ELIZABETH Craven was no shrinking violet, even when judged by the freer moral standards of 18th century England.
As a socialite with a scandal-packed life, her marriage to Lord
William Craven, a cousin of George III, was reportedly punctuated
with many affairs including a much publicised liaison with Le Comte
de Guines. Many of these dalliances took place at Craven Cottage,
her luxurious Thameside retreat now better known as the site of
Fulham Football Club.
She separated from her husband in 1780 and, tiring of her
affairs, Lord Craven banished her to France three years later. She
spent eight years in exile travelling through Europe and the Crimea
and formed a new relationship with the Margrave of Anspach, a
nephew to Frederick the Great and Queen Caroline of England. She
devoted much time petitioning on the Margrave's behalf for him to
obtain the blue ribbon of the Order of the Garter.
When Lord Craven died in 1791, the couple returned to England,
married and set up in some style at Brandenburg House in
Hammersmith as the Margrave and Margravine of Anspach.
Although much of society gave them the cold shoulder, Elizabeth
then resumed her interest as a playwright - an activity she dabbled
in before her exile but now conducted from a theatre built
alongside her own house. Her theatre-opening in April 1793,
followed by a lavish masquerade ball, was attended by the Prince of
Wales and Duke of Clarence and accompanied by a supply of
outrageous costumes from the Margravine.
The Margrave's finances were stretched to match this lavish
lifestyle. After his death in 1806, his wife returned to the
Continent, settling in Naples. There she died, at Craven Villa, in
Many aspects of this colourful life are reflected in the
extraordinary 6 1/2in (16.5cm) high late 18th century teapot which
came up for sale at Bonhams on April 8.
The teapot first appeared for sale on the open market in 1875 at
Sotheby's when it was purchased by the then Earl of Craven, and his
descendants sold it a century later at Christie's in 1979.
The choice of the teapot shape appears to be a reference to one
of Elizabeth Craven's earliest theatrical endeavours The Sleep
Walker of 1778 which mentions a character shaped like a teapot
in the prologue. The play is quoted on one side of the blue ribbon
swathed around the character's ample form along with the additional
inscription Performed at Newbury, Written by Lady C.
But plainly there are other more ribald allusions. The other
side of the ribbon is punningly emblazoned in bold letters Lady
Craveing's Teapot, surely no casual misspelling of her name.
The prominent flesh-coloured spout rising up from the lower body of
the teapot hints at further double entendres, while the choice of a
teapot could also refer to her notorious tea parties at Craven
According to Bonhams, the piece has long been held to be a
likeness of Lady Craven, although why she should be wearing an
officer's uniform is not clear. One suggestion is that this refers
to her travelling companion Henry Vernon. But, given the prominence
of the blue garter, could an alternative suggestion be that the pot
portrays her lover/husband the Margave of Anspach? Or alternatively
could it be an amalgam of the couple?
Whatever the decoding, one cannot help but wonder for whom this
piece was made and who produced it.
It has no direct parallel in 18th century English porcelain (the
nearest is perhaps the much later small group of Royal Worcester
teapots satirising the aesthetic dandy of Gilbert and Sullivan's
opera Patience). This example is more like a three
dimensional version of a satirical cartoon by Gillray or Rowandson
and could have been a special commission.
Of course there is no accounting for taste, especially when
viewed through the lens of a 200 year gap, but it hardly seems
likely to have been commissioned by a friend or admirer of Lady
As to manufacture, with a late 18th century dating (partly on
style, partly on its relation to Lady Craven's life story) the
consensus is that the most likely candidate is Derby. It was
catalogued as such by Christie's in 1979.
To some extent though, the factory is not of prime importance
any more than the condition (it has restored cracks and breaks to
the cover, body and base). The interest here lies in the teapot as
a seemingly unique slice of social history.
How does one value such an object? Bonhams opted for a guide of
£5000-8000 but the final price would surely be anyone's guess. In
the event it fetched £19,000 (plus 20 per cent buyer's premium)
with several London dealers in the room outpaced by a telephone
A museum is one obvious candidate for such a piece but there was
also much post sale trade speculation that the buyer could be
As a known collector of teapots and author of Ceramics,
Ethics and Scandal, which looks at the 18th century through
the ceramics of the period, Lady Craven's teapot could well have
been on her shopping list.
By Anne Crane