Book Shorts

The story of an Irish family’s history and its porcelain service are woven together in this fascinating book

The recovery of a Worcester soft-paste collection sheds light on 18th-century Anglo-Irish culture

A Worcester porcelain Dutch jug decorated in Lady Betty Cobbe’s “Peacock” pattern (after 1763) Courtesy of the Cobbe Collection. Photography by Alexey Moskvin

The subtitle of this book provides the clue to its genesis and meaning. The Worcester porcelain “Peacock” service that is the subject of this book was once a Cobbe family heirloom and, subsequent to its final dispersal at a Christie’s auction in 1920, the author, Alec Cobbe, has assiduously tracked down the individual pieces and, where he could, reassembled the service. He has faced formidable obstacles in his detective work, not least the destruction of the Worcester factory archives for the period in which in his ancestor, Lady Betty Cobbe, was buying the service.

The result (although not as yet complete), is, like any good detective novel, satisfying. The Worcester soft-paste porcelain service was composed over a number of years from 1763 by Thomas and Lady Betty Cobbe (her title was that as a daughter of the Earl of Tyrone) for their home, Newbridge House, in County Dublin. It consisted of some 500 pieces at its height, and took its name from its predominant decorative feature. Over the years pieces were dispersed, broken or otherwise dispensed with, so that only 150 pieces remained in 1920.

The author has spent his life conserving the family’s honour, coming to an agreement in 1985 by which Newbridge House and its lands became the property of Dublin County Council (now Fingal Country Council), while its contents—pictures, furniture and archives—remained in the family’s possession and care. This book not only describes the service, but tells the story of its assembly, dispersal and partial recovery (Cobbe has managed to recover some 160 pieces for display in the house.) In addition to the service, Lady Betty had a full set of Irish silver and steel cutlery fitted with matching Worcester porcelain handles, of which a number has been found and bought back. The Boydell Press deserves a prize for the quality of its production values; the illustrations are immaculate and the fonts are impeccably clear.

  • Alec Cobbe, Birds, Bugs and Butterflies: Lady Betty Cobbe’s 'Peacock' China. A Biography of an Irish Service of Worcester Porcelain, The Boydell Press, 143pp, £45 (hb)