Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A New Squirrel at Darlington

As some of my readers may recall, we have a bit of a thing for squirrels here at Darlington.  We are fortunate to have two colonies of them living on our property, one of gray squirrels and one of red.  When they aren't fiercely defending their respective territories from each other, the squirrels gambol and skitter about most entertainingly.

Our new squirrel, sitting on a windowsill
at Darlington House

Given our fondness for the squirrels, and our propensity to accumulate collect things, it is not surprising that we've built up a small collection of squirrel figures that we display on a bookshelf in one of our guest bedrooms.  I featured some of them in a Squirrels of Darlington post that I did last year.

A vintage postcard of Stratford Hall from the 1930s

As I wrote in that post, we are rather discriminating in our collecting of squirrel figures.  Although we are fond of them, we don't want to become people known for their squirrel collection, fearing that we could find ourselves overrun with them.  My worst nightmare is to wake up one day and find myself living among a collection of cute little figurines covering every flat surface in the house, like the bed and breakfast I once stayed in years ago where the proprietors had a thing for mushrooms.  It was awful.

So I am very picky when it comes to adding a new squirrel figure to our collection.  In order even to be considered, it had better be a good one.

The family crest of the Lees of Virginia
(note squirrel at top)

Over Memorial Day weekend we attended an antiques show in Rhinebeck, New York, where we came across the cast iron squirrel shown in the photograph at the top of this essay.  I was drawn to it because of the subject, because it is made out of cast iron (a medium that I like), and because it appeared to have been made in the Colonial Revival style favored in the first half of the twentieth century (a style that I find appealing).  When I looked at the squirrel more closely I was curious to find that it had "Stratford Hall" upon its base, in raised lettering.  The dealer saw me examining it and came over and told me that he had done some research on it and found that the crest of the Lee family, who built Stratford Hall, features a squirrel in it.

I had to own it.

Stratford Hall is one of America's great early plantations and sits on a bluff in Westmoreland County, Virginia, overlooking the Potomac River.  It was built in 1725-1730 by Thomas Lee (1690-1750), the acting Governor of the (then) colony and a member of one of this country's most illustrious families, the Lees of Virginia.  Thomas Lee was an ancestor of General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), who was born in the house.  Stratford Hall was rescued from near ruin in 1929 when it was purchased by the good ladies of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, who restored and furnished it in the 1930s in high Colonial Revival style.  I suspect that my cast iron squirrel dates from that period and was sold in the plantation's gift shop as a souvenir.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., I visited many of the area's plantations as a boy, and I have happy memories of doing so.  One of the plantations I visited was Stratford Hall, where long ago someone else visited before me and came away with the squirrel that I now own.

Another vintage postcard of Stratford Hall,
probably from the 1940s

I believe my squirrel was likely intended to be a door stop for a modest-size door (he stands only six inches high).  Or perhaps it is a piece of porchiana, which is a term to describe objects specifically made to be used on screened porches and which is the subject of a future post of mine.  My squirrel would do a fine job of keeping a pile of newspapers and magazines from flying around in a breeze.

I am more than pleased to have this little fellow join our squirrel collection at Darlington House, where he provides an element of much-needed Southern gentility among his far less well-mannered Yankee cousins.

Photograph by Boy Fenwick; vintage postcards courtesy of US GenWeb; Lee family crest courtesy of the Robert E. Lee Association

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Saucer of the Week: English Imari

This week's "Saucer of the Week" essay is being posted right at the wire.  In case you didn't notice, my previous post regarding the use of what I consider to be the proper spoon and fork to consume one's dessert created a bit of a firestorm.  I've been busy responding to the interesting and thought-provoking comments that ensued.  What fun I have had!

But today is Sunday and the week is running out.  I must now get back on track and publish another post in my weekly series on the subject of saucers . . .

Today's featured saucer is English, and was, I believe, made in the first half of the nineteenth century.  I suspect that it is either Worcester or Derby, but it could be from another pottery altogether.  I am not such an expert as to be able to determine its origins beyond that it is English.  If you have greater knowledge of this saucer's origin, Dear Reader, I would be most grateful if you would please comment and enlighten me.

The decoration on this handsome saucer is done in imitation of Japanese Imari, with both an underglaze and overglaze applied decoration, including gilding.  The border is divided into six equal segments featuring branches of cherry blossoms alternating with cartouches containing pretty birds.  A large chrysanthemum appears in the middle of the plate.  The saucer is unmarked and measures 5 3/8 inches in diameter.

For the life of me, I cannot remember where I got it.  I don't think I paid all that much for it.

I admire this saucer for the vigor and brilliance of its decoration.  It sits on my bedside table at Darlington House, where it adds a welcome jolt of happy color to the room and pleases me whenever I see it.

Photograph by Boy Fenwick

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Please Eat Your Dessert With the Proper Spoon and Fork!

The other evening Boy and I traveled out to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where we met our friends Jasper Lambert and Francesca Montmore for dinner at a well-regarded neighborhood restaurant, known for its inventive, delicious, locavore fare.  The place had a distinctly hip vibe, and the average patron was probably no older than thirty.  I enjoyed it.

A framed antique map of the Borough of Brooklyn
Image courtesy of Cottage Home

Yes, even though Reggie lives on the UES of Manhattan, he is not so hidebound that he doesn't occasionally venture beyond it when he is out and about in the city.  He has great respect for and enjoys visiting the storied and historic borough of Brooklyn.  He actually lived in Brooklyn in the early 1980s, when he first moved to New York after college and worked in a bank on Wall Street.  But that was back when people of his sort generally could only be found in one or two neighborhoods in that borough, such as Brooklyn Heights, which is where he—not surprisingly—lived at the time.  Since then, Brooklyn has undergone a veritable renaissance, and today it is a thriving and vibrant metropolis full of neighborhoods that one would be delighted to live in.

But today's post is not about Brooklyn.  It is about eating dessert.

Before I get to that, though, I feel I must explain why I use the word "dessert" to describe the sweet consumed at the end of a meal, instead of "pudding," as my English cousins do.  Even though I sometimes prefer to use words favored in England when referring to something known by a different name in America—such as "aubergine" for what is commonly known here as "eggplant"—I simply cannot bring myself to use the word "pudding" for "dessert," at least not with a straight face.  That is because I consider "pudding" to be what I believe the English refer to as "blancmange," which is what I call the sweet, easy-to-eat, milk-based custard so favored by children in nurseries and the elderly in nursing homes.  Blancmange is a type of pudding, but it is not "pudding" in the sense the English use the word, which is to describe what I call "dessert."

Both pudding and dessert, but not "pudding"
Image courtesy of Vintage Disney Alice

Now that I've got that straightened out, I can attend to the subject at hand, which is actually not about eating dessert, but rather about the proper utensils to use when consuming it.

Hold on, there's a logic to this meander . . .

While dining at the restaurant in Brooklyn with our friends, the four of us ordered dessert to finish our meals.  I ordered what was described on the menu as rhubarb bread pudding, but which was actually a rhubarb crisp.  Not that it matters, really, but I like to be specific about these things.  Anyway, the young woman who brought our desserts to the table delivered them with four teaspoons.

As she did so I asked myself, "Why is this girl . . ." (for Reggie is now old enough to consider most women under the age of twenty five to be young enough to merit such a term) " . . . bringing me a teaspoon?  I haven't ordered coffee!"

It then occurred to me that she expected me to consume my rhubarb bread pudding crisp with a teaspoon, and not with a proper dessert spoon.

"Excuse me, miss," I said, "would you please bring me a dessert spoon?"

She looked at me quizzically.

"What do you mean?" she asked. "I just did."

"Well, actually this is a teaspoon, and not a dessert spoon.  A dessert spoon is larger than this.  And while you are at it, would you also please bring me a dessert fork, too?"

"But that," she said pointing to the teaspoon in front of me, "is what we eat dessert with here at the restaurant."

"That may be so," I said, "but I prefer to eat my dessert with a larger spoon.  And I like to eat it with a fork, too.  May I please have them so I may do so?"

She looked at me as if I were a lunatic.

"Oh, all right," she said, and shrugged.

Just as she was turning to go off and fetch what I requested, the other three people at the table piped in, in unison, "Please bring us a spoon and fork as well!"

It turns out I wasn't the only lunatic at our table.

Even though the young miss brought us each the requested spoons, the forks she provided were dinner-sized, and therefore inappropriately large for the task at hand.  But rather than beginning my little routine all over again and asking her to bring me the proper sized fork, I decided to put up and shut up, and use the dinner fork.  After all, I reasoned, I could still use it for the purpose I intended it for.

Reggie's preferred place setting for when the first course is a soup
and the dessert course is a sweet, such as bread pudding.

That is not a teaspoon placed above the mat . . .

Which gave me the idea for this post, which is that most people in this country haven't a clue as to what the proper utensils are to use when consuming food at table.  No, I am not referring to the use of arcane utensils favored by the Victorians at their most extreme, such as the proper fork to use for a particular type of fish, or the proper spoon to use when consuming a jellied consumé versus a creamed soup.  I'm referring to the most basic spoons and forks that one uses when eating a salad, a soup, an entrée, and dessert.

As was made clear by my Brooklyn dining experience, most people today don't understand the intended functions of a teaspoon, a dessert spoon, or a soup spoon.  They don't know the difference between a dinner fork or a dessert fork, either.  And it is not only in the wilds of Brooklyn that one encounters such ignorance.  I've even witnessed it in my own house, when dining at my own table.  You would be surprised at how many of our dinner party guests use the wrong utensils with which we have set our table at Darlington House.  And these guests of ours are not bumpkins—they are educated, worldly, and cultured people, accustomed to attending dinner parties and dining in smart restaurants.

So here's the deal.  A teaspoon's primary purpose is to stir a cup of tea or coffee.  It is not designed to be used to consume food, at least by adults, even though it does an admirable job of delivering modest amounts of food to one's mouth.  A dessert spoon, also known as a tablespoon, is larger than a teaspoon and delivers a more generous (and more pleasing) amount of food—a mouthful—than a teaspoon is capable of administering.  A tablespoon is the primary and most versatile spoon that one uses when consuming food at table.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
teaspoon, tablespoon, soup spoon, go!

Although some people use tablespoons to consume soup, and Reggie believes it is acceptable to do so in certain cases (particularly in households where the silverware services are not as extensive as his own), he prefers to consume soup using the larger spoons designed for such purpose, and not a tablespoon.  And it is not simply because he is able to do so, having the necessary spoons at his disposal.  No, it is because he adores soup and he finds using the larger spoon allows him to consume more of it with each mouthful than would be possible with a tablespoon, and certainly far more than would be possible with an unsatisfyingly small teaspoon.

When we set the table at Darlington House for a meal where dessert is provided, we almost always set it with a dessert-sized fork and a dessert spoon to consume the sweet.  The fork is smaller than the one provided to consume the main course of the meal, and the spoon is a tablespoon.  Both are placed above the plate, so their intended use is absolutely clear.  When it comes time to eat the dessert, one holds the fork in one's left hand and the spoon in one's right, and uses them together, as opposed to endlessly exchanging one for the other in one's primary hand (the way many Americans use a knife and fork when cutting into and consuming a piece of meat).

A rather elaborate, and to Reggie rather over-set,
formal place setting diagram
Image courtesy of simplehuman

If you have not eaten dessert using a spoon and fork as I describe here, I encourage you to take it upon yourself to do so.  You will be pleased with how pleasant it is, and how much more you appreciate the pleasure of taking your dessert, as opposed to eating it with just a teaspoon.  Once you become accustomed to consuming your dessert this way, with a spoon and fork, you will marvel at how you ever did it any other way (that is, except when eating fruit or cheese at the end of a meal, which is when you would instead use a fork and knife).

Reggie's preferred place setting for when the first course is a salad
and the dessert course is either fruit or cheese

Oh, and the rhubarb bread pudding crisp that triggered this story?  It was delicious, but it would have benefitted from having a small pitcher jug of crème anglaise available to pour over it, to moisten it.  Now that is one English custom—the pouring of creams and custards over one's pudding dessert—that I have unashamedly adopted as my own.  And I suggest that you do, too.

But, please eat your dessert with the proper spoon and fork!

Tell me, do you?

Photographs, unless noted, by Boy Fenwick

Monday, May 23, 2011

Winning Bid: Sunderland Jugs

A week ago I attended an auction in the town near Darlington where I was fortunate to acquire two antique ceramic pitchers.  Well, actually, the proper name for such things is "jugs."

The two Sunderland jugs I acquired at auction

Notwithstanding what you call them, they are English and date to the 1820s or 1830s.  They are of a type known as "Sunderland," taking their name from the coastal city of that name in northeast England, where they were made in potteries that disappeared long ago.  Sunderland is better known as having once been the largest shipbuilding center in England, if not in all of Europe, and remained one of the world's shipbuilding powerhouses well in to the twentieth century.  The city was heavily bombed during World War II, when much of its historic architecture was destroyed, and it entered into an unfortunate period of decline thereafter, from which it has never recovered.  Sunderland's last shipyard closed its doors over thirty years ago, and today the city is one of the most economically challenged places in England.  A sad fate, indeed.

The larger of the two jugs, featuring a Sailor's Farewell

But these jugs were made during Sunderland's heyday, and their decoration attests to the city's civic pride.  Sunderland jugs are typically decorated with an exuberant "lustre" finish, most often in the pink color I am showing here.  Also, they typically feature transfer-printed images of ships, sailors, and the iron bridge that once crossed the River Wear that runs through the city of Sunderland.  Many have poems or sayings printed upon them.  They were inexpensively produced, and their decoration is often rather crudely applied in a slapdash manner.  They were made as vessels to carry water, ale, or cider.

A detail of the jug's transfer-print decoration

The maritime nature of much of the decoration of Sunderland jugs is attributable to the shipbuilding industries located in the city where they were made.  In addition to their utilitarian fluid-carrying purposes, it is thought that they were also intended to be given as gifts by those engaged in or who celebrated the shipbuilding industries, including the sailors frequently depicted upon them.

The jug, with a ruler to demonstrate its substantial scale

Sunderland jugs were very popular in the early 1800s, and other potteries in other areas of England soon began copying them.  Since only a very few of the pitchers were ever signed or labeled, it is nearly impossible to determine whether jugs that are all known today as "Sunderland" were actually made in the potteries there.

The jug also features a transfer print of the
Ancient Order of Foresters, presumably a nod

to a source of materials for shipbuilding

Sunderland jugs come in many sizes, ranging from the diminutive to the spectacular.  I have seen tiny ones, and I have seen enormous ones, so large as to be unusable except as display pieces, which is what the largest jugs were intended for.  Most Sunderland pitchers are sized to hold quantities of fluid ranging from a pint to a gallon, which is what you would expect, given what they were used for.

The jugs that I bought at auction are generously scaled, which is part of the reason that I found them appealing.  The larger of the two stands 9¼ inches tall and holds well over a gallon of liquid.  The smaller jug stands 7½ inches tall and holds more than half a gallon.  That's a lot of beer.

The smaller of the two jugs
features a poem ending with "forget me not"

The jugs were in a sale of the contents of a country house decorated by Mark Hampton in the 1980s, in high English country house style.  For those of us who appreciate such things, the sale was a treasure trove of English antiques and decorations, including a quantity of chintz-covered club chairs and sofas, exquisitely made by New York's best bespoke upholstery workshops.  Prices realized at the sale were, in general, very reasonable, and hammer prices were well below what such goods would be sold for in a shop, particularly given their Mark Hampton provenance.

Another view of the smaller jug, with a ruler
to denote its scale

I have always liked Sunderland jugs, but I've never owned one before.  I've not bought them until now because I've never been able to quite figure out what to do with them, and because our cupboards are already full to bursting.  Also, the Sunderland jugs I've come across in shops and at shows on my journeys have usually been expensive enough to dissuade me from buying them, at least on impulse.

The smaller jug features a transfer print of a
handsome clipper ship

But the contents of the sale I attended were being hammered down at such attractive prices that I figured it didn't matter what I did with the jugs or where I put them if I could get them at as good a price as other things in the sale were going for leading up to their lot.  At these prices, I figured, I would be a fool not to bid on them.  So I raised my paddle when they came up for bid, and within a minute I was their proud owner at what I consider to be a most reasonable hammer price, for which I am most grateful.

Now, do you suppose I have begun yet another collection?

Photographs by Boy Fenwick

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reggie's Rules for Navigating One's Way Around Manhattan Like a New Yorker, Part II

In my previous installment in this series, I outlined Reggie's Rules for navigating the streets of Manhattan as a pedestrian.  Today's essay focuses on the next best form of transportation for getting around the city efficiently and quickly, namely taxicabs.

Reggie's Rules for Taking Taxis In and Around New York City

For those of us who live in Manhattan and who don't have a car and driver waiting at our every beck and call, taxis are the most convenient and swiftest form of above-ground transportation readily available.  New York's cabs are to its buses as the city's sparrows are to its pigeons, nimbly darting in and about traffic, seeking passengers and then speeding them to their destinations.

Betty Garrett, as Hildy the lady cab driver, with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly
and Jules Munshin, in a scene from the 1949 movie of On the Town

New York has more than 13,000 active taxicabs plying its streets, and the city's residents rely on taxis and other forms of mass transit far more extensively than people do elsewhere in America.  The city's taxi commission does a creditable job of enforcing the fairly extensive number of regulations that govern the city's fleets, and New York's cabs are generally cleaner and in better condition than those I've encountered in other American cities.

Although taxis in New York are not inexpensive, they are a relative bargain when compared with taxis found in other major international metropolises.  The last time I visited London, for instance, I found the cost of a ride in one of that city's justifiably famous taxis to be so astronomically expensive as to almost give me a heart attack.  It made me appreciate NewYork's taxis all the more.

Taxicabs are my primary form of transportation when I am out and about in Manhattan.  I take one to and from the office most days, and I regularly use them in the evening when traveling to and from restaurants and the theater, and on the odd weekend when I find myself in town and not at my country house.

Here are the rules that I observe when hailing, riding in, and exiting taxis in New York City.  

Reggie's Rules for Hailing Taxis

1.  When hailing a taxi, look to see if someone is already there waiting for one ahead of you; don't jump in front of someone who is obviously attempting to hail a taxi and steal it from them

It's really bad form to do so.  When approaching a curb to hail a taxi, always check to see if there is already someone there waiting to hail one.  Allow them to get the cab first.

To hail a taxi in New York, all one needs to do
is raise one's arm to alert the driver

2.  When waiting for a taxi, keep your eye out for someone who is attempting to jump ahead of you and steal the taxi you are waiting for, since rule number one is rampantly ignored in the city

If you see someone who is attempting to steal "your" cab, or who hasn't noticed that you are already there ahead of them waiting for one, nicely say "Excuse me, I believe I was here first" so they are made aware that you got there before them (or, if they are already aware of that, that you are on to them).  Hopefully that will deter such a person, at least if they have any conscience.

3.  When waiting to hail a taxi on a crowded street corner, hold your arm out even if one isn't approaching you, to let others know that you are already there waiting for one

It sometimes (but not always) obviates the need to observe rule number two.  Holding your arm out makes it apparent to later arrivals that you got there first.

Doormen in the city's better buildings are more than happy
to hail a taxi for appreciative residents and their guests

4.  If you are really in a rush for a taxi, and you see someone is already there waiting for one, it is sometimes acceptable to walk ahead a block to hail one

Just don't do it right in front of them.  And try not to make eye contact with them, either, when you ride by them if they are still standing on the side of the street, vainly waiting for the taxi that you nabbed ahead of them.

5.  When hailing a taxi, it is sufficient to merely hold your arm out—do not also shake or wave your hand or snap your fingers in an effort to get the attention of passing taxi drivers

Flailing about in such a manner is unnecessary and undignified, and the people Reggie has seen doing it look ridiculous.

Back when I first moved to New York, in 1980, the city's
iconic Checker cabs were still roaming the streets

Reggie's Rules for When Riding in Taxis

1.  When a man and a woman are traveling together and are getting into a cab at the outset of their journey, the man should open the door and get in first

Contrary to what you might think, it is more polite for the man to get in first and slide across the seat of the taxi, rather than for him to hold the door for the woman and allow her to enter before him.  This way the man is the one who is making the most acrobatic of efforts and allows the lady (assuming she is one) to slip into the cab discretely and with ease once he has done so.

A young Audrey Hepburn
opening the door of a New York taxi in 1949

2.  When entering a cab, acknowledge the driver before instructing him with your desired destination

Don't just bark out the address of where you want to go and then sit back without acknowledging that you have a human being in front of you in the driver's seat.  I make a point of always saying "Good morning" when I get in a cab in the morning, and I use appropriate salutations at other times of day, too.  I also make a point of saying "Please" and "Thank you" when instructing the driver where I would like to go, and when exiting the cab at the end of the trip.  It's basic good manners to do so.

It is always a good idea to be polite when
speaking to your taxi driver in New York City . . .

3.  It is in your right to instruct the driver which route you would like to travel along during your journey

If you want to drive down Second Avenue, and the driver thinks otherwise, it is in your right to insist (nicely) that he take you down Second Avenue.  New York taxi drivers are required to do what you ask, not the other way around.  That notwithstanding, Reggie will more often than not ask his taxi drivers' advice as to the most efficient route to take, particularly when traffic is heavy, since the driver is (usually) more familiar with current traffic conditions than Reggie is.

4.  When arriving at your destination, have your money out and ready to pay the taxi driver

Do not wait until after you have arrived to start putting the fare together.  It is inconsiderate to both the driver and others who might be waiting for the cab for you to spend time fumbling in your wallet or handbag, searching for the fare.

As I wrote in my previous post, there are times that it is
faster to walk to one's destination, rather than take a cab

5.  Simply because the cab meter suggests tips of $2.00, $3.00, or $4.00 doesn't mean you should pay it  

My general rule of thumb is to pay a minimum of around 20% to 25% of the metered fare as a tip, rounded up to the next dollar.  The higher the cab fare, though, the lower the percentage I tip.  While I am happy to pay a tip of $1.50 on top of a $4.50 cab fare (an increasing rarity these days given the escalation of fares in recent years), I am loath to pay the same 33% tip rate on top of a $12.00 fare, or higher.

Reggie's Rules When Exiting a Taxi

1.  When opening the door of a cab to exit, always check first to see if there is an approaching bicyclist or pedestrian, so that you avoid colliding with them

I have seen bicyclists slam into car and taxicab doors more often than I care to, often with disastrous consequences.  Be mindful of others as you exit a cab.  They have the right of way over you.

A vintage 1940s postcard showing Times Square's busy, taxi-filled streets

2.  Upon exiting a cab, always turn to check the seat and floor for your belongings before shutting the door

This is a Cardinal Rule, and one I learned the hard way.  I can't tell you how many umbrellas and gloves I carelessly left in cabs before I learned to always turn and check to see if I had done so.

3.  When exiting a cab where someone is standing, obviously waiting to take your place in it, leave the door ajar so they can more readily get in to it

It is polite to do so.  Also, acknowledge them in some manner—a simple nod of the head will do.  And if you are the one waiting to get into the cab, do thank the person who has left the door ajar for you, even if they sail right past you without acknowledging you.

And there you have it, Dear Reader, Reggie's Rules for taking taxis in and around New York.  Follow them and you will find yourself traveling confidently along the city's streets like a seasoned (and well-mannered) New Yorker.

There are times, though, when taking a taxi in New York is neither practical nor possible, and one must rely on other forms of above-ground transportation to get about town.  In addition to the city's excellent buses that ply the streets there are numerous livery car services available for hire, which is the subject of the next (and much shorter) installment of this series.

Next: Reggie's Rules for Taking Livery Cars In and Around New York

Photographs and images in this post are courtesy of gonemovie.com, superstock, LIFE Images, vestaldesign, best-movie1, and flickr

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I'm Afraid I Lost Rather a Lot of Comments

Dear Readers,

As many of you may know, Blogger had some technical challenges in the past week, and was from time to time down for the count.  An unfortunate consequence of that was a number of the comments you left here on Reggie either never saw the light of day, or disappeared after I posted them, never to return.

I am unhappily aware that I lost at least six comments on my essay about lilacs, and that many—or more—on my story about MD's ashes.  Please understand that it was not I who decided not to post your comments, nor was it I who decided to delete them after they (all too briefly) appeared.  It was, I am afraid, the Blogger Gremlins.

I welcome your comments, Dear Readers, and I am pleased and honored to have them whenever I have the great good fortunate to receive them.

Thank you,


Monday, May 16, 2011

Saucer of the Week Addendum: Ode to a Vanishing Urn

As many readers of this blog may know, my last post featured a favorite antique saucer in our collection at Darlington House that is simply and severely decorated with a grisaille urn, gilt-painted garlands, and gold bands.

In the post I posited that the decoration of the saucer was really rather perfect and that each element of its design was essential to the integrity of the whole.  Taking just one element of the design away, I wrote, would compromise it.

The saucer, decorated as I found it
and as I displayed it in my previous post

One of my readers, named Parnassas, decided to playfully take me up on my challenge . . .

Now with one of the gilt bands removed

He carefully Photoshopped the photograph that I posted of the saucer, progressively removing each design element, starting with the interior gold bands . . .

Now bereft of two of its gilt bands

He then removed the the gilt garlands that festooned the urn . . .

Now with the gilt garlands removed

And finally he removed the urn itself, leaving nothing decorating the saucer but the gilt banding around its rim.

The saucer, wiped clean of its interior bands,
garlands, and grisaille urn

How delightfully clever Parnassas is!  And how delightful is his photographic essay that confirms Reggie's premise that the saucer as found was perfectly sublime in its simplicity, and that each decorative element is, in fact, absolutely essential to the integrity of the whole.

It is most amusing of you, dear Mr. Parnassas, and I cannot thank you enough for sharing your photographic essay with me and then giving me permission to share it with my grateful readers.

First photograph by Boy Fenwick; each subsequent one as modified by Parnassas 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Saucer of the Week: Ode to a Classical Urn

This week's saucer is one of my favorites.  It is most likely English, I believe, but it could possibly be French.  I am almost certain that it is English, but I would welcome learning otherwise if you know so, Dear Reader.

The saucer is made of very white porcelain and measures 5 3/8 inches in diameter.  It is simply decorated with a classical urn done in grisaille and festooned with gilt garlands.  The urn is, in turn, surrounded by three plain gold bands.  It is unmarked.  I date it to 1800-1815.

I bought it half a dozen years or so ago from an antiques dealer in Hudson, New York.  I can't remember which one anymore, but I suspect it was from one of the dealers that is no longer in business there.  I don't think I paid very much money for it, at least as these things go.

We keep this saucer for much of the year on one of the side tables in our drawing room at Darlington House, where it complements the room's gray walls, white trim, and gilt-framed pictures and looking glasses.  I showed an image of it in situ, in the original post that introduced this series, holding a flute of champagne.

So, why is it that this saucer is one of my favorites?  As many of my readers know, I have a weakness for classically inspired objects, and I find the severity and elegance of this saucer's spare decoration to be most pleasing.  There is nothing extraneous about its carefully chosen and edited design.  Each element, be it urn, garland, or gold band, is integral to the whole; the absence of even one of these elements would render a less successful composition.  I ask you, Dear Reader, to imagine how the saucer would look with one less band, or if the garlands had not been applied—it would not look as exquisite as it does, now would it?

Photograph by Boy Fenwick

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Lilacs of Darlington

One of the great joys of the month of May in the Hudson River Valley is that it heralds the blooming of lilacs.  Like many people, Reggie considers lilacs among his favorite flowers, and he adores gathering them by the armload during their all-too-brief blooming season and filling the rooms at Darlington House with their gorgeous, headily fragrant blossoms.

A vase of freshly cut lilacs sitting on a table
in our drawing room at Darlington House

When we bought Darlington in the late 1990s the property had a four or five groups of lilacs that had been planted many years beforehand, some possibly dating to the nineteenth century.  They had not been tended in a long time and were, in most cases, rangy, malnourished, and in need of attention.  We pruned back, fed, and reconditioned those that we could. Over time, we replaced those that were beyond redemption with new (albeit old-fashioned), vigorous specimens, which are now—after more than five or so years in some cases—just coming into maturity.  They are covered this year with an abundance of plump, highly perfumed and exquisitely beautiful blossoms.  It is heavenly.

We bought all of the lilacs that we've added to our property (along with the trees and shrubs we've planted over the years, too) from Windy Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Windy Hill is a highly respected purveyor of unusual and rare plants, trees, and shrubs. It is owned and run by Dennis and Judy Mareb.  We are fortunate to work closely with Windy Hill, where we are regular customers, and have come to know, trust, and like Dennis, who we consider to be a friend.

Several weekends ago Boy and I visited our friends Francesca Montmore and Jasper Lambert in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where Francesca lives in a rambling house on a leafy lane. The lilacs there were in full bloom.  It was lovely.

The weekend was full of amusing conversation and included much laughter (at least once to the point of tears) and an abundance of clever banter and babbling.  The four of us particularly enjoy wordplay, language, and the pronunciation of words, including what is considered to be correct and incorrect usage and pronunciation, and how those might vary regionally.

Francesca is a Charlestonian aristocrat of ancient and distinguished lineage.  She enjoys telling stories about her colorful family and ancestors, some of which are extremely funny.  She is smart as a whip, has a devilish sense of humor, and is jolly good company.  She is also given to making pronouncements (not unlike Reggie, I might add).

"My grandmother always said that people who pronounce 'lilac' any other way than with the primary emphasis on the first syllable are common," she said with a wicked, self-satisfied smile.  "I was taught to pronounce it 'LIE-leck' as the only correct way to say it, as opposed to 'lie-LACK', which is how these awful people here in Pennsylvania say it in their vile mid-Atlantic accents—one of the ugliest in America, I might add.  Tell me, how do you pronounce 'lilac'?" she asked, turning to the three of us.

Needless to say we all blanched, because—Heavens!—we were afraid of betraying our more common origins than Francesca's if we pronounced it any differently than she did.  There was also a certain amount of confusion, since none of us had actually stopped to consider how we pronounced "lilac" until Francesca had asked us.  I, for one, couldn't recall which syllable I emphasized, or whether I pronounced the second syllable to rhyme with "leck," "lick," or "lack."  Neither could Boy or Jasper.

So the three of us stood around stupidly saying and repeating variations on "LIE-leck," "LIE-LECK," "LIE-LICK," "LIE-LACK," "lie-LACK," "LIE-LOCK," and "lie-LOCK," like so many jibbering fools in an effort to determine how it was we each pronounced Francesca's verbal landmine.  I was helpless to determine how it was I pronounced it when I was doing so naturally, without the pressure of determining whether I was doing so in a manner that betrayed—and unmasked me for—my commonness.  By that point I hadn't a clue how I pronounced "lilac"!

It was only later, when lying in bed revisiting this vexatious subject, that I determined that I naturally pronounced "lilac" similarly to the way Francesca's grandmother instructed her granddaughter to, except with a less languorous and lengthy emphasis on "LIE" as she did.

"Thank Heavens," I sighed to myself in relief, and—with this once and for all determined—I promptly rolled over and went to sleep.

Tell me, Dear Reader, how do you pronounce "lilac"?

All photographs by Boy Fenwick

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy MD Day, Mummy Darling

My mother, known as MD, was not exactly what I would characterize as the maternal type.  She was the reverse of sentimental and wasn't one to mollycoddle her children, who—by the time I came around—were largely left to fend for themselves when their needs reached beyond the basics of food, shelter, and schooling—both academic and social.

There were others in our household who were there to greet us when we came home from school and who made sure that we had clean clothes to wear and hot food to eat, but they were employed to do so.  As I have written elsewhere, MD was more interested in pursuing her own interests—primarily her charitable pursuits, smoking cigarettes, and reading novels—than she was in taking care of the more mundane aspects of childcare.  Fortunately, she didn't have to.  As a little boy I spent more time in the care of the woman employed by my parents to look after us (and who they named me after in gratitude for doing so) than I did with my own mother.

MD took a laisez-faire, sink-or-swim approach in raising her children.  Rather than bundling us up in coats and mittens during the winter to go outside and play she would let us go out wearing whatever, assuming (quite reasonably, actually) that we'd come back in for a coat if we got cold.  She didn't get involved in our little activities much, such as music lessons or dancing school, beyond ensuring that we were transported to and from where we had to go, and she categorically refused to help us with our homework from school, since, as she explained, it was our homework, not hers.

When confronted with a childhood disappointment or injustice, MD would listen to us and consider what we had to say, but more often than not her response would be "Get over it!" or "Welcome to the human race, kiddo."  One time, for instance, when I was taking riding lessons, I remember that she was more concerned for the horse than she was with me when I had been thrown off its back three or four times during the lesson.  "You must have been doing something to make him want to throw you," she said.  And while it seemed shockingly cold-hearted to me at the time, in retrospect she was probably right, since I had spent much of the lesson forcing the horse to walk through the puddles of water in the ring rather than around them.

Although I would have preferred a more nurturing type of mother growing up, and devoted half a dozen well-spent years in therapy working my way through and around such issues as a result, I was genuinely fond of MD and came to appreciate the positive qualities that she had, which she passed on to her children.  She was keenly aware that we lived a life of privilege and made sure that we did not take it for granted, nor did she allow us to believe ourselves superior to those who were not as fortunate as we were.  She demanded that we treat everyone with respect and good manners, regardless of whether they were of lofty birth or low.  She also had a remarkably wry, sardonic sense of humor that—although unpleasant at times to be the butt of it—could be extremely funny.  While there were periods in my twenties and early thirties when MD and I didn't speak much, some of which lasted several years or more, we buried whatever hatchets we had by the time I reached my latter thirties when she and I both succeeded in developing a mostly mutually satisfying relationship that lasted until she died, ten or so years ago.

MD willed her body to science with the instructions that her remains were to be cremated and her ashes delivered to her children to do with what they will.  My brother Frecky was the one who received the ashes, and with Frecky they remained until about a year ago, when he contacted me and my sisters with the news that he was going to divide MD's ashes in quarters so that each of us could have some.  Several weeks later, a package arrived in the mail containing a Ziploc bag of a portion of MD's ashes.   

"What on Earth am I going to do with these?" I wondered.  

I knew that MD would have rolled her eyes and snorted if I had asked her where she would like her ashes spread, since she didn't go in for that "sentimental sort of crap," as she would have said.  Besides, no place to spread her ashes came to my mind that had any emotional significance, for me or for her.  I wasn't exactly inclined to make a trip to the assisted living center where she spent the last fifteen years of her life to scatter her remains.  I couldn't bring myself to put them in the trash, either.  

So I decided to do what I usually do when confronted with a particularly vexing, emotionally loaded question, which is to think about it some other day (another lesson that I learned from MD).  I put the Ziploc bag of ashes back in the box Frecky mailed it in and put it in a drawer in the desk in the Snuggery at Darlington House.

Several weeks later, when lying awake in bed one night, I realized that I had the perfect place to put MD's ashes.  Not only was it close to home, but it was a place where I would come into contact with them on an almost daily basis, as a reminder of my dear departed mother.

In our dining room at Darlington we have a pair of French early nineteenth-century tole urns supported by brackets mounted on the walls.  They are handsome and decorative, and they add a certain glamour to the room.  "Why not put MD's ashes in one of those urns?" I asked myself.  It seemed like the ideal place for them and a much better placement of them than if I had mooned about and scattered them in a stream or on a mountainside where MD had never been.  I knew that she would have appreciated the macabre humor of having her ashes stored in an urn in my dining room.  She would also have enjoyed knowing that I would from time to time raise my glass, turn to the urn, and offer MD a toast, particularly if I did so in front of startled guests sitting at the same table.

And what better a day to toast one's dear mother, I ask, than today, commonly known as Mother's Day and which I shall always think of hereafter as MD Day?

Happy MD Day, Mummy Darling.

Photograph by Boy Fenwick

Friday, May 6, 2011

Saucer of the Week: English Coalport with Strawberry Leaves

Or is it Worcester?  I am not absolutely sure.  To be honest, I really couldn't tell you what the difference is between Coalport and Worcester china, except that both were made in England during the nineteenth century in towns of the same names.  Coalport went out of business in the 1920s and Worcester (more recently known as Royal Worcester) ceased operations in 2009, a victim of mismanagement, too much debt, and an inability to adequately respond to shifting consumer tastes.  Oh well.

This week's featured saucer is decorated with an orange background and gilt banding, and sports a string of pretty gilt-painted strawberry leaves, a classic English decoration.  I believe it was made in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  It measures 5 5/8 in diameter and is unmarked.  I'm not absolutely positive, but I think we bought it at the tiny, treasure-filled shop of Bardith Ltd., the legendary purveyor of antique ceramics, on Madison Avenue half a dozen years or so ago.  It was not inexpensive.

An early botanical print of wild strawberries
showing leaves similar to the ones on
our saucer

So why do I like this little saucer?  As some of my readers may know, I am drawn to almost anything that has orange in it, which this does, and I find the vigor of the decoration (and what is portrayed) to be quite pleasing.  The decoration is not dissimilar to a Coalport footed boat-shaped grape bowl we own of a similar vintage that Boy bought for a song years ago at Tepper Galleries in New York.

We have placed this saucer on one of the bedside tables in our bedroom at Darlington House, where it serves as a handy base for one's morning cup of coffee and also for one's evening cocktail when dressing for dinner.

Photograph by Boy Fenwick

Illustration of botanical print of strawberry plant courtesy of BrigidsFancy at etsy.com

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Is She Really Who and What She Is Purported To Be?

I have been interested in collecting antiques my entire life, but it was not until I graduated from college and was earning a decent salary that I was able to afford to indulge in such predilections.  One of the first antiques that I bought of any consequence was a miniature painting on ivory, dating from the 1830s and purported to be of the Empress Maria Anna of Austria.

Kaiserin Mariane von Oesterreich, ca. 1830s
School of (?) Moritz Michael Daffinger

I found the little painting almost thirty years ago while browsing in an antiques shop in suburban Washington, D.C., where I was looking for a wedding present for one of my college roommates.  I thought the picture was appealling, and its subject was pretty, and the price was right.  So I bought it.

The reverse of the miniature, showing
pencil inscription in German

The painting, in an ivory frame measuring 4 ½ by 5 ½ inches, depicts a young lady wearing a rose colored dress, an embroidered shawl, and a pretty bonnet decorated with flowers and lace typical of the 1830s.  It is signed "m. Daffinger."  On the reverse of the frame, written in pencil, is "Kaiserin Mariane v. Oesterreich."

Maria Anna, Empress and Archduchess consort of Austria
Queen consort of Hungary, Bohemia,
Lombardia and Venetia, ca. 1830s
by Johann Nepomuk Ender (1793-1854)
Collection Museo di Roma

Up until now I've never bothered to do any research on my little portrait.  I've always assumed it was a nice piece of tourist or commemorative art, depicting a young Queen of Austria.

When it came time for me to write this essay, however, I decided to see if I could find anything out about my picture.  After spending several hours browsing around the Internet, I learned rather a lot.  The painting is very probably of the young Empress Maria Anna (or Mariane) of Austria (1803-1884) and was possibly painted by an Austrian miniaturist named Moritz Michael Daffinger (1790-1849).

Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia and Family, ca. 1815
by Luigi Bernero (1775-1848)
Collection Royal Castle of Recconigi
Piedmont, Italy

Maria Anna Ricarda Carlotta Margherita Pia of Savoy, the likely subject of my miniature, was Empress and Archduchess consort of Austria, and Queen consort of Hungary, Bohemia, Lombardia, and Venetia.  She was born in 1803 in Rome and was the daughter of King Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia (1759-1824) and the Archduchess Maria-Teresa of Austria-Este (1773-1832).

The hapless Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria
in ceremonial robes of the
Order of the Golden Fleece, 1847
by Leopold Kupelwieser (1796-1892)
Collection Schönbrunn Palace
Vienna, Austria

In 1831 Maria Anna married King Ferdinand V of Hungary (1793-1875), who later became Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria.  Ferdinand was apparently severely epileptic, subject to as many as twenty fits a day, and was widely considered to be rather dim-witted.  Nonetheless, he ruled Austria as Emperor from 1836 until his forced abdication in 1848, when he was succeeded by his far more capable and far longer reigning nephew Franz Joseph (1830-1916).  Although Maria Anna and Ferdinand were supposedly devoted to each other, it is thought that Ferdinand was incapable of consummating their marriage, and no little princes or princesses were produced from their union.

A close-up of the painting

I suspect my miniature of the Empress was painted around the time of Ferdinand's ascension to the throne of Austria in 1836.

After Ferdinand's abdication, the royal couple remained in Austria until Ferdinand's death in 1875.  Maria Anna died in Prague in 1884 and is buried in Vienna, next to her husband.

Detail of the signature of m. Daffinger

Moritz Michael Daffinger (1790-1849), whose signature appears on my little portrait of Maria Anna, was an Austrian miniature painter and sculptor and is considered by those in the know to have been the leading miniaturist of the Biedermeier period.  According to what I've read, Daffinger was influenced by the English painter Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), with whom he studied during Lawrence's visit to Vienna in 1815.  Daffinger is known to have produced more than a thousand portraits, mostly miniatures, of members of the Austrian aristocracy.

A pre-Euro Austrian 20 schilling note
featuring Moritz Michael Daffinger

Revered in his native Austria, Daffinger's likeness appeared on the obverse of the Austrian twenty schilling banknote that circulated until the introduction of the Euro.  He also appeared on a stamp.

An Austrian stamp
featuring Moritz Michael Daffinger

In searching through images of Daffinger's work, I am not absolutely convinced that my little portrait was actually painted by him, even though it bears his signature.  I don't rule it out that he might have painted it, but—even though my miniature of the Empress is very skillfully painted—it isn't as technically refined as many of the works of Daffinger that I came across when researching this essay.

Countess Ferdinandine Karolyi,
née Princesse Kaunitz-Rietberg, ca. 1830
by Moritz Michael Daffinger
location unknown

It is possible that my miniature was painted by Daffinger.  It could also have been painted by a student of his, and he signed it.  It could also be a copy by someone of a miniature of the Empress that Daffinger painted.  It could even be an outright forgery.  I'd have to show it to an expert who is knowledgeable of Daffinger's work in order to determine whether or not he painted it.

Leutnant Botha, ca. 1830s
by Moritz Michael Daffinger

location unknown

Regardless of whether Herr Daffinger actually painted my little portrait or not, it is exceedingly well and finely painted, and I'm very happy to have it.  I appreciate it both for its prettiness and also because of my sentimental attachment to it as one of the first antiques I bought, many years ago.

An Austrian artillery officer
by Moritz Michael Daffinger
Collection of Elle Shushan

At least several dozen miniatures and little paintings by Daffinger have sold at auction in recent years, most of them in Europe but also some here in America, too.  Hammer prices realized range from a low of $750 to as much as $50,000, depending on the picture's quality, attribution, and subject matter.

Princess Melanie Metternich, ca. 1830s
by Moritz Michael Daffinger
sold at Christie's in 2007

Tell me, do you think my little portrait of the Empress Maria Anna was likely painted by Daffinger?

Photographs of Reggie's miniature by Boy Fenwick
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