Chelsea Porcelain Factory, 1744 - 1784
Aesop, c.1755
Soft paste porcelain
C.21-1932


Aesop was of a Sharp Head, flat nos'd, his back roll'd up in a Bunch or Excrescence, his lips tumerous and pendant, his Complexion black, from which dark Tincture he contracted his name - Aesopus being the same with Aethiops [Ethiopians]...

Francis Barlow, A Brief Prospect of the Life of Aesop, 1703.

This vivid description of the Greek slave Aesop comes from a 17th century translation of his ancient, fictional biography. Though it is his Fables that are more widely known today, The Life of Aesop, an entertaining if sometimes crude read, has also been enjoyed for over two thousand years.

Illustration
spacer The modeller of this lively porcelain figure was clearly familiar with the book, for his Aesop closely resembles illustrations made for the translation quoted above. Left is a page from a 1703 edition in the Cambridge University Library.

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Aesop's head is misshapen, his belly protrudes and he has a hunch back. But for all this, he is elegantly, even prettily dressed.

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His light pink suit with its yellow trim contrasts sharply with his deep black skin, and is further distinguished by splendid gold buttons and a watch hanging from a gold chain. A fat blue ribbon ties his breeches at the knee and his yellow slippers match his cuffs.

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His open mouth and expansive gesture suggest that he has been caught mid speech, and this tallies with the story recounted in the Life. Born with a speech impediment so severe that none could understand what he said, Aesop was cured by the goddess Isis after showing kindness to one of her priestesses. With his tongue unknotted, he revealed himself to be supremely wise and cunning, winning fame and eventually his freedom. Do we here see an Aesop at the height of his powers, no longer enslaved, words and wit flowing from his open mouth?

The mid 18th century, when this piece was made, saw the beginnings of a serious movement to abolish slavery in Europe. Has Aesop's Life itself become an anti-slavery fable, a story about how, freed from his shackles, the black slave can fulfill his true potential? It is unlikely. Figures like this were described as 'ornaments for dessert' and were made primarily to decorate the dinner table, a table that may well have been served by a liveried black servant. A sense of comedy rather than a social conscience probably lies behind the making of this piece. This Aesop is, one feels, a figure of fun rather than an embodiment of liberty.

Porcelain figures became very popular in mid 18th century Europe. The best and most prized were made in Saxony at the Meissen factory. The figure here is a product of the porcelain works set up in Chelsea in 1743, London, by two French immigrants, Charles Gouyn and Nicholas Sprimont. The mark of a red anchor on top of the base identifies it as having been made between c.1752 and 1758 when the factory was producing particularly fine models, many of them copied from, or based upon, figures produced at Meissen.


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Stories and Histories: Aesop - Fact and Fiction


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