Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

Attributed to Ralph Wood, the Younger (British, 1748-1795), after Ralph Wood the Elder (British, 1715-1772)
ca. 1790
United Kingdom: England: Staffordshire: Burslem
England, for export
ceramic; earthenware with polychrome enamels
Overall: 13 1/8 in x 5 in x 4 1/2 in; 33.3375 cm x 12.7 cm x 11.43 cm
Ex-collection Benjamin Ginsburg of New York, New York; to Christie's, New York, Sale 5412, October 15, 1983, Lot 72; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase
On plinth, inscribed "Dr. Franklin."
Credit Line
Funds contributed by Mrs. Lili-Charlotte Sarnoff
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Related Objects

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ceramic; earthenware with blue and black underglaze slip and black and gilt overglaze

Object Essay

Diplomat, statesman, philanthropist, inventor, scientist, writer, humorist, and printer, Benjamin Franklin has long been considered a major figure in the history of the American colonial struggle for independence.1For details of Franklin’s life, see Labaree et al.; Wright 1986. His roles in representing American concerns in England, securing the French support of the Revolution, and negotiating the peace with English authorities are well known. During his lifetime he was a familiar figure as well in England and France. It is his popularity abroad, at least in part, to which this figure speaks. 

Although he retired from the printing business in 1748 to spend the rest of his life in pursuit of “philosophical studies,” Franklin was chosen in 1754 to represent Pennsylvania at the Albany Congress and was sent to London in 1757 to argue a taxation problem before the British government. He spent sixteen of the next eighteen years in London representing American interests, until 1775, when the fragile peace between England and the American colonies was all but breached. While in London, he received doctor of law degrees from St. Andrews (1759) and Oxford (1762) Universities. 

This pearlware figure was probably made by Ralph Wood the Younger as a memorial following Franklin’s death in 1790.2For more on pearlware, see Acc. No. 81.31. It was based on a much earlier figure by Ralph Wood the Elder (1715–1772), which may have been made in recognition of Franklin’s popularity in England at the time his degrees were granted, or perhaps as a result of his famous examination before the House of Commons in 1766.3For an illustration of the earlier figure, see Falkner, pl. 9, no. 37; or Sotheby Parke-Bernet, Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection, April 11, 1980, Lot 97. This earlier figure was colored with translucent glazes identified with Ralph Wood the Elder, while the Department of State’s figure was decorated with the colored enamels characteristic of the later versions assigned to his son. Falkner lists the Franklin figure as mold no. 43 in the Woods’ repertoire. Franklin’s stature in America and abroad was greatly enhanced by his performance in answering 174 questions from opponents and friends regarding the Stamp Act, which was subsequently repealed.

The large size of the Franklin figure in comparison to the other classical and romantic figures made by the Woods dramatically represents the high regard in which Franklin was held. Of the many figuremakers working in Staffordshire during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Woods are particularly well known for the fineness of modeling and judicious coloring they employed. 

Ellen Paul Denker and Bert R. Denker

Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.