Dr Helen Margaret Walter & Peter Quinn Davis

Design Culture, School of Art, Design and Architecture, Plymouth University

Reconstituting the Four Quarters: Porcelain Surfaces and Embodied Identities

 3D Scan - Cookworthy 1

3D Scan - Cookworthy 1

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, sets of porcelain figurines representing the ‘Four Quarters’ of the known world - Asia, Africa, Europe and The Americas - were popular decorative items produced by English porcelain factories. As objects, they are imbued with the embodied identities not only of the geographical regions they were supposed to represent, but also of their consumers, with decorative textiles dressing the figurines drawn from contemporary fashions. One of these sets, made by the Plymouth Porcelain Factory c.1769, are also important from a design historical perspective because they used a new technique patented by chemist William Cookworthy that attempted to recreate the materiality of Chinese porcelain using clay found in Cornwall, and these figurines are currently the subject of a design-led research project at the university. Whilst acknowledging their historical context as objects of mainstream consumption that represented a colonialist, Europe-centric, and reductionist worldview that is considered problematic in a modern setting, we are engaged in exploring how the geographical identities of these figurines, and their physical structures, might be broken down and reconstituted in a way that helps us to engage with contemporary models of geography and identity.

As a site at which the codified meanings of the figurines’ design and the haptic and visual experience of the consumer come together, considering the surface properties of these objects provides a way of linking historic and contemporary contacts with these embodied identities. We have explored our contemporary experience of these surfaces through the lens of modern technology, re-constructing the objects through a process of 3D scanning and realisation that probed, captured and rendered the surfaces of each of these figurines. However, in doing so we discovered that in the scanning process the smooth, white surface of the figurines’ skin, originally designed to showcase Cookworthy’s technique for imitating Chinese porcelain, reacted very differently to the detailed, textured, and coloured surfaces of the dress and attributes with which the figures’ geographical identities were constructed and imbued. This paper looks at the juxtaposition of these two surfaces in the context of the original figurines, and in our reconstitutions, and considers how they build upon one another in the creation of the identity of the ‘Four Quarters’ of the world and, subsequently, how the presence and absence of different surfaces within the same figure could frame a consumer’s experience of the figurines' embodied identities.


Peter Quinn Davis and Dr Helen Margaret Walter are lecturers in Design Culture in the School of Art, Design and Architecture at Plymouth University. Helen’s research interests lie in the history of identity and performance told through through dress and the body, and Peter is interested in notions of place, transformation and identity in contemporary design. He is also the Director of Plymouth University’s postgraduate Design programmes and the Research Leader for Design Knowledge at the university. Both completed their postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art, and have separately published research in Journal of Design Principles and Practices, European Academy of Design Journal, International Journal of Design, Visual Culture in Britain, Costume, Studies in Costume & Performance. Peter has also exhibited at Dutch Design Week and Milan Design Fair and, most recently, in the Design Latitudes exhibition in Alberta, Canada.