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rafael bordalo pinheiro

When I was 19 I shared a house with three crazy girls. The house was filled with eclectic stuff collected from op-shops, a wild collage of housewares that had accumulated from years of rental since paleolithic times.

The only things I’ve kept from those days are some dear friendships. I know of only one object that endures from the same period: a large porcelain crab, The Crab, as it’s known to us. Its purpose is mostly decorative but when called upon could used to serve dip from its shell-lidded body while its legs make spaces for crackers, celery sticks and the like.

Some people might mistake The Crab for a piece of 50’s-60’s-70’s kitsch, but it’s my belief, that The Crab has Provenance. I don’t mean it’ s an antique, but it has a story and heritage that elevates it from being just a quirky piece of china.

Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro

It all began in Portugal.

Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro was born in Lisbon in 1846 into an artistic middle class family. He rapidly became an accomplished caricaturist and made his name first in Brazil then in Portugal as a satirist, writing and drawing for the major publications of the time.

Rafael became quite famous for being a pain-in-the-arse. He was against conservatism, conformity and corruption. He had a wicked sense of humour in creating a little man called Zé Povinho, a peasant and everyman whose most famous pose means “Up Yours!”. Through him, Rafael took sides with the powerless and the poor, in all their apathy, ignorance and discontent.

After about 20 years of stirring up trouble, Rafael abruptly pulled up stumps in Lisbon and relocated to Caldas da Rainha.


Rafael and his much less famous brother opened a ceramics factory dedicated to both utilitarian homewares and artistic endeavour. Rafael continued to apply his sarcastic and political wit in his work as a ceramic artist and sculptor. The high quality of their products became world renowned and as well as directing an arts school Rafael produced large scale commissions, imitating all kinds of fashionable art styles from Art Nouveau, to revivalist Manueline and Palissy (a 16th century French ceramicist who made plates piled with dead things). With clay, he lampooned well known society figures and expanded his family of characters, including Ze Povinho, into 3D. His work was prolific and extremely varied.

Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro

Somewhere along the line came the cabbages. As a part of the kitchenware range he designed a range of tureens, bowls and plates styled on cabbages. In Portugal, the cabbage is a symbol of rural life, of peasant life. You don’t normally see it on restaurant menus but cabbage is grown in every kitchen garden north to south. Caldo Verde, a cabbage soup, is a national dish. So you might say Rafael’s cabbages were yet another ambiguous smirk at society. Perhaps he fancied the irony of a bourgeois Parisian housewife with a plebeian cabbage as her table centrepiece. From the cabbages came all kinds of other horticulture, plates of fish for fish, and hence, crabs, I suspect, for crab dip.


It took only 10 years after Rafael’s death (in 1905) for a museum to be created to celebrate his work. Today there are two museums under his name and various others housing private collections. The factory, Faianças Bordallo Pinheiro, was recently saved from bankruptcy and continues to make beautiful ceramics both very stylish and very funny.

Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro

If there is further proof of his talent, endurance and timeless fashionability, Rafael imitations can still be found for sale on the other side of the world. Here’s what my sister found in a Sydney furniture shop on the weekend…

marys plate


  1. Isabel August 18, 2009 7:52 pm Reply

    Very good!

    (WHAT?!?! Why can’t I make a succint comment??? What does this machine has to do with my stylistic choices?!?!?)

    Very, very good!

    (Is that OK, now? Sheeesh…)

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: August 20th, 2009 at 6:38 am

    Isabel: Ta. (that’s it, no more)

    [Reply to comment]

  2. Brian October 7, 2009 2:45 am Reply

    Where is a picture of your crab dish??

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: October 10th, 2009 at 2:28 am

    Brian, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but that was The Crab’s obituary. Just as I had started writing the post, a butterfly flapped it’s wings and on the other side of the world The Crab fell from a great height onto an unfriendly surface and his story ended there. I know, it’s tragic. But there it is.

    [Reply to comment]


  3. hughbert October 15, 2009 4:43 pm Reply

    well done, emma, well done.

    [Reply to comment]

  4. Julie November 12, 2009 3:34 am Reply

    Hello Emma,

    I was looking for info about Bordallo Pinheiro figurines, when I came across your blog. (Funny, I’m an Australian living on east coast Canada).

    Do you know anything about these queer little “Made in Portugal” figurines. My husband inherited them from a friend who travelled extensively throughout his life.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: November 13th, 2009 at 2:26 am

    hi julie… there are figurines, and figurines. Rafael made lots of figuerines of his characters, like Ze Povinho and his wife, and he also made carictatures of well known people. However, the origin of the “monks with erections” or “erections without monks” , which have become common home brewery “ornaments” the world over, are attributed more to the “School of Caldas da Rainha” rather than Bordallo Pinheiro himself. Hope that helps 😉

    [Reply to comment]

  5. Erin February 19, 2010 12:43 pm Reply

    Very funny and original piece of work, I loved it!

    [Reply to comment]

  6. sts April 26, 2010 6:35 am Reply

    Excellent article i am sure that i will come back here soon

    [Reply to comment]


  7. Roslyn July 7, 2013 4:21 pm Reply

    Hi Emma

    I recently picked up a large cabbage leaf salad bowl which has the markings Bordalo Pinheiro . C. Rainha and a symbol I was wondering if the factory produces all its items using this stamp or do they say replica

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: July 8th, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    hmmm, some still have the stamp and some don’t. So if you’ve got the stamp, it has come from the factory (obviously) but it’s very easy to tell the original pieces from the recreations (or new prints). The old ones are quite dark and uglier (rougher, I mean, chunkier). I think the new ones that get the stamp are actual rafael designs, whereas the others are variations.

    [Reply to comment]

  8. WhatnotGems July 11, 2015 11:47 pm Reply

    I was researching my Bordallo and Olfaire pottery when I came across your very well written piece. Thank you for sharing with the world. I have been attempting to date the pieces I have, closer than the number of years they have been in production.
    You are welcome to look at the pieces
    Bordallo Majolica Listings:
    Cabbage Oil Or Vinegar Cruet http://www.etsy.com/listing/204852336
    Cabbage Large Oval Platter http://www.etsy.com/listing/204850358
    Vine Plate Honey Gold http://www.etsy.com/listing/210163058
    Olfaire Majolica Listings:
    Pineapple Beverage Decorative Pitcher http://www.etsy.com/listing/204859386
    Pineapple Pitcher http://www.etsy.com/listing/204861322
    Pineapple Teapot http://www.etsy.com/listing/204866874
    Artichoke Teapot http://www.etsy.com/listing/204876385

    I hope you enjoyed my poor photography. I too would have loved to have seen the poor shattered crab bowl.

    [Reply to comment]


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