pedestal with a pseudo-classical figure or bust in the newly-perfected ‘statuary porcelain’ – known variously as ‘parian’ (a reference to its remarkable resemblance to the surface and tint of the marble quarried on the Island of Paros in the Cyclades group), ‘stone china’ or ‘Carrara’. Parian was and is still considered to be one of the outstanding achievements of Victorian manufactured art. It is a highly-vitrified and unglazed porcelain which, although naturally white, is sometimes tinted. Marble had always been prized as a symbol of elegance and prosperity, and it is not surprising that the cool, marble-like Parian should soon command a similar esteem.
The actual purpose of the early experiments with Parian had been to develop an economical alternative to the expensive biscuit porcelain made at the end of the 18th century by Derby and other factories. This endeavour was possibly provided with an additional impetus by the challenge to imitate the very fine biscuit figures and groups produced at Sevres since the 1750s.
As was the case with the manufacture of biscuit porcelain, the Parian process was exceedingly difficult, and the fragile nature of the substance required ‘the greatest nicety and judgement’ in its execution. However, the eventual popularity and enthusiastic acceptance of Parian – after an unsteady launching onto the market in the 1840s – was due to a variety of factors: its resemblance to marble; its suitability for moulding intricate forms and reproducing statuary on a miniature scale; the patronage given to its makers by the Art Unions – organisations which ran lotteries offering works of art as prizes; its success at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and other exhibitions; and the fact that two of the foremost ceramic manufacturers of the day – Copeland and Minton – engaged in lively competition in the production of Parian, thus ensuring an output of work of the highest quality.
These factories would often employ prominent sculptors of the day to model figures specifically for the purpose of reproducing them in Parian. The figure of Lalage was modelled in 1863 by John Bell (1812–95) who had maintained a close association with Mintons since 1845. It carries his moulded signature, the company mark, and Minton’s date cypher for 1864. It is interesting to note that Parian is chiefly an English phenomenon, with little of distinction being produced outside that country. The subject is taken from an Ode (Book II, Ode 5) entitled ‘Of Lalage’, by the Roman poet, Horace (65–8 B.C.). This choice further enlightens the graceful visual expression given to Victorian sentiment and concern for a quality of chaste, classical perfection.
Lalage is represented in a simple tunic of fine material, seated with her hands clasped over one knee and head gently tilted in a pensive gaze. A crisply modelled bouquet is supported at her wrist and at her feet a lizard scampers over a mound – a surprisingly grotesque companion for the sublime and motionless Lalage.
The bouquet is the most arresting evidence of the feats of technology accomplished in the Parian process. There was, understandably, a considerable popularity for small, individual Parian ornaments and items of jewellery of similar intricacy, and Queen Victoria’s delight at such ware is well known.
It is regrettable that so few of the popular Parian models achieve that quality which distinguishes the figure of Lalage: a fundamental and genuine sympathy between the material used and the idea or subject presented. Indeed it is difficult to contemplate a more appropriate medium in which to reproduce the refinement of modelling and expressive intent of John Bell’s original model.
Geoffrey Edwards, Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1978).