Circus dinner service

Dame Laura Knight, 1877 - 1970

Circus dinner service

Dame Laura Knight 1877 - 1970


Earthenware dinner service comprising twelve dinner plates, nine dessert plates, ten side plates, ten soup bowls, four oval serving plates, two lidded tureens and a lidded sauceboat. Outline of pattern printed overglaze in purple, then hand-painted in multi-coloured enamels and gilding overglaze with various circus ring scenes. SHAPES: Earthenware dinner service comprising twelve circular dinner plates, nine circular dinner plates, ten ciruclar side plates, ten circular soup dishes, four oval serving plates of graduating sizes, two circular lidded tureens, and a circular lidded sauce boat with stand. PATTERNS: Patterns partly printed in purple overglaze enamel and partly painted in multi-coloured overglaze enamels, with gilding around the border. The well of each plate is yellow, decorated with a circus ring scene. These comprise: (1) three dark haired females in white decorated leotards and pink tights juggling with green and orange bottles (dinner, soup dish); (2) a dark haired female in a pink and green dress perched on the end of a black spotted, green harnessed horse (dinner, dessert, soup dish); (3) man in evening dress dancing with a white dancing bear with a green muzzle and large pink bow tied around its head (dinner, dessert, soup dish); (4) three brightly dressed clowns, one viewed from the back, the other sideways and one three quarter (dinner, two dessert, soup dish); (5) two clowns one dressed as a pierrot holding a fish, the other top hatted holding a fishing line (dinner, soup dish); (6) man in evening dress with whip standing partially behind a pink harnessed rearing skewbald horse (dinner, dessert, soup dish); (7) three seals balancing green and purple balls on their noses (dinner, dessert, soup dish); (8) female in a brief green costume perched on the centre of a black spotted horse and facing sideways (dinner plate); (9) man from the back with short pink coat and a parasol balancing on the tightrope (dinner plate); (10) lion tamer in loose green trousers standing over a recumbent lion (dinner, dessert, soup dish); (11) three dark haired pink females with green shoes, sitting on trapeze swings (dinner, soup dish); (12) three men, one performing a handstand on a pile of orange and white blocks, one in a crab position and one bending backwards (dinner, two dessert, soup dish); (13) two dappled ponies, with a green and orange harness and plumes, framed by heavy pink curtains (side plates and inside the bowl of the tureens); (14) two dancing females in pink dresses with green bows in their hair, and on the right a bowing clown with pinstriped trousers and tailed coat and behind two dappled horses seen partially through the pink curtains, flanked on the right by a clown and on the left by possibly the ring master (serving dishes). BORDERS: (a) Borders of dinner, dessert and soup dishes are divided into ten equal sections, each one filled with the heads and shoulders of the crowd in pink, and one double section, by radiating pink lines that taper towards the rim of the plate and simulate tent poles. (b) Double section, above circus ring scene, shows a clown against a black starry sky, coming through pink curtains, with green and purple stripes on either side. A narrow festoon of pink and gilt flowers joins each pole, and green and purple stripes above this simulate tent material. (c) Border of side plates are similar but without the crowd and clown, and are divided into eight sections. (d) Border of oval plate divided into ten sections, narrower around the curves of the dish. The central section above the main scene shows two kneeling women, one in a green leotard, the other in a yellow leotard, leaning backwards and linking hands. Above two narrow sections over the curve, the women are both peforming the splits, one behind the other, but one leans to the left, the other to the right (motif repeated on tureen and base of sauce boat). SAUCE BOATS AND TUREENS: (i) Tureens are circular with integral handles elongating the rim of the bowl to an oval. Handles have relief motif of two females doing the splits (as before on oval dishes but in relief; these also form handles of sauce boat). (ii) Rim of bowl has a repeat of the side plate border. (iii) Domed lid encircled by dinner/dessert/soup plate border, and surmounted by a sculptural figure of a brightly dressed clown, sitting with legs split, on a yellow star, forming the knob. (Clown and star repeated on sauce boat lid). (iv) Sauce boat stands on a circular base elongated to an oval by the same integral relief-moulded handles as on the tureens. (v) Pattern on sauce boat is in four sections, two on either side, with the crowd inbetween. (v) Sauce boat is a circular urn-shaped vessel encircled by the side plate border, with flared spreading foot and simple loop handle joined at the neck. (vi) Flattened dome lid, with hole cut for ladle, surmounted by clown. In summary, they are earthernware printed and painted in overglaze enamels with guilding and decorated with different scenes from the circus. Circus dinner service, 1934 Designed by Dame Laura Knight Made by A. J. Wilkinson Earthenware, printed and painted in overglaze enamels with guilding Artist Laura Knight was commissioned by the pottery firm A. J. Wilkinson to design a 12 piece dinner service for the ‘Modern Art for the Table’ initiative exhibited at Harrods in 1934. The Art Deco style Bizarre Ware by its Art Director, the eminent designer Clarice Cliff, was used for these new decorations. The exhibition featured in 'British Art and Industry' at the Royal Academy in 1935 followed by a UK tour. It then toured to Australia in 1936. The circus was a favoured theme in Knight’s paintings. Her elaborate Circus design used the shapes of Cliff’s dinner service to great advantage. The Big Top provided the perfect subject. The audience around the rims look into a variety of acts Knight had seen whilst on tour with travelling circuses. Although ambitious and influential in its aim to raise the standard of British design by encouraging the involvement of artists in industry, the scheme was ultimately an unsuccessful commercial venture. It was too impractical to translate the artists’ designs into mass produced pieces. This table service was originally bought at Harrods by popular Lancashire entertainer, Gracie Fields. Laura Knight had moved to Lamorna in Cornwall in 1907 with her husband, the artist Harold Knight. Along with artists Lamorna Birch, Alfred Munnings and Areister Crowley, they became central figures of the Newlyn artists' colony. During the early 1920s, Knight visited and painted the Bertram Mills circus at Olympia in west London. She later went on a tour of British towns with the combined Bertrand Mills and Great Carmo's circus between 1929 and 1930. She had to work quickly as the performers very rarely had time to pose for her. Laura Knight was the first woman elected as a Royal Academician in 1936 and the first to have a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1965.

Display Label

Circus dinner service Designed by Laura Knight, 1934 Produced by AJ Wilkinson Earthenware, with transfer-printed and painted decoration This splendid and colourful dinner service was designed by the artist Laura Knight under the supervision of ceramics designer Clarice Cliff. The lavish decoration magically transforms the platter into a circus ring surrounded by cheering crowds, whilst each dinner plate shows a different circus act. The service is both a work of art and a fantastic design, even down to the tureen handles modelled as clowns. Purchased with the assistance of the MGC/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, The Art Fund, the Corporate Patrons of Manchester City Galleries and the Friends of Manchester City Galleries 1992.182/48

Object Name

Circus dinner service

Creators Name

Dame Laura Knight

Date Created

Design 1934 & Production 1936


side plates: 1.5cm
dessert plates: 2cm
dinner plates: 2.2cm
serving dish: 3cm x 24.8cm
soup plates: 3.6cm
serving dish: 4.2cm x 28.9cm
serving dish: 4.8cm x 33.7cm
serving dish: 5.4cm x 37.8cm

accession number


Place of creation




Purchased with the assistance from the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and with the assistance of The Art Fund and the Corporate Patrons of Manchester City Galleries and The Friends of Manchester City Galleries.


Clarice Cliff ® is a Registered Trademark of Josiah Wedgewood & Sons Limited

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