An elegant tercentennial gift

Sun, 01/08/2017 - 7:45am

Ed. note: The Block Island Historical Society was founded in 1942. To help celebrate its 75th year, the Society’s Diamond Anniversary, The Block Island Times will be publishing sketches and photographs of the Society’s most unusual and interesting items throughout 2017. 

Little Block Island planned a big celebration for the 300th anniversary of the landing of the European settlers. This was 1961.

A calendar of events was created long in advance: the Lord Mayor of Shoreham-by-the-Sea came to visit; commemorative items were designed and executed. There were souvenir pieces of all kinds, medallions, a “license” plate, and, most unusually, a set of four plates designed and crafted by Wedgwood. Made of heavy off-white china, with a border of island images: the coat of arms; both lighthouses; the statue of Rebecca; a buoy, and sailing and fishing vessels on the surrounding waters. Each had a single, central image, taken from a line drawing: a map of the Island; the Old Harbor, at the tail end of its fishing fleet days, pleasure crafts and fishing boats together, the old market buildings still in place; Fountain Square, showing Rebecca and the iconic City Drug Store, and Water Street beyond them; and the Southeast Lighthouse magnificently perched on the rugged Mohegan Bluffs (featured here). 

The set was commissioned by Esta's Gift Shop, which was located in a building across the street from what is now known as Esta's Park. On the back of each plate is stamped a mini-history of the Town and the statement that the dishes were “created especially for Jack & Esta Gray.”

On the underside of each plate is a description of the scene on the obverse, also the proclamation they were “made in England” by “Wedgwood of Etruria & Barlaston'” and “engraved by the Wedgwood Studios” and imprinted with individual alpha-numeric designations. The plates were shipped across the Atlantic, carefully packed in wooden barrels which, story had it, were thrown over the encroaching edge of the bluff upon which the Grays’ house sat, one of many futile sacrifices made to the gods of erosion.

The plates were cherished bits of a celebration, a luxury in their day, put in china closets and hung in walls; later, they became collector's items and, today, periodically pop-up on eBay and collectors' websites.

Over 50 years old, they have become a part of the history they helped celebrate.