The Humble Jug

What would artists do without that stalwart still life prop, the humble jug? More informal and utilitarian than a vase and used in a myriad of ways, once you become aware of its self-effacing role in art history you will start to spot them everywhere!

David Alison (1882-1955), Blue and White Flowers, Paisley Museum & Art Galleries
(c) Artist’s Estate

In Blue and White Flowers by David Alison (1882-1955), the white glazed ceramic jug plays a supporting role to a crowning glory of what are thought to be blue Himalayan poppies, scabious or mecanopsis and ox-eye, shasta or marguerite daisies. Alison was born in Dysart, Fife. He studied at Glasgow School of Art, taught at Edinburgh College of Art and was elected a Member of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA). He is celebrated for his portraiture and for his flower set pieces, as in this painting.

In a tight composition, the dense arrangement of flower heads seems to defy gravity given their quantity and height in relation to their container. Some stems droop over the jug’s spout and handle, drawing the eye to the flowers, some are placed casually, others more deliberately, around its base. Their reflections shimmer in the highly-polished table-top on which everything stands. It is lit by the same source which catches on the curve of the jug’s swelling body. The neutral colour of the draped background dominates a secondary palette of muted tones, which allows the bright yellow, blue and green to emphasise the stars of this theatrical image.

David Simpson Foggie (1878-1948), The Blue Jug, Gracefield Art Centre, Dumfries

A jug can also play a role in the narrative of a painting, as in The Blue Jug by David Simpson Foggie (1878-1948). Foggie was born in Dundee and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He also taught at Edinburgh College of Art for almost twenty years. He was elected a member of the RSA, where he served as Secretary and of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW), where he became vice-president.

In this painting, the enamelled pitcher in the lower right foreground dominates the scene. Carefully and realistically rendered, it is needed to make sense of the female nude to the left. She is viewed from behind and is painted in a more gentle fashion. It becomes clear that she is washing herself, using water contained in the jug. A bravura pose catches her twisting to pay attention to her left-hand side. A loosely realised wrap draped over a chair in the background is within easy reach. Its blue tones with that of the jug and the carpet in a stage-management of colour which underpins the composition of this intimate scene.

Harry Keay (1914-94), Tulips in a Lustre Jug, Dundee Art Galleries and Museums
(c) Artist’s Estate

Sometimes the jug is the focal point of a work, as in Tulips in a Lustre Jug by Harry Keay (1914-94). Keay was also born in Dundee, but studied at Dundee College of Art and at Hospitalfield House, Arbroath. Keay taught throughout his career, primarily at Morgan Academy, Dundee, where he became Principal Teacher of Art. Little known today, Keay’s career flourished during the 1940s and 1950s when he was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, RSA and with Dundee Art Society.

A pottery lustre jug imitates – and is cheaper than – one made from silver. In this painting, Keay’s technical mastery is clear in the virtuoso depiction of the reflective vessel, set atop a ruffled, finely-realised lace doily. In contrast to Alison’s still life above, this jug contains just four tulips, which play a subordinate role. Over time their stems have grown into arabesques which Keay has revelled in painting. A note of poignancy is provided by the single white petal which has fallen onto the contrasting dark table-top. A tray tipped up against the back wall provides a spatial boundary as well as an internal frame for the centrepiece of the work.

Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1883-1937), The Studio, Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie

In The Studio, the Scottish Colourist F. C. B. Cadell (1883-1937) pays homage to the jug as a key part of his practice. Born in Edinburgh, Cadell trained in Paris and Munich before establishing a studio in the Scottish capital. He too became a member of the RSA and the RSW. With Alison, Cadell was a member of the Society of Eight exhibiting group, founded in Edinburgh in 1912.

Instead of a more obvious scene depicting an easel, piles of paintbrushes and a used palette, in The Studio, Cadell presents the kind of chic and calm interior for which he is celebrated. Rather than a place of labour and concentration, an atmosphere of sophistication and ease is conjured up. A corner of a sofa, casually placed and eye-catching red and green chairs and roses in a vase on the mantelpiece are part of a beautifully pitched interior décor scheme. Just one completed painting is visible, whilst one other is obscured by the sofa arm. Instead, Cadell deliberately and reverently places his favourite cast of still life props on the table in the foreground. The black fan with ribbon falling over the edge, oranges, blue and white porcelain dish and a single pink rose in the blue glazed pottery jug are subtle indicators of the artist’s trade and appear repeatedly in his paintings. They are his studio companions and subjects, over which the jug presides.

If you would like to read more about F. C. B. Cadell please have a look here, for still-life painting you will find more here and for other modern Scottish works in Dundee Museum & Art Galleries follow this link.


  1. 28 September 2020 / 4:54 pm

    It’s really nice of you to comment. One of the great things about modern art is that living connection with the artists, so thank you, Alice

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