Published 10th May 2016
For something that purports to have a practical purpose, the pottery cow creamer possesses a rather cartoonish charm - much like the plastic tomato shaped sauce dispenser. Its origins lie somewhere back in the first half of the Eighteenth Century with the Dutch taking the credit for their creation.
Certainly plenty of, often garishly coloured, Dutch delft cattle existed during this period though it was probably John Schuppe (a Dutch immigrant silversmith based in London) who was responsible for the first recognisable cow creamer. I say 'probably' because Schuppe's prototype appeared around 1755 and almost immediately (some have suggested perhaps even a year or two earlier) the Staffordshire potters Ralph Wood and Thomas Whieldon produced ceramic equivalents.
Typically a cow creamer stands four square on a simple base with a curled tail forming the handle and an open mouth the spout with a hole and simple cover on the back to allow for filling and to keep flies out – ironic really that Schuppe would often purposely model a fly on the udders or cover of his creations! Flies or not, the public didn't mind who had primacy as creamers became a hit with other Staffordshire potters who jumped on the bovine band wagon, along with pot shops from Glamorgan to Sunderland and onto Portobello in Scotland, each bringing their local palette of colours, a subtle modelling nuance or the inclusion of a farmer, milkmaid, dog and even a lion. However, with the exception of the silver prototype, these were not 'high end' objects. As far as I am aware, not one porcelain manufacturer thought they were worthy subject matter.
Outside of the obvious connection with cream, one has to ask, why cows? From earliest times man has modelled the beasts around him and one can fully understand why he might reproduce the horse, his primary mode of transport, even the lion and unicorn with their royal connotations, but a cow?
The answer lies with the Industrial Revolution in that by the closing decades of the Eighteenth century more of us lived in urban areas. Literally within a generation, people who once inhabited the countryside now lived amongst 'those dark satanic mills'. It was little wonder they sentimentalised the rural idyll, the birds and beasts that were once familiar.
One wonders whether cow creamers were actually used at the table. We have to assume they were, though it does seem strange that only creamers were given the 'folk art' treatment. I've yet to see a matching teapot, a silly sugar box and daft cups. Creamers seem to be standalone conversation pieces, something that spent more time on display.
Unfortunately, their cleanliness was questioned during the cholera epidemics that affected Sunderland and East London from the early 1830s. This adverse publicity caused them unfairly to fall from grace by the 1850s. Before you shed a tear for the innocent, many had unglazed or partially glazed interiors that made cleaning difficult, resulting in food poisoning and almost certainly some premature deaths from listeriosis!
A century of production has left a good number quietly grazing the kitchen dressers and mantelpieces of the nation and if you are in the market for one then the prices range from an affordable £50 for one with damage (commonplace for ears, horns and tails) and up to £1,000 for a 'best in show' and there is always a premium for a nice pair. Let's face it, they are certainly more attractive and collectable than plastic tomatoes, but then as far as I know, nobody has been killed by a sauce dispenser.
Best in Show - A Potted History of Cow Creamers was written on Tuesday, 10th May 2016.