Purchase Story

Wilkes and Liberty No. 45

Robert Hunter, collector, dealer, and editor of Ceramics in America, has always had an interest in historical ceramics. When he learned that Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury, U.K. was offering a 5" tall creamware mug with a portrait of a bewigged, red-robed, and cross-eyed fellow with words in a banner reading “Wilkes & Liberty No. 45,” he had to have it. He bought it on the phone for £12,200 (with buyer’s premium), nearly ten times its high estimate (£800/1200). That converts to a little more than $15,000 ($15,164).

The 5" tall creamware mug with a portrait of John Wilkes and a banner reading “Wilkes & Liberty No. 45” sold for $15,164. Robert Hunter photo.

“I thought it a bargain,” said Hunter, when reached by phone, after Roland Arkell, writing in the Antiques Trade Gazette, a British weekly, identified Hunter as the buyer at the February 28 sale.

“The mug is a rare form. The condition is wonderful, and when you think that those ‘No Stamp Act’ teapots have sold for around $100,000, and Wilkes influenced the generation leading up to independence, it was a fair price,” he said.

The underbidder was an English collector. “Wilkes is collected here and in the U.K.,” said Hunter, who had no trouble selling the mug to a collector and said that he had a long line of buyers who wanted it.

Why was John Wilkes an idol in Colonial America?

Jack Lynch, a Rutgers University professor, wrote an article titled “Wilkes, Liberty, and Number 45” for the summer 2003 Colonial Williamsburg Journal that explains it well (www.history.org/Foundation/journal/summer03/wilkes.cfm). It is a good read that makes you think that No. 45 somehow stands for scandalous behavior. Lynch describes Wilkes, a member of Parliament, as “a political agitator…demagogue, wit…and a shameless self-promoter,” but because Wilkes was a friend of freedom, he was an idol for America’s Revolutionary generation.

According to Lynch, even though Benjamin Franklin called Wilkes “an outlaw…of bad personal character, not worth a farthing,” James Otis, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock wrote in his favor, and Arthur Lee, a Virginia law student in London, visited him in prison in 1768. Cities were named for him—Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and Wilkesboro, North Carolina—and John Wilkes Booth was named for him too.

Known for his wicked humor and ambition for political power, Wilkes is best known for his essay that appeared in issue number 45 of The North Briton, his newspaper that was full of scandalous rumors and insults designed to ridicule King George III and his ministers, especially Lord Bute, who Wilkes said was involved in an affair with the Queen Mother, Isabella. He named it The North Briton as a dig at Lord Bute’s Scottish origins. It sold 2000 copies a week, ten times as many as the government-friendly The Briton. Wilkes tormented Bute, who resigned in 1763, and for a time Wilkes let The North Briton lapse. He revived it after he saw a draft of the king’s speech to Parliament, and Wilkes wrote his most vicious essay yet, No. 45, which appeared on April 23, 1763. Though No. 45 does not seem so incendiary today, there was a rule that the king was above reproach and only his ministers could be criticized. No. 45 is filled with anti-monarchical witticisms considered treasonable. A number of trials kept Wilkes in the limelight, and he won. The phrase “Wilkes and Liberty” was heard across London, and No. 45 became a symbol of radical politics, a revolt against the government.

Emboldened by his popularity, Wilkes reprinted No. 45 and also printed a pornographic poem he wrote with his friend Thomas Potter titled An Essay on Woman, which was a parody on Alexander Pope’s dignified Essay on Man.

Salt-glazed stoneware mug made by James Morgan in Cheesequake, New Jersey, 1775-85, with the inscription “No. 45” and a “GR” medallion. Robert Hunter photo.

Wilkes was expelled from the House of Commons and charged with blasphemous libel. He left the country and lived in exile for four years supported by donations from wealthy Whigs. He then returned in 1768, still an outlaw but politically ambitious and a popular hero. Middlesex elected him to the House of Commons again, after which he was arrested and imprisoned for his role in publishing The North Briton and An Essay on Woman. From prison he addressed his outraged supporters, who broke out in deadly riots. Shortly before his 22-month prison term ended, Wilkes was made an alderman for the city of London. In 1771 he became sheriff of London and Middlesex, and in 1774 he became Lord Mayor of London. Three weeks later he was elected again to Parliament for Middlesex, and finally—on his fifth election to the seat—he was allowed to serve. He remained in the House of Commons for 16 years.

Lynch points out that when Americans were engaged in their own disputes with the king’s government, they saw the radical Wilkes as a champion of the powerless against the privileged. As a populist Wilkes defended religious liberty, prisoners’ rights, and the freedom of the press. He denounced the Declaratory and Townshend Acts and never stopped criticizing the war on America as “unjust, felonious and murderous.” When he returned to the House of Parliament in 1774, his arguments rarely carried the day, but Lynch said his failures may have been as important for America as his successes. “Historians have argued that Wilkes’s thwarted attempt to represent Middlesex was a turning point in American dealings with Britain. The government’s behavior persuaded the colonists that the system was damaged beyond repair, that liberty meant nothing to the king, and that a solution would be found only in their own nation,” Lynch wrote.

According to Arkell in the Antiques Trade Gazette, there are a handful of delftware plates with Wilkes’s portrait, often showing him cross-eyed. One sold for £4500 in 2014 at Bonhams. The rare mug sold by Woolley & Wallis for £10,000 last sold in September 2011 at Tennants in Leyburn as part of a country house sale when it slipped through for £300. Where was Hunter then?

Hunter did not miss a salt-glazed stoneware mug made by James Morgan of Cheesequake, New Jersey, 1775-85, with the inscription “No. 45” and the “GR” medallion when it was cataloged as German at a New England auction house in 2014. Hunter recognized that No. 45 referred to The North Briton, No. 45,and knew that it appears on all sorts of items from punch bowls to coat buttons. He wrote about it in the 2014 Ceramics in America. Before that Arthur Goldberg and Peter Warwick wrote an article published in the 2008 Ceramics in America on stoneware production in New Jersey, and Meta Janowitz wrote about archaeological evidence of  pottery in Manhattan made by the Crolius and Remmey families. In these two essays, evidence of Westerwald-style vessels with the “GR” medallion for the British monarchs imported from Germany was discussed, and that they also were made in America, although no surviving American GR vessels had been recorded then.

The “No. 45 / GR” mug was offered in a lot together with a German cobalt-decorated salt-glazed teapot at the New England auction house. When Hunter examined them at the preview he knew the teapot was indeed a German Westerwald product, but the mug was American. He calls the mug “the most important American 18th-century political ceramic in existence.” It, too, is now in a private collection.

Originally published in the May 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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