Sunday, February 6, 2011

New York Antiques Week, Part IV

Our next stop at the New York Ceramics Fair, and the one where Reggie truly lost his head, was the booth of Polly Latham, a dealer in Chinese export porcelain hailing from Boston, Massachusetts.  I have enjoyed visiting Ms. Latham's shop on Chestnut Street in that fair city over the years, and I had heretofore been able to resist the temptation to leave her establishment with one of her treasures under my arms . . . and a freshly signed cheque behind me in exchange for it.

Detail of the central medallion
of the plates I bought at the fair

Not so, I admit, at the Ceramics Fair.  Even though our household bank account had suffered depletion at the previous two dealers we visited at the fair, out came the cheque book, again, when I espied these beautiful tobacco-and-gilt-decorated plates.  I had to have them, Dear Reader.

These are the three beauties I could not resist

As I have made known in previous posts, I have a particular weakness for Chinese export porcelain made for the American markets, and I have collected it—sparingly, I admit, given its rarity and cost—since I was a teenager, when I first heeded its siren call.  I have been a devotee of it ever since.

The Hongs at Canton, attributed to Lam Qua, ca. 1830-1835
Collection of the Peabody Museum, Salem
Image from
The Decorative Arts of the China Trade by Carl Crossman 

The first examples of Chinese export porcelain I purchased were ones I unearthed years ago while rooting through stacks of discarded, dusty plates at group antiques shops, thrift stores, and yard sales, where the purveyors knew not what they had.  I was able to buy the examples I found in such places at a only few dollars a piece, which was all that I could afford at the time.  I once even found a half dozen export saucers at the Salvation Army, for only fifty cents apiece.

One of our plates

But that was thirty years ago.  Today my purchases are found in loftier places and at loftier prices.  These days I'm lucky to find a good piece of Chinese export porcelain to add to our collection that costs less than a thousand dollars.  For, as I wrote earlier, my taste in china (and other things generally, for that matter) has become more catholic and expensive as I have grown older.  And what would have been shocking to me in my twenties seems entirely reasonable today.  For, as Oscar Wilde (another appreciator of fine china) wrote, "The more depraved I become, the more normal it seems."

A less decorated, but related example of Chinese export in sepia, ca. 1800,
showing a view of and inscribed "Monticello" and "Thomas Jefferson"
Collection of Dr. Wesley Gallup
Image from
Chinese Export Porcelain in North America by Jean McClure Mudge

So what, exactly, is Chinese export porcelain, you may ask, and why do I collect it?

Interior of a Chinese porcelain shop, artist unknown, ca. 1820-1830
Collection of the Peabody Museum, Salem
Image from
The Decorative Arts of the China Trade by Carl Crossman

The United States entered into trade with China in 1784, when the first ship since the revolution set sail from New York Harbor on February 22nd, George Washington's birthday.  Known as the Empress of China, the ship was bound for Canton, now known as Guangzhou, with its hold full of Spanish gold bullion, the primary currency of exchange that initially fueled trade between the two countries.  Trade expanded rapidly thereafter, and demand in the new republic for Chinese tea, silks, porcelain and other luxuries was virtually insatiable.  In return, the U. S. supplied bullion, furs, rum, cheese, grains, and opium.

A detail of the decoration at the rim of the platter
Note the gilding and the desired "orange peel"
surface of the dish

One of the most desired items of trade from China was porcelain, a form of hard, brilliantly white china that was far superior to the earthenware goods then produced in Europe and in America.  But porcelain was expensive and only affordable by the elite in this country, and ranked a distant fourth behind the much larger shipments of teas, fabrics, and spices imported to these shores.  Nonetheless, a lot of Chinese porcelain was imported, often in sets specially ordered and decorated with monograms, coats of arms, and insignia. 

Decorating porcelain, from a large set of the street trades
of Canton, artist unknown, ca. 1840
Private collection
Image from
The Decorative Arts of the China Trade
by Carl Crossman

Much of the trade between the U. S. and China initially originated in New England, where vast fortunes were made buying goods in China and selling them here, often at great profit.  The first American millionaires in this country made their fortunes in trading with China.  The China Trade (as it was called) flourished from the 1780s until it ended with the Opium Wars of the 1840s.  Its "golden age" was from 1790 to 1820, the period that we concentrate our collecting on at Darlington House.

The labels affixed to the back
of the plates

The porcelain plates that we bought from Ms. Latham at the Ceramics Fair were commissioned by Thomas Willing (1731-1821) of Philadelphia, and date to approximately 1800.  Willing was one of the richest men in America at the time the plates were made, having made his fortune as a merchant in partnership with Robert Morris (1736-1804), one of the original investors in the Empress of China.

The barque Cynthia Off Lin Tin, by Sunqua, ca. 1840
Typical of vessels that plied the China Trade

In addition to his mercantile activities, Willing was at various times throughout his illustrious career the mayor of Philadelphia, a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a member of the Continental Congress, and the president of the Bank of North America.  In short, he was one of this nation's most illustrious citizens during his accomplished life.

Thomas Willing, 1782
painted by Charles Wilson Peale
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York
Image courtesy of same

While the provenance of our plates certainly adds to their value and desirability, it is not what attracted me to them, and it is entirely incidental to my enjoyment of them.  No, I had to own them because I found them beautiful, finely made, and exquisitely decorated.  I had a visceral reaction when I first saw them.  They grabbed me in the middle of my stomach and said, "You must own us. You must!"

I was helpless.  I had to have them.  So I got out my battered cheque book, and I bought them.

And that, Dear Reader, concludes my tour of (most of) what we bought at this year's New York Ceramics Fair.

All photographs by Boy Fenwick

27 comments:

  1. They are exquisite! Truly exquisite! Bravo!

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  2. Congratulations on your purchase; I am mad for those fabulous plates.

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  3. Of all that you bought, these plates are what I covet. They are absolutely beautiful!

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  4. Completely and utterly BREATHtaking.

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  5. Reggie,

    I can see why you had to have them!
    They are beautifully executed and what a lovely colour combination...they are a very fine example of Chinese export porcelain.
    They look like museum quality and appear to be in pristine condition.
    I am guessing that they were an investment!
    Antique shops and fairs by nature have items that give me sticker shock.

    I think you are a very prudent collector with an trained eye.
    I particularly like that you started young and picked up some bargains along the way!

    Enjoying these posts,
    Hostess

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  6. Oh, my dear brother! The beauty of these plates, the painting, the colors, the adorable urns! And thank you for the very interesting essay.

    lolak,
    Camilla

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  7. Reggie, I am so living vicariously through you at the moment. The plates are incredibly elegant. I can understand why you had to have them, as I would too.

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  8. Stunningly beautiful. I completely understand your need to have those.

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  9. "You must own us. You must!" .... Some of my most beloved antique purchases have "spoken" similar words to me, along with "We have been waiting here TOO long for you - Where have you been ? Now take us home". I like your plates, especially because I know the feeling. I have disobeyed but once, an 18th century grandfather clock, and kicked myself for nearly 30 years as a result.
    Best -
    - Mike

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  10. Very elegant plates Reggie. I loved reading some of the history on Chinese Export Porcelain.

    xoxo
    Karena
    Art by Karena

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  11. Thank you, everyone, for your comments of approval, it is most appreciated!

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  12. Dear Reggie, the plates are absolutely beautiful. You had to have them!

    I'm really glad you enjoyed the Marlene post, thank you for your kind words xx

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  13. Dearest R, Your porcelain and pearlware postings have me perturbed. A too casual flick of the feather duster, a careless trip after a tipple too many or a heavy handed daily.....and expensive calamity will be the inevitable result at Darlington House. Or, dearest R, do you never dust?

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  14. Michele from BostonFebruary 7, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    Absolutely exquisite. I can see why you (and your checkbook) were undone by their beauty. The connection to the history of the trade is also quite wonderful.

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  15. These are such lovely pieces. I can completely understand your reaction to them. And really, your reaction must surely be what every artist and artisan wants - someone to love, to crave, to need their work.

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  16. Reg:

    Congratulations on your gorgeous purchase. And I thought that I was the only one to whom beautiful objects whisper, "you must own us. You must".

    The original owner of your wonderful service was, I believe, the grand-father (perhaps great-grandfather) of the beautiful, self absorbed and thoroughly unpleasant Ava Willing, first wife of John Jacob Astor, mother of Vincent and mother-in-law of Brooke. Lady Ribblesdale, as she became following her divorce from Astor, figures in a favorite story of mine: As she aged, Lady Ribblesdale became ever more sour, her incessant carping and complaining notorious from continent to continent. One week-end,she visited a younger couple who were long time family friends. They had their proverbial work cut out for them attempting to dispell the black cloud of gloom that forever enveloped Lady Ribblesdale. At the end of the week-end, they stood by the front door to bid their thoroughly disagreable guest farewell following three days of non stop complaing. As she left, Lady Ribblesdale turned to her hosts and sighed, "isn't life frightful". Then she stepped mournfully into her chauffered Rolls Royce.

    May we see a photo of the plates "in Situ"?

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  17. Exquisite acquisition Mr. Darling - my heartiest congratulations! I have a thing for urns, as one can see from my profile picture (can someone have a "thing" for urns?), and seeing the central detail on your stunning plates made me go all aquiver. I am drawn to them like a magnet. Urns are evocative of the Georgian and Regency period so I can see why you were attracted to them (being as you live in a Federal period home). Presently, urns in my home are confined to mourning pieces that hang on our walls dating to the same period as your plates. I would love to find a marble, stone or ceramic urn (or even plates similar
    to yours) to add to my home. I enjoyed learning about Chinese Export Porcelain in your post. Keep up the good work!

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  18. Oh gracious, I see a few more pieces from the same service pictured in Polly Latham's archive listings, don't dare look...

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  19. Oh the plates are just divine!! Can totally understand how you were smitten!

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  20. I see you've been busy...they are stunning!

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  21. Dear Reggie, I can see you now, trembling while writing the check. I know that "I have to have it" feeling. Thank you for the history lesson, again, I know I say the same thing, each time I comment, but I do, always learn something new while reading one of your post.

    I have a love of urns myself, bless you my son, for you have not sinned.

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  22. I'm lusting. You have exquisite taste. What a fabulous find!

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  23. RD, Can one cut a juicy steak on these? pgt

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  24. Your plates are absolutely beautiful...I loved the up close and personal image of the detailing, truly special, and I have to say that Jumbo, and especially Minerva, are spectacular...you did very well! Thank you for the wonderful and informative lessons as well...I'll be back for a seconds and thirds!
    xo J~

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  25. I had to mention that I purchased a piece from this service from Polly Latham at the Delaware Antique Show today. She had mentioned that the plate from the service was recently returned to her. I remember seeing these on your blog and liking them quite a bit. When I saw one in person, I had to get it. The set is gorgeous and there are not many on the market. Just had to share that with you. So I believe there are your pieces, the pieces in Texas and one now back in Philadelphia.

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  26. I believe the rest of this is now in the Bayou Bend Collection / Museum in Houston Texas. So this is now rare indeed.

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  27. Thanks for sharing! This page was very interesting and I enjoyed it. Chinese antiques CA

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