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Workman: the most complex armorial on a counter?

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We all know just how beautiful Chinese gaming counters can be: I think that those of us lucky enough to handle lots of them can take that for granted too often. But every now and then a counter comes along which stops you in your tracks and demands that you sit up and take notice. All at once the sublime beauty of the workmanship combines with the wealth of historical interest to make a very special counter: the McNaghten counter is one of those!

First of all, let us just sit back and admire the craftsmanship of the ‘reverse’ of the counter and the variety of the beautiful deep-carved scenes shown; marvel at the quality, thickness and perfection of the mother-of-pearl, admire the variety of the scenes. These were surely produced by one of the most accomplished artists of the time. As ever, she/he remains anonymous: one of the disappointments of our counters is that the identity of the workers seems to be lost for ever. And wonder how many hours went into the production of each and every one of the set of 140 counters produced; who chose the subjects for the scenes and so on.

But the pictorial side of the counter is only part of the story; turn over the counter and you will see the same artistry at work in the intricate border pattern and the miniature scenes to the sides of the roundel. But then, just look at the roundel. Absolutely packed with the most intricate detail and historical reference, yet it is still a thing of outstanding beauty. A whole book could be written about what the roundel can communicate to us.

First of all, notice the amazing matt-effect of the cross-hatching behind the coat of arms. We have seen before that the degree of fineness and evenness – which itself must have been very time-consuming to produce - is a very clear indicator of the quality of the whole counter. Here we have one of the very best examples you will find.

The entire roundel measures 24 mm. (15/16 inch). Into that space, the following have been included:

  • Two family mottoes
  • Two family crests
  • A full coat of ‘quarterly’ arms, part of that itself quarterly
  • An impaled coat of arms

 Every detail of each of these is visible, with the help of a decent magnifying glass, right down to the tinctures (the pattern or shading of parts of the coat of arms) which indicate the colours of the shield. For instance: in the top left hand corner of the shield, you will see a minute border running around the hands holding crosses and the towers: that border measures less than a millimetre, but there are tiny marks on it which tell you that the border is actually ‘ermine’ (one of the conventional patterns to represent a type of fur).

But beyond even the astonishing skill in reproducing this amount of detail, all the items shown in the roundel have a very clearly defined meaning and tell us all about the people who commissioned this counter.

The main coat of arms, on the left of the shield as we view it, is for the MacNaughten family of Bushmills County Antrim (Northern Ireland) and Mahan, also in County Antrim. This was a very prominent family able to trace its lineage back to Scotland, where in1573, Sir Alexander McNaghten died at Flodden Field, defending his King. You will note the variations in the spelling of the family name: this is not unusual. His grandson, Shane Dhu McNaghten, established the family residence in Antrim. This is one of the more complex coats of arms and it records how an heiress of the Workman family married into the McNaughten family. The Workman arms are three crescents, two wavy bars, three martlets (birds) and a portcullis and you will see them occupying two of the quarters in the left part of the shield. The McNaghten arms are themselves quarterly and show the tower and the hand grasping a cross crosslet with an ermine border (see above).

The right hand section of the shield is for the Donkin family of Rippon and shows a chevron between in chief (at the top) three cinquefoils and in base a bugle. The tinctures are all shown correctly, indicating that the background is red (gules) and the bugle silver (argent). This tells us that this coat of arms was borne by the male descendants of the marriage between Francis McNaghten and Letitia Dunkin which took place in 1787.

The crests above the shield, are for the McNaghten family (the tower) and the Workman family (the lictor’s fasces – an axe surrounded by a bunch of sticks which was the symbol of authority of the courtroom in ancient Rome). It suggests to us that there may at some time have been a link with the justice system in the family.

And then the mottoes! ‘I hope in God’ for the McNaghtens and ‘Non pas l’ouvrage mais l’ouvrier’ for the Workman family. This French motto means: Not the finished work, but the workman, a typical punning line which would have been an in-joke for the family.

So who were these people? Chinese Armorial Porcelain (D. Howard, 2 volumes) informs us that the McNaghten family was a very prosperous family, able to commission at least two armorial porcelain services via the East India Company. Francis McNaghten (later Sir Francis) was a lawyer in the East India Company and he married Letitia Dunkin in 1787, as mentioned above. Letitia was the eldest daughter ( and heiress) of Sir William Dunkin of Clogher, who was a judge of the Supreme Court at Calcutta and later at Madras. Francis was knighted in 1809 and went on to the Supreme Court in Bengal. He became a Baronet in 1839 and died in 1843.

It is also reported that Sir Francis had a younger brother Edmund-Alexander who was M.P. for County Antrim and Lord of the Treasury. The clan Chief of the MacNaghtens, in fighting a losing battle for the Stuarts against William of Orange had suffered the loss of all his lands and titles in Scotland; in 1818, Edmund-Alexander was elected Clan Chief of the MacNaghtens. The title passed to Sir Francis in 1832. Sets of gaming counters were often commissioned for a special event in a family: could this new title have been the reason for this set? It certainly records the family history in a very succinct and beautiful way.

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