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Coffee with Sir Joshua Reynolds

16th June 2021.

A pair of Chinese Qianlong Period coffee cups commissioned by society portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds are to be included in Tennants Auctioneers’ Summer Fine Sale on 16th & 17th and sold in two lots with an estimate of £200-300 each. The coffee cups and saucers are decorated with a constructed monogram, almost certainly designed by Reynolds himself, which contains all the letters in SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS.

The cups are an example of Chinese Armorial Ware, for which there was a thriving trade from the 17th to 19th centuries. Wealthy European families would send a painting of their Arms to China, and a service decorated with their family crest would be sent back to Britain – usually after a lengthy wait. From 1695 to 1820, some 4000 families are known to have imported crested services, however the export trade ceased in the 19th century when a hefty import tax was imposed to protect the British potteries, which made imported porcelain prohibitively expensive. Chinese Armorial Ware charts both the changing styles of Chinese porcelain and the social history of British aristocratic families. The style of the present cups, which comprise a grey ground with blue underglaze decoration around the moulded rims, can be dated to the Qianlong period circa 1785.

The service is noted in David Sanctuary Howard’s ‘Chinese Armorial Porcelain’ (Faber & Faber, London, 1974), with an illustration of a caddy, which is held in the collection of Dr Johnson’s House in the City of London. A further example, a 9 ½ inch diameter plate, was sold at Christie’s in 1997. Whilst the artist rarely used the Reynolds family coat of arms, the same constructed monogram was used on a set of gaming chips or counters.

Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was born in Plympton, Devon, the son of a clergyman and master of the Plympton Grammar School. At the age of 18 he moved to London to be apprenticed to the portrait painter Thomas Hudson. Reynolds became an illustrious society portrait painter and rose to join their ranks. He was knighted in 1769, following his founding of the Royal Academy of Art the previous year.

The coffee cups hail from the private collection of the Aylmer family, who are descended from Sir Joshua Reynolds’ elder sister, Mary Palmer (1716-1794).


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