The Cruel Sea

As we mentioned in our first post on the subject it was an International Exhibition-related enquiry that first directed us towards the now-digitised 1873 Vienna catalogue, and this same enquiry also brought to our attention the story of a vessel which had foundered whilst carrying items purchased at the exhibition back to Japan. This in turn reminded us of another shipwreck – one referenced within the Archive – and a new blog post was born…

The first of these two shipwrecks is mentioned in Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures, the volume in which designer – and Minton collaborator – Christopher Dresser recounts his visit to the country soon after it was re-opened to the West. In it he describes how the Japanese government requested that a number of pieces be purchased from the 1873 Vienna Exhibition for inclusion in a soon-to-be-established museum in Tokyo, and how on their journey back to Japan these items were lost when the ship sank in what is now known as Tokyo Bay.

Knowing that Dresser would soon be visiting Japan the director of the South Kensington Museum, Philip Cunliffe Owen (who featured in our analysis of the Vienna catalogue), encouraged him to approach his manufacturing friends to appeal for items to replace those lost in the shipwreck. These requests were successful and:

[…] the result was that I took with me to Tokio a collection of objects such as could only prove valuable to the Imperial Museum.

Subsequent to Dresser’s donation items were successfully recovered from the wreck and it was from these that our initial Vienna Exhibition enquiry was formed; however, this isn’t the only International Exhibition-related shipwreck we’re aware of, and aspects of the second are documented within the Minton Archive.

In March 1878 a ship named the Loch Ard set sail from England for Australia; on board was a huge 1.5m (5ft) high majolica peacock made by Minton and bound for the Melbourne International Exhibition. A few months later, off the coast of Victoria near the town of Port Campbell, Loch Ard struck a reef after becoming disorientated in fog and was wrecked with all but two on board perishing during the event. Just two days later the crate containing the peacock would be dragged onto the beach of a nearby gorge as part of an early salvage operation, though when this was abruptly ended it seems as though the crate was once again consumed by the sea before being rescued for a second time by another party. (They, more sensibly, hauled it to the clifftop and out of the reach of further storms!)

Incredibly, despite this ordeal the peacock emerged from its shipping crate intact – save for a chip on its beak! – and was kept by a member of the salvage syndicate before eventually being put up for auction and sold into a private collection. In 1975 it appeared again for sale and urgent fundraising secured its future on display at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village in Warrnambool, a city just 70km west of where it was first pulled ashore.

Minton, undeterred by the first catastrophe, would ship a second peacock for their exhibition display at Melbourne and it seems as though this may have introduced some later confusion over the number of Australian peacocks in existence. A file of correspondence in the Archive contains letters from various interested parties seeking to clarify both the number and whereabouts of the peacocks produced by the company, with one note concluding that “nine peacocks in all are thought to be in circulation”.

The “Loch Ard Peacock” may have swapped its place at the 1880 Melbourne Exhibition for a spot on Victoria’s Shipwreck Coast but happily this mis-step would eventually be corrected. In 1980 it was displayed at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building as part of its centennial celebrations and would also be featured at the entrance to the Victorian Pavilion at a slightly different kind of international exhibition – Brisbane’s World Expo 88.