Bread plate 'Waste Not Want Not' by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin

Bread plate 'Waste Not Want Not', c.1850, Stoneware, Diameter: 33 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art; Gift in memory of Mr and Mrs Orrel A. Parker, 2009.377, Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, USA / Gift in memory of Mr and Mrs Orrel A. Parker / Bridgeman Images

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Give Us This Day…

Commentary by

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the English designer and architect responsible for the success of the Gothic Revival style, made this encaustic plate in 1849 at the height of his career. His collaboration with the ceramics manufacturer Herbert Minton—with whom he produced this plate, as well as the encaustic floor-tiles for the Palace of Westminster—began in 1840. 

This plate belongs to a set featuring mottoes in Gothic script. The words ‘waste not, want not’ are here paired with a design of radiating ears of wheat, indicating its function as a bread plate.  

In a literal sense the saying reflects the text of Exodus: the Israelites are encouraged to consume all their daily rations of manna and, however much or little they gather, they do not want for more (Exodus 16:20–21). The divine rituals and instructions accompanying the gathering of the manna convey the message that obedient respect will be rewarded with fulfilment, a message that is reflected in the motto. This fulfilment was not the result of the Israelites’ hard work of gathering but, like the feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14:13–21; Mark 6:31–44; Luke 9:12–17; John  6:1–14), it was a miraculous sustenance.  

Such themes of obedience, ritual, and miracle have clear eucharistic connotations too. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Pugin’s writings stressed the primacy of Gothic (or rather pre-Reformation) design as the one ‘true’ spiritual style. The use of Gothic script for the message on this plate thus emphasizes the sanctity of bread. The language of Victorian moral instruction has an allusion to Christ and the Eucharist couched within it, just as, for Christians, such allusions are figured in the episode of the manna.  

The message of the plate works regardless of whether, like  Pugin, one regards physical bread as transubstantiated in the Mass, or as only symbolic of Christ’s body. In its apparently simple design and message, it expresses the convergence of the most humble and commonplace foodstuff with the divine; the sustainer of mortal life with the provider of eternal life.

Read next commentary