A Glimpse into the Porcelain Cabinet: Ceramics & Antiquity in the Ben Ronalds Collection 

By Alessandra Schultz, Cultures & Histories Volunteer, Queensland Museum

Take a look into the cabinets of the Ben Ronalds Collection of Fine Ceramics and Glassware, in the State Collection, with Cultures & Histories Program Volunteer, Alessandra Schultz. 

For many of us, gazing into the prized porcelain and china cabinets of a mother or grandmother is a fond and familiar childhood memory. As a volunteer, researching the Ben Ronalds Collection in the Cultures and Histories Program at Queensland Museum, I have found myself recalling this memory with a sense of revived curiosity. 

This collection boasts more than 800 pieces of fine ceramics and glassware, including a  significant number of objects produced by Royal Worcester Porcelain Company, and collected personally by Mr Ronalds over a span of 25 years. His collection was donated to Queensland Museum in 1976.  

For the past year, I have been investigating this fascinating collection, undertaking new research, and developing online collection records, so that our online visitors can take their own look into the cabinets of the collection. As a student of Ancient History, I have found vestiges of the ancient world throughout it, influenced and affected by modern reception of antiquity in the more recent past.  

Each piece in the collection reflects some aspect of both change and continuity from antiquity to today – in arts and technologies, in our ideas and values, and in our history, and in everyday life. 

The Influence of the Classical World 

Catching my eye straight away from behind the glass of the collection cabinets was the influence of the classical world, especially of Ancient Greece and Rome, on many of these modern pieces.  

In the first instance, what appeared to be a modern version of a Roman oil lamp on initial glance, I identified to be an inkwell, embellished with oriental-style decoration. These dual influences show the object to constitute a modern re-imagining of an ancient Roman technological form used in the everyday, and its modern (and largely aesthetic) re-purposing – its modern decoration starkly contrasts typical Greco-Roman motifs such as gladiators (pictured below).  

This seemingly simple object exhibits for us a broader modern popularisation of the classical world, here in the Georgian era – an era which experienced the influence of antiquarianism in many aspects of British culture, including in the fashions and forms of household ceramics. We see this sort of modern reception and representation even now…perhaps when you saw the gladiator on this ancient lamp, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator came to mind? 

Inkwell in form of Roman Oil Lamp, Chamberlains Worcester, 1805 (H11427). Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.
Oil Lamp with Gladiator Motif, Circa 1st Century CE (E40228). Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Among other objects to catch my eye, was a pair of Grecian figures posed as water-carriers, skilfully crafted in emulation of the archetypal Greco-Roman statue. In a similar way to the inkwell, the influence of an ancient art form on the style of the figures is remarkable, yet each reflect something of the romanticism with which the ancient world has continued to be received since the days of thriving antiquarianism.  

We can see the influence of the classical aesthetic, as the appeal of opulence is reflected in the fine clothing and jewellery of the figures. We see this despite the historical inaccuracy of such figures, as water-carriers (like any other labourer in antiquity) would not have possessed the wealth or status to warrant their own depiction in stone, nor would a wealthy, well-dressed woman have carried out this everyday task. 

Nevertheless, the figures’ forms reflect an enduring fascination with, and appreciation of, the more glamourous aspects of the ancient world, which continued from the Georgian, into the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It reveals to us the ever-presence of antiquity in contemporary trends, and a continuity in the way societies have perceived, interpreted, and appreciated the ancient world over recent centuries – a fascination which often continues to look back at us from our own china cabinets and mantelpieces. 

Figures of Grecian Water-Carriers, Royal Porcelain Works, 1903-4 (H11638 & H11639). 
Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.  

An Ancient Legacy 

I was fascinated to find not only influences, but legacies of the ancient world in some objects, particularly in those which at first glance seemed quintessentially modern. On taking a closer look, I found them to reveal small but significant elements of the ancient past.  

This was the case with a cream-coloured porcelain beaker, featuring a portrait of Queen Victoria, produced in commemoration of her Golden Jubilee. I noticed its central plaque to bear an inscription of the years ‘1837-1887’, along with the Latin phrase ‘Victoria Dei Gratia’ (‘By the Grace of God’). It immediately called to mind the imagery and legends of Imperial Roman coinage which typically feature a portrait head of an Emperor and often the Latin epithet ‘Divus’ (‘The Divine’), as in the case of the Emperor Trajan (pictured below).  

Though less obvious, these traces of antiquity survive in our modern world in many ways – in this case, revealed by the imagery and language used in association with monarchs of empires past, from the recognition and commemoration of their reigns, to their place in collective memory, and as national history; in Rome, as in Britain, and Australia. 

Queen Victoria Beaker,  Royal Porcelain Works, 1887 (H11505). Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.
Obverse Face of Gold Aureus Coin of Trajan, Circa 102-117 CE (RE3 (142) (699)). The Trustees of the British Museum.

Ceramics Abound  

These are just a few of the many ceramics in the Ben Ronalds collection, housed in the cabinets of Queensland Museum.  

Just as the ancient world has left its legacy to us in many of these ceramics, so too has more recent history, and the Royal Worcester Porcelain Company itself. Without them we would not possess such traces of history in our own porcelain cabinets, each with a story to share. 

As I have found, these objects can provide a window into the past, illuminating changes and continuities, from antiquity to today.  

While these objects can simply be admired, with little more than a glimpse, I am sure you too will find that there is much more to be discovered by delving into the porcelain cabinet. 

If you’d like to catch more of a glimpse into the cabinets of the Ben Ronalds Collection, be sure to browse our online collections. Remember to check back now and then as we continue to develop our online collections!