Birds, Bugs and Butterflies: Lady Betty Cobbe’s ‘Peacock’ China

Alec Cobbe introduces his new book about his reassembling of the Cobbe ‘peacock’ service, commissioned from the newly founded Worcester factory by his ancestor Lady Betty Cobbe in the mid-18th century, and sold from his family home Newbridge House in 1920.

Newbridge House lies some miles outside Dublin and was built in the late 1740s to the designs of James Gibbs for my forebear Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin. In 1755 he presented the house and estate to his son Thomas, who had just married the elegant Lady Betty Beresford, daughter of the 1st Earl of Tyrone. Together, Thomas and Lady Betty set about enlarging and beautifying the house, commissioning furniture, collecting pictures, assembling a cabinet of curiosities, and buying porcelain. The contents of the house have survived to a remarkable extent to the present time. However up to 1986 no trace of any mid-18th century table service was in the house. It was in that year that Sotheby’s sold a knife and fork with porcelain handles, described as ‘from the Cobbe service’. This reminded me that an aunt had told me as a boy that the “Cobbe service” had been auctioned in London “plate by plate”.

Having grown up in Newbridge and being immersed in the history of its collections for all my life, I bought the knife and fork and embarked on a journey of tracking down everything I could find out about the sold service. Research located some early inventories of the house which established that in the early 19th century a likely candidate was named the ‘Peacock’ service and included 321 pieces, and this could be linked to a Worcester service in a 1914 inventory, where the remaining 150 or so pieces were among the most valuable heirlooms in the house. Following up on my aunt’s remark that the service was sold at a time unknown, and at an unidentified auction house was no simple challenge, but a happy find in the art-historical RKD library at The Hague uncovered that it was in a sale at Christie’s in 1920. The catalogue was unearthed from the archives of Christie’s, which provided full details of what the remaining service consisted of. That showed that my aunt had been correct in remembering the plates were sold individually, albeit a pair at a time. Edwardian photographs of Newbridge interiors were found that showed that the service was still in use and that the more decorative pieces were displayed on tables. 

Over the last thirty years, around 180 pieces were bought back for repatriation to Newbridge, coming up piece by piece in auctions and with dealers. The decoration of the service consists of a variety of exotic birds, insects and beetles surrounded by gilt cartouches, and reflects the interest of Thomas and Lady Betty in the natural world. Sources for the decoration were found to be engravings in early books on birds, some printed near Worcester in Birmingham. Research for this book has established that the Cobbe ‘Peacock’ service must originally have consisted of some 500 pieces, which makes it the largest dinner and desert service recorded from any British porcelain manufactory of the mid-18th century. Moreover, in British porcelain it is unique in having matching porcelain cutlery handles.

The launch of the book is celebrated by an exhibition at Dublin Castle of the recovered porcelain, together with research into the decoration and its sources and the background of Lady Betty’s home at Newbridge House and her childhood home of Curraghmore House, Co. Waterford, both of which survive today in remarkably untouched states.

Page Spread from Birds, Bugs and Butterflies

Alec Cobbe is an artist and designer. As a passionate collector, he added to his family’s historic collections and assembled the world’s largest group of composer-owned keyboard instruments.

Birds, Bugs and Butterflies
by Alec Cobbe
Hardback, 194 colour illustrations, 9781783274727, £29.25 or $52

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