Last week when I was in London to present a lecture to the English Ceramic Circle, I had the opportunity to revisit the British Museum, one of my favorite museums in the world. As always, I made a beeline to the classical galleries, particularly those focusing on ancient Greece and Rome. Many of the works there remind me that even though thousands of years may have passed the needs of humans remain basically unchanged, including the need to be entertained.
Although I am not a fan of violence, I was struck by a wonderful pair of ancient Roman ceramic boxers (a popular form of entertainment in Greek and Roman times). The British Museum’s boxers have quite a lot in common with fighters dating much later in Winterthur’s collection. Below are the British Museum’s unglazed earthenware boxers, which date to a century or so before the time of Christ.
According to the British Museum’s caption, “The older, balding boxer is staggering back from an upper cut. Their gloves are Roman caestus, equipped with balls of lead to give a brutal blow.” Nearby text reminds us that back when such objects were being made, boxing was not only important as a spectator sport but it also was an essential skill learned by soldiers.
Nearly 2,000 years later, ceramic boxers were being produced and admired in England. Unlike the apparently anonymous ancient fighters, the Staffordshire pearlware examples at Winterthur portray important boxing matches that were reported in newspapers. The two single (free-standing) boxers shown below represent the English bare-knuckle fighters Tom Cribb and Tom Molyneux. The inspirations for the models may be an 1812 print celebrating the duo’s famous second fight.
Winterthur’s second boxing group commemorates an 1860 match between New Yorker John Carmel Heenan and the champion of England, Tom Sayers. Although the ceramic fighters might not look all that ferocious, the boxing match was considered by many to be the most savage of the 1800s. The fight ended in a draw, and both fighters were awarded a champion’s belt.
The figures shown here were not the only ones to portray such subjects, and similar themes remain popular through modern times. Just go online and do a search on Mohammed Ali and ceramics and you’ll see what I mean!
Post by Leslie B. Grigsby, Senior Curator of Ceramics & Glass, Winterthur