Doulton at Chicago World’s Fair

by Louise Irvine

A colossal Doulton Faience vase, made for the Maharaja of Baroda, welcomes visitors at the entrance to WMODA. Surprisingly, there are two of these enormous works of art. The second was Doulton’s centerpiece at the World’s Columbian Fair held in Chicago in 1893.

World’s Columbian Fair

The Chicago exhibition marked the mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World in 1492. The large lagoon created in the center of the exhibition site symbolized his long voyage. The scale and grandeur of the exposition was unprecedented. More than 200 neo-classical style buildings extended over 690 acres, which became known as the White City.

The fair was illuminated by electricity, a wondrous invention which powered many new-fangled contraptions. Neon lights, telephones, dishwashers, fans, and radiators captured the imagination of the public and visitors swarmed to experience the “celestial fire” that would change their lives forever. The giant ferris wheel was a favorite amusement, which carried riders to dizzying heights day and night.

More than 27 million people attended the fair during its six-month run to get a glimpse of the future. 46 different countries were represented and showcased 65,000 exhibits. The Chicago Fair had a profound effect on science, arts, and industry around the world, as well as the pride of the Doulton Potteries in England.

Doulton in Chicago

Sir Henry Doulton believed profoundly in the importance of international exhibitions to promote the work of his factories and he encouraged his artists, “Be first or not at all for to be second is to be nowhere.” They certainly marked his words as the Doulton Potteries won seven of the highest awards at Chicago, the largest number achieved by any potters. The Doulton pavilion was filled with masterpieces from Doulton’s Lambeth and Burslem studios and at the center was a massive Faience vase, standing over six feet tall.

Apparently, a slight firing flaw in the massive vase intended for the Maharaja of Baroda, prompted Sir Henry Doulton to send it to Chicago. Miss Florence Lewis, the head artist at the Lambeth studio, was responsible for the decoration of tropical flowers, which was remarkably similar in the two commissions. Miss Lewis painted several monumental vases for the international exhibitions of the Victorian era as well as several major commissions for the Maharaja’s palace in India.

Northwestern University

The Lambeth Faience vase was purchased by the ladies of Northwestern University Guild, who had raised funds to beautify their campus. Apparently, the ladies visited the fair at least 20 times and the Doulton representative, Mr. Ford, was as charming on their last encounter as he was on the first. The price of the vase was $6,000 but at the end of the fair the shrewd ladies negotiated their cost down to $600 including duty so that it did not have to be shipped back to London. It was displayed at the Lunt Library along with other acquisitions from the exhibition, including a frieze of wall paintings depicting Doulton’s production processes by William Rowe.

Museum of Science and Industry

The vase was crated up in 1915 when the university needed more space and it “disappeared” until 1940 when it was given to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. During the 1980s, when I was researching Doulton’s exhibits at the World’s Fair, I visited the MSI and saw the vase languishing in their basement. At that time, the ladies of the University Guild were negotiating to have the vase returned to their campus to celebrate their 95th anniversary and I was invited to unveil the vase at Scott Hall in 1987.

The vase went back to the MSI in time for the museum’s 80th anniversary in 2013. The 80@80 exhibition featured the progress of innovation and ingenuity in 80 key objects from the museum’s collection. Margaret Schlesinger, the curator at MSI, sent us updated photos of the Chicago vase on exhibition and has advised that it is now “resting” again in storage at the museum.

Come see the matching vase at WMODA made for the Maharaja of Baroda.

Read about the Chicago Fair exhibits from Doulton’s Burslem factory...

World Expo Wares at WMODA

Read about the Maharaja Vase at WMODA