Monday, January 31, 2011

New York Antiques Week, Part II

Our first stop at the New York Ceramics Fair was the booth of John Howard, a specialist dealer in Staffordshire, creamware, lustreware, and pearlware ceramics based in Oxfordshire, England.  We've bought from Mr. Howard at previous shows, and we always make a point of stopping by his booth at the Ceramics Fair because he usually has one or two pieces of pearlware that we are interested in.

Our pearlware bust of the goddess Minerva, ca. 1810-1820
Photograph by Boy Fenwick

So, what is pearlware, you might ask, and why would I consider collecting it, as I do?

Pearlware is a type of English creamware, made whiter by the inclusion of china clay, and covered with a glaze containing a small amount of cobalt that gives it a bluish cast.  The generally accepted view is that pearlware was invented by Josiah Wedgwood in 1779.  Sometimes called "Prattware," and originally called "china glazed" or "pearl white," it was produced in quantity by Wedgwood and other potteries, such as Enoch Wood & Sons, in England from 1780 to around 1820, and remained in production, albeit in declining levels, until around 1840.

The Enoch Wood & Sons potteries, circa 1840
from Ward's
History of the Borough of Stoke-Upon-Trent

Given when pearlware was produced, at the height of the neo-classical revival, much of it is classically inspired in its form and decoration, taking its aesthetic inspiration from ancient Rome and Greece.  We collect pearlware figures of neo-classical deities and the Christian virtues, made 1800-1820, and have a dozen or so of them at Darlington House.  The pearlware figures we collect were made for domestic consumption in the English markets, and relatively few of them were exported to America, unlike later Staffordshire figures.  It is relatively rare to find pearlware figures for sale here in the United States.

 Two pages of pearlware figures, a number of which are in our collection at Darlington
 from English Earthenware Figures, 1740-1840 by Pat Halfpenny

At John Howard's booth at the fair we came across a pearlware bust of the goddess Minerva, circa 1810-1820.  Standing a robust twelve inches tall, the bust has painted enamel overglaze decoration, meaning that it was first glazed and fired in an undecorated state, then paint-decorated, and then fired again.  Typical of such figures, the paint decoration is in pretty pastel colors.

John Howard's advertisement in the
Ceramics Fair dealers directory

The base of the bust is painted to resemble marble, and the figure wears plum and lavender colored classical robes and a slate colored helmet surmounted by plumes of russet feathers.  It is stamped (twice) as being the goddess Minerva, the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom, war, art, and commerce.  Minerva was the daughter of the god Jupiter, whose image appears on the bust's peacock blue colored breastplate.

Given the bust's substantial scale it was an expensive piece when originally produced and it is a costly rarity today.  Despite the hefty—although eminently fair—price quoted to us by Mr. Howard, we decided to take the plunge and buy it to add to our collection at Darlington House, where it sits as the jewel in the crown of our pearlware figures collection.

I think our Minerva is really rather marvelous, and I am thrilled we have her.

Next: A piece of Staffordshire of elephantine proportions . . .

Friday, January 28, 2011

New York Antiques Week, Part I

Thank God that New York Antiques Week is over.  Of course one looks forward to its annual arrival every January with fevered anticipation, and one cannot wait to attend the shows and auction previews that fill every conceivable venue in town.  But the sheer number of them can be rather daunting, not to mention exhausting, to attend, and the temptations one is confronted with at every turn can be ruinous to one's financial well-being, at least if one were to succumb to their siren calls.

This year's Antiques Week schedule,
featuring the five shows and two auction houses
Courtesy of Stella Management

Which Reggie did, rather more than he was intending to, I am afraid.  In fact, Reggie thinks he may have lost his head this year.  At the moment he's feeling rather like a drunk the morning after an extended bender, where the details have gone all foggy.  How did I let that happen, he wonders, rubbing his temples?

I started off the week with every intention to keep my wallet firmly buttoned in my jacket pocket, and I only allowed myself to carry two cheques with me when out at the shows.  I did give myself permission to buy one or two little fripperies if I came across ones that I simply had to have.  But that was it.  No big-ticket items this year, I said to myself, avowing financial sobriety.

My resolve remained steadfast when I attended the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory—the grandaddy of them all—which is not surprising, given its ducal offerings and stratospheric prices.  But neither was my resolve much threatened at the Downtown Armory Show, even though that show was full of temptations (a number of which Boy succumbed to) at far more appealing price points than what one found at its uptown, richer cousin.  I even left the even-more-reasonable Pier Show virtually unscathed, unlike last year.

But the Ceramics Fair was my undoing.

The New York Ceramics Fair, which is one of the top shows of its kind in the world, attracts many of the leading ceramics and glass dealers from across the globe and is the hunting ground for serious collectors and museum curators seeking the very best that can be had, at least legitimately.

The cover of this year's dealer directory

It was at the Ceramics Fair that my lofty resolve and noble intentions came crashing down, and I was unmasked as the willpowerless fool that I truly am.  Dear Reader, unless you are just coming to read this blog for the first time, you are well aware, I am sure, that Reggie has rather a weakness for antique china and porcelains.  And no, not just for plates and saucers and cups, at least of the more common garden variety that one would set one's tables with.  No, he has more than enough of those already, and he has ceased lusting to add any more of them to his over-filled cupboards at Darlington House.  His tastes have become far more catholic than that, and much more expensive, too.

It didn't help that we arrived at the show on Saturday well fortified by a leisurely, martini-fueled lunch at L'Absinthe of perfectly shucked, briny, oysters; steak frites washed down with several glasses of rather good red wine; and a plate of lighter-than-air cookies accompanied by double espressos.  I'm not absolutely sure, but I think the house may have stood us to a round of post-prandial Sauternes before we stumbled out the door.

It is dangerous, I know, to go shopping for pretty things when one is under the influence, as we were.  But we did, and so it is not surprising that I felt giddy and almost in a dream state when I first looked around the hall where the fair was held, taking it all in.  For what I found there is truly the stuff of dreams, a veritable Aladdin's Cave of the most beautiful, rare, and costly antique ceramics and glass imaginable, beckoning to me with outstretched arms and the soothing encouragement of dealers all too willing to make my every wish come true.  In short, I became as helpless as an addict entering a fully stocked drug den with his rent money in his pocket.  Heavens!  But I'm not the only one, I might add, for I had my trusty adviser (and partner in crime), Boy Fenwick, with me.  And both of us, I am afraid, are weak-willed fellows when it comes to the crème de la crème of such precious offerings as the Ceramics Fair is known for.

To be continued . . .

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reggie's Bedside Reading

I recently realized that it had been some time since I last posted about what it is that I am reading for pleasure.  In fact, I haven't done so since May of last year.  So, herewith, I remedy that unfortunate situation.

My current bedside reading

The first book on my bedside table, and which I am now almost finished reading, is Frances Osbourne's excellent and compelling The Bolter.  Written by the subject's great-grandaughter, it is the story of Idina Sackville, an English aristocrat who "ran away to become the chief seductress of Kenya's scandalous 'Happy Valley set.'"  The book is ultimately a sad and tawdry tale of a once-enchanting woman who made many rather unfortunate choices in her messy, pleasure-filled life, and who ultimately bore the consequences of same.  It is a delicious, cautionary tale, indeed.

The next book in my stack is Louis Auchincloss' A Voice From Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth.  It is a slim tome, published (I believe) posthumously, of the recollections of the male Edith Wharton of my parents' generation.  I've read about half of it (Reggie, like many, keeps several books running at once), and I find it to be moderately absorbing so far.  Mr. Auchincloss provides a crystalline view into the rarified world of what was once left of the old Knickerbocker families, a subject he considers with somewhat mixed emotions.

I look forward to burrowing into John Julius Norwich's Trying to Please: A Memoir once I finish the first two books on my table.  The author is the son of the celebrated Sir Duff and Lady Diana Cooper, both of whose fascinating memoirs I read with pleasure in years past.  I am intrigued to read the perspective that Norwich, their only child and heir, brings to their stories, as well as to his own.

The fourth book on my table is Ethan Mordden's The Guest List: How Manhattan Defined American Sophistication—From the Algonquin Round Table to Truman Capote's Ball.  Back in my late twenties and early thirties I enjoyed reading (and in some cases re-reading) Mr. Mordden's collections of short stories about a group of young men who frolicked on the Manhattan/Fire Island Pines axis that I also frequented at the time.  Since then we've both grown up, and I look forward to delving into his book on a subject that Reggie always enjoys learning more about: life among the social moths that once circled the flames in the city he is most fortunate to call his home.

The last book in my bedside stack is Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, a biography by Sam Irvin.  I've always wanted to know more about the enigmatic Miss Thompson, star of cabaret, movie musicals, and authoress of the famed Eloise at the Plaza series and, apparently, one of the great (and more complicated) creative characters of the twentieth century.  Now that Mr. Irvin has come out with his well-received book I have my chance.

And there you have it, Dear Reader, Reggie's current bedside reading.  I am particularly pleased with this selection of books, and I look forward to wiling away many delicious hours between their covers.

Tell me, what's your current reading list?

Photograph by Boy Fenwick

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It's Time to Sprinkle Some Stylish Fairy Dust

Reggie recently was the recipient of a Stylish Blogger Award from his friend Lindaraxa, and then again from Acanthus & Acorn, for which he is most grateful and appreciative.  Thank you, ladies.  Considering who else they anointed, Reggie is all a-blush to find himself in such, well, stylish company.

When accepting such an award there are often strings attached to it, for with recognition comes responsibility.  In this case, one is pleasantly requested to sprinkle the award among ten other bloggers whom one considers to be stylish, too, and therefore worthy of such recognition.

But what is one to do when so many of the choices that first spring to one's mind are already taken by one's nominating bloggers, and by others, too?  How many times can one blogger be awarded the same award, I ask?

The answer is that one must accept that many worthy recipients are already spoken for, and one must dig down into one's treasure trove of "must reads" to find, and then appropriately recognize, those who strike a stylish chord and who keep one coming back for more—and who haven't yet been chosen, to the best of one's knowledge, for such celebration.

But first I'm going to play around with the rules a little bit.  To whit:
  1. Thank and link back to the person(s) who awarded you—I have done that;
  2. Share seven things about yourself—I've already done that before, too, see here;
  3. Award ten other bloggers—If I did that my list would be repetitive with others', so I'm only awarding five today;
  4. Contact those bloggers and tell them about the award—That's next on my "to do" list;
So what were my criteria for choosing the five stylish bloggers I'm awarding the prize to?  I decided to look beyond the world of those who post about interiors, antiques collecting, high WASP-dom, entertaining, gardening, and trad-land (in other words, Reggie's primary stomping grounds) to come up with my list.  I wanted to find a group that I suspected many of my readers might not be familiar with, even though I've recently added two of them to My Blog List.  Most important, each of the blogs I chose had to have content of sufficient depth, breadth, and originality to merit such an award, and whose authors had something to say and a point of view.

Interestingly, all five bloggers I selected are—I believe—gay men, and who often, although not exclusively by any means, explore subjects of heightened interest to such, uh, fellows.  But that is, I believe, coincidental.  What is not coincidental is that each of the bloggers chosen are what I consider to be stylish ones, and whose blogs are full of wonderful pictures, thought-provoking content, and well-written prose.

And so here they are, in strict alphabetical order:
  1. Hibernian Homme is a stylish young man whose blog regularly features the works of English writers and artists (and a lot more) of the interwar years, and who is moving to Milan from New England in just a few weeks.  Reggie looks forward to following his journey there;
  2. Red Mug, Blue Linen presents luscious photography, often of young men (and some of which is at times a bit racy, so be forewarned), along with lyrically beautiful prose and poetry that keeps Reggie returning—even though he admits there are times that he is not absolutely sure he entirely understands what the author is writing about;
  3. Stirred, Straight Up, with a Twist drolly features amusing (and sometimes rather wicked) photographs of stars of the stage and screen of days gone by, frequently accompanied by hilarious, information-packed reporting by its stylish author on the subject at hand;
  4. The Haunted Lamp showcases an eclectic mix of images of vintage objects and paraphernalia—much of it owned by the stylish young man who writes the blog, photographs of lost mid-century retail and theatrical architecture and interiors, and antique postcards and other ephemera;
  5. We could grow up together is the stylish output of a young fashion photographer that gorgeously chronicles his life and work traveling all over the world in pursuit of his very stylish profession;
And there you have it.  These are the five stylish bloggers that I consider to be worthy additions to the Stylish Blogger pantheon, and which I have not (yet) seen on others' lists for this award.  I would like to bring them to your attention, Dear Reader, as meriting your very stylish consideration.

Image of the always stylish Tinker Bell courtesy of Walt Disney Entertainment

Friday, January 21, 2011

Reggie's Greatest Regret In Life

. . . is that he cannot play the piano.  And it is not for lack of trying, either.

Reggie grew up in a house where the children were expected to become proficient in playing a musical instrument, among other basic skills of the well-rounded life.  When Reggie was a little boy, no more than six or seven years old, his mother, MD, asked him what instrument he would like to learn to play.  He wasn't given the option of whether he wanted to learn to play an instrument, but rather which one.  Fortunately, Reggie was more than agreeable to the prospect, despite having listened for years to his older siblings torture their way through practicing on various instruments for which they had little aptitude.  Aside from enjoying singing and playing records, the Darlings weren't exactly what Reggie would describe as a musically gifted family.

A young Reggie at the piano with his teacher, Mrs. Lee

Rather than follow in the footsteps of his older brother Frecky and take lessons on the French horn (a choice that to this day Reggie finds to be a peculiar one for his brother), Reggie asked to be given piano lessons.  He was attracted to the piano for several reasons: he liked the way it sounded, one could sing along to it when playing tunes upon it, and one wasn't expected to cart it about from place to place, unlike more portable but often cumbersome options, such as the cello or bassoon.

Performing classical music in concert halls
wasn't what attracted Reggie to the piano

The prospect of learning to play Beethoven's sonatas and other serious music and then performing them one day in concert halls was not the reason Reggie wanted to play the piano.  No, he was far more interested in learning to accompany himself and others while singing show tunes, popular songs, and Christmas carols in the comfort of fashionable drawing rooms.  For Reggie is a sociable chap, and has been one since the get-go, and he liked the idea of being the lucky fellow sitting at the piano at the parties he imagined himself attending, at the center of all the fun.

Everyone enjoys singing show tunes around the piano!

Yes, even at the age of seven Reggie was already a show tune lovin' laddie, which some may interpret as manifesting the propensity to be "that way," but which Reggie takes exception to since many of the composers of same were well-known for their prowess with the opposite sex—but that's a topic for another day, I suppose . . . .  On a less flibbertigibbety note, Reggie also enjoyed then (and still does) a good hymn sing, at least from the 1940 edition of the Episcopal Hymnal that was then still found in the pews at the church we attended on Sunday mornings.

This is how I saw myself
Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

In short, Reggie was interested in learning to play the piano because he thought it would be his ticket to becoming the life of the party.

But it didn't work out that way.

My parents signed me up for piano lessons with a neighbor, named Mrs. Lee, who lived only two doors from our house and who had three pianos in her large living room where she gave lessons in the afternoon, when her husband, an editor at the Washington Post, was at the office.  Mrs. Lee was a pleasant lady, and I liked her.  She started me with the exercises that one would expect and was encouraging of the progress I initially made under her tutelage.  I remember the pride I felt when I performed for the first time at the annual recital she held for her students, the highlight of which was—at least for little Reggie—the sweet and salty praline cookies she served at such gatherings.  I remember those cookies vividly to this day.

Doesn't Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge?

The problem was, after an initial spurt of facility at the piano, my progress slowed to a virtual standstill, and I barely advanced beyond rank beginner after several years of taking lessons.  Part of the problem, I admit, is that after the first flush of excitement wore off I became less than enthralled with practicing for more than half an hour at a time, and I was frustrated that I was forced to learn the likes of Bartok's compositions for children when what I really wanted to play was "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady.

I played this album to death as a child

It also didn't help that the piano we had at home was a rather pathetic upright one that MD had bought at a yard sale and painted cherry red (she had a thing for painting furniture with bright enamel colors at the time), and that was only rarely tuned, if ever.  MD refused to consider buying a better piano for me to practice on, given my level of skill at the time.  "Why should I buy you another piano when you can't even play the one we've got?" she would ask me when I would complain about the quality of the instrument I was expected to practice upon.

The dreaded, and for Reggie embarrassing, piano recital

But despite that, Mrs. Lee and I soldiered on for the next several years.  Every year at her annual recital concert I was still lumped with the beginners, and I would find myself—with some humiliation, I might add—towering over the little ones who surrounded me there.  By that point, MD had given up attending the recitals as she had—she informed me with a snort—other and better uses of her time.

My piano recital competition

One day, when I was twelve years old, I arrived at Mrs. Lee's house for my weekly lesson.  After several minutes she put her hand on mine as I was stumbling through the day's piece and said, "Stop."

I turned to her to see why.  She had an odd expression on her face.  She hesitated, as if building her courage, and said to me, "Reggie, you are a nice boy, and I like you, but I am afraid that I must tell you that you will never learn to play the piano.  Of all the students I have taught over the years, and there have been many, I have never come across one who has as little talent for it as you do."

"Really?" I asked.

"Yes, really.  There's simply no point in trying any more, because you will never learn to play the piano.  You have no aptitude for it, and no matter how much you practice you will never learn to play it.  I am sorry, but I can't teach you anymore.  I simply cannot, in good conscience, accept any more money from your parents.  Today is your last lesson.  We are done."

"But what will I tell my parents?" I asked her.

"I will telephone your mother now and let her know."

It was with mixed feelings that I left Mrs. Lee's house that late afternoon and walked back to my parents' house.  On one hand I was relieved that the burden I had endured for the last four years was now over, but on the other hand I was disappointed to learn—once and for all—that I had absolutely no talent for playing the piano and that I would never find myself the life of the party, tinkling ivories and singing show tunes to the delight of those gathered around me.

That's how I saw myself.  Erroneously, as it turns out . . .

When I got home MD was waiting for me.  "Thank God that's over," she said with a smirk, letting me off the hook.  She had the piano carted away the very next day.

Not for Reggie, as I learned . . .
Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

But it always rankled me that I had never learned to play the piano, and that I had been told that I never would, nor should I bother even trying to.  I still, deep down inside of me, wanted to be that happy fellow sitting at the piano at the smart parties I imagined attending, singing and laughing away.

Half a decade later I got another chance . . .

During my final year at Saint Grottlesex I applied for and was the fortunate recipient of a scholarship to attend school in England for a year, with all of my expenses paid for.  It was an exchange program between English and American boarding and secondary schools under the auspices of the English Speaking Union, an organization devoted to fostering good will among (or as they would say "amongst") the English speaking nations.  I was not given a choice as to which school I would attend under the program, except to request one that was strong in music and where the students were largely drawn from within Great Britain, as opposed to from a broader, more international base.

The school that the E.S.U. selected for me was Sherborne School, a quintissentially English, all-boys public boarding school located in a bucolic market town of the same name in Dorset, a several-hour train ride west of London.  Sherborne (pronounced "Shuh-bn") was founded in 1550 by Edward VI (the short-lived son of Henry VIII) on the site of a deconsecrated monastery.  It was and remains a beautiful school with handsome buildings and grounds, and it was used as the location for the 1969 movie of Goodbye Mr. Chips starring Peter O'Toole.

Sherborne School, Dorset, England
Image courtesy of same

When I arrived at Sherborne I was given the opportunity to take music lessons on an instrument of my choice.  I decided that I would—once again—attempt to take up the piano and show "them" that I really could learn to play the instrument that Mrs. Lee said I would never be able to master.

I was given as a teacher an elderly, archtypal English maiden-lady named Miss Whipple, who looked like a character right out of an "English Cosies" murder mystery of the type filled with village eccentrics, vicars on bicycles, and such.  Miss Whipple, who was in her early seventies at the time, lived in a cottage not far from the school with her equally elderly spinster sister.  Her sensible clothes were from another long-gone era, and she wore stout, sturdy shoes.  I recall that she wore a pince-nez, too.

Miss Whipple looked remarkably like
the writer Agatha Christie

Photograph courtesy of

I told Miss Whipple my story of how I had taken piano lessons as a boy, and that I regretted that I had been considered incapable of ever learning to play one.  She responded encouragingly that she had had great success with her pupils, even ones with only modest innate talent, and that she was sure she would have success with me, too, so long as I promised to apply myself.  With that agreed to, we set off.

Could this still be in my future, I wondered?
Image courtesy of

In the first several weeks under Miss Whipple's tutelage I made leaps and bounds of progress, and she was delighted with me and how quickly I proceeded.  I practiced diligently, hours every day, and I was determined to make a success of learning to play the piano.

But after several months had passed I was no longer making any progress, and—no matter how much I practiced—I had once again become stuck at the very same place I had been when Mrs. Lee put her hand on mine.  Whereas Miss Whipple had initially been pleased to see me and was quite enthusiastic about my progress, over time she became increasingly restless and fidgety during our lessons, which were no longer the pleasant fun they first had been.  Despite my best efforts, she started to become impatient with me and at times quite short with me, clearly irritated by my incompetence.  "No!" she would cry as I fumbled my way through a piece, "That's not how it is done!"  She would then demonstrate once again, with mounting irritation, how I should play the section of music at hand and what technique I should use.

Sadly, no jolly shout-outs for Reggie with a happy gang
of fellows gathering 'round him at the piano

But I didn't make any more progress, and it became increasingly clear to me, as it certainly had to Miss Whipple by this time, that what Mrs. Lee had said to me all those years ago was, in fact, true—that I had absolutely no aptitude for playing the piano, and my attempting to learn to play one was futile and an utter waste of my (and others') time.

After several more painful weeks had passed, by which point Miss Whipple had grown openly hostile to me and was now sitting through our lessons in angry, stony silence, I decided to throw in the towel and put both of us out of our misery.  Not surprisingly, Miss Whipple was more than pleased to let me go and agreed with alacrity that it was far better that I concentrate my efforts on activities where I had at least some chance for success.  So, instead, I signed on for the school's choral society where I was able to happily sing away without unduly embarrassing myself or visibly annoying the conductor . . . or Miss Whipple.

And that, Dear Reader, is why Reggie cannot—nor will he ever be able to—play the piano.

All black and white photographs, unless noted, are courtesy of LIFE Images.  Reggie had rather a lot of fun finding vintage photographs to illustrate his story.  He makes no claims to actually appearing in any of them.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Who She Is, I Do Not Know . . .

I have a very old, cracked photograph of an ancestress of mine, done on glass, and which resides in a pretty rose-colored, oval velvet case, surrounded by gold filigree.   It's very small, only one and a half inches tall.  I keep it in a silver cigarette box on a chest of drawers in my bedroom at Darlington House, where it is safely nestled among other little treasures.

Even though I know that I am related to the sitter, a young woman in her twenties, I do not know who she is.  Looking at her photograph, I suspect that it was taken in the 1870s or 1880s, which would mean that she is of the same generation as my great-grandparents.  I know that I am related to her through my mother, MD, in whose effects I came across the photograph after she died over ten years ago.  I recall a conversation I had with MD many years ago, when I was a boy, in which she told me who the sitter was.  I believe she comes from my mother's mother's side of the family.  But beyond that I know no more.

Who, exactly, is this young woman in the photograph, I wonder?  Is she my great-grandmother, known as Giggy, whose Paris porcelain I now own?  Or is she one of the maiden great-great aunts who lived in a house on my great-grandparents' compound, who became the subject of sometimes cruel family fun in later life due to her eccentric and absent-minded behavior?  Is she the one who would spend days on end, lost in reading out-of-date newspapers?

The young lady's photograph appears to have been framed as a keepsake, a memento.  Was it for a doting parent or a loving husband?  Was it a token for a suitor who never returned to be given it, leaving the young lady in question wondering what might have been, if only?

I will never know the answer to these questions . . . for those who could answer them are no more.

I regret that there isn't a slip of paper, tucked into the little velvet case, with the name of my ancestress upon it, written in faded ink in an antique hand.  I recall that there may have been one once, when I was a boy, but if so it is now long lost.

Dear Reader, I implore you to query older members of your family and have them identify the un-named faces in your old photographs, so that the identity of the sitters will not be lost to future generations.

What a fleeting life it is we lead, and how fragile and ephemeral are our memories . . .

The photograph of a photograph taken long ago is by Boy Fenwick

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Ironstone of Darlington

Some of Reggie's readers may think that he only dines on the finest of antique china, eating his meals and drinking his tea from fragile porcelain vessels decorated with whisps of gilding and hand-painted flowers.  If so, then Reggie plans on giving you a bit of a jolt, since that isn't true.  Well, not mostly.  While one does have rather a lot of good porcelain and creamware, and one routinely sets one's tables with it, there is a more quotidian side to Reggie's dishes that gives him equal, if not at times greater, pleasure.

A typical 19th-century transfer label
found on English ironstone china

Today I share with you images of the platters, dishes, bowls, and serving pieces that we use in our kitchen and at our casually set tables, and which are the workhorses of the back-of-the-house activities that support the more refined requirements of the front of the house at Darlington.

A pile of medium and small ironstone platters

They are made of what is known as ironstone, a type of stoneware china that was introduced in England in the early nineteenth century by potters looking for a substitute for porcelain that could be mass-produced and sold to a broad market.  Dense and hard, glazed ironstone china was first patented in 1813 by Charles James Mason in Staffordshire, England.  It was an improved china that was harder than the earthenware offerings available at the time and stronger than more costly porcelains.  Durable and affordable, ironstone wares decorated with colorful patterns were an immediate success in England.

Two footed shallow ironstone bowls

By the 1840s, undecorated—or white—ironstone china, was being mass-produced in England for export to Europe, Australia, and North America, where it remained popular in middle-class households for the next seventy years.  Until the late nineteenth century most dinnerware in the United States was imported.  After the Civil War dinnerware, including ironstone, was increasingly manufactured in America.  Residential use of ironstone fell out of favor in this country in the early twentieth century, when other lighter and more colorful alternatives arrived on the market.  Ironstone remains popular to this day for institutional and hospitality use, although it peaked there in the 1960s.

A large ironstone punch bowl

Originally given such names as graniteware, stoneware, pearl china, or feldspar china, the china I am referring to is now all categorized as "ironstone."

A stack of small ironstone soap dishes

English manufacturers of ironstone frequently marked their wares with transfer-print labels, often incorporating the royal coat of arms:

Most American-made ironstone is unmarked, but some manufacturers first used marks that resembled the British royal arms in an attempt to promote their wares, later transitioning them to the use of the American eagle as customers became more confident in purchasing American-made ironstone:

We have collected ironstone for as long as we have owned Darlington House, and we have amassed a rather large inventory of it.  We use it daily in our kitchen, mostly while preparing food and often for serving.  We have dozens of platters, from very large to tiny ones; we have footed compotes and serving dishes; we have bowls; we have jugs; and we have more.  We enjoy using our ironstone—I like the heft and hand of it, and I like the way it looks: honest and straightforward, true.  There's nothing fancy about it.

An early octagonal ironstone platter 
with a useful deep well

White ironstone patterns fall into distinct periods.  The earliest—called gothic or primary—date from the 1830s and 1840s and frequently includes paneled hexagonal or octagonal shapes.  More rounded forms emerged in the 1850s and 1860s, when exports to this country really took off, and huge quantities of it were sold to the American middle classes and in this country's farmlands where it was called "thrasher's ware," since much of it was decorated with harvest patterns of relief-molded sheaves of wheat and fruits and berries.

A stack of early rectangular ironstone platters

After 1860, bulbous, highly ornamented designs were introduced that combined ribs with leaves and flowers, and from 1880 onwards ironstone reverted to plainer forms—often unadorned except for handles or finials.  Most of the American-made ironstone dates from this period and has simpler shapes than found on English imports.

An ironstone sauce jug sitting
on a small oval stand or dish

Almost all of the ironstone we own at Darlington House was made for residential use and dates from after the Civil War through around 1910.  I don't really care for the more bulbous and ornamented earlier designs, which can look rather ungainly and fussified to me.

A footed ironstone soup tureen

Collecting white ironstone came to widespread popularity in America in the 1970s, and Reggie remembers many a photograph in shelter magazines of the time showing stripped pine Welsh dressers filled with it in the type of country interiors popularized by Mary Emmerling.  In the 1980s Perry Wolfman filled her marvelous store, Wolfman-Gold and Good Company, in Soho in New York City with it, and Reggie remembers spending delighted hours there enjoying seeing it in mass quantities, beautifully displayed.  Ironstone enjoyed another round of popularity in the 1990s, courtesy of Martha Stewart.  It has remained a popular and utilitarian collectible ever since.

A stack of very large ironstone platters
that we use for lobster boils at Darlington

Using ironstone is quite safe, as its glazes do not contain lead or other harmful elements.  It is not recommended that one put ironstone in the dishwasher, though, as the high heat and soaps used in such machines can damage it.  Discoloration can be removed or reduced by soaking ironstone in a bath of hydrogen peroxide for several days.  Contrary to what you might have heard, one should never use stonger chemicals on it—such as chlorine bleach—which can harm it.

An assortment of ironstone vessels

Even though prices for good, clean pieces of antique ironstone have risen since Reggie first began collecting it over a decade ago, it is still possible to score pieces of ironstone for between twenty and fifty dollars.  Reggie has even had good luck finding odd pieces of it in junk shops and at yard sales, too.  But finding ironstone in such places is increasingly rare, and it is more likely that one will come across it at dealers asking seventy-five dollars to two hundred dollars per piece, sometimes more.

A stack of footed ironstone stands

Reggie enjoys owning and using his ironstone, both in the kitchen and at the casual table.  If you do not yet own any of it, Dear Reader, Reggie encourages you to keep an eye out for it and buy it when you come across it at a good price.  You needn't live in a traditional interior such as Darlington House to enjoy using ironstone, either, as the plainer pieces that Reggie likes are suited for use in modern, clean-lined interiors, too.

An early ironstone soap dish in
our flower-arranging room at Darlington

Tell me, do you own and use ironstone in your house?

For additional information regarding ironstone, Reggie recommends consulting the excellent website of the White Iron Stone Association and the "potteries" sections of the website of the city of  Stoke-On-Trent, England, both of which were invaluable resources to him when researching this essay.

All photographs by Boy Fenwick

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

One's Old School Ties, and Thoughts About Dress Codes In General

Now that the holidays are (finally) behind us, Reggie feels free to return to topics of more sustained interest to him than pretty bows and ornaments.  He's had a bit too much sugar in his diet, if you know what I mean . . .

Several months ago, the inestimable Admiral Cod wrote a thought-provoking post about old school ties that sent Reggie searching his closets and drawers to see what neckties he still owns of the schools, both preparatory and collegiate, that he attended.  And he came up with rather a lot of them.  It's not surprising that Reggie held on to so many of such ties over the years, since they are not exactly the kind of thing that one is inclined to throw away or send off to the jumble sale at one's local parish.  Heavens, that one should come across an unsuitable stranger wearing one's old school tie!

Pompey whizzing by Reggie's old school ties

When Reggie was a schoolboy he attended private and preparatory schools that required their students to wear uniforms or abide by dress codes.  From the time he entered fourth grade through when he graduated from prep school he was expected to wear a jacket and tie to school.  No questions asked.

Saint Grottlesex School ties

Reggie never found the wearing of uniforms or abiding by dress codes as a lad to be an unpleasant or restricting requirement.  Not only did they make his sartorial choices easier (or did away with them altogether), but they helped provide him with a greater sense of community with the other students he went to school with.  As an adult he has come to further appreciate that school (and other) uniforms and dress codes are a sign of respect for the institutions and places in which they are worn.

Sherborne School ties

Even though there was no formal dress code at Yale by the time he enrolled there in the mid-1970s, the wearing of a jacket and tie was expected of male undergraduates when attending university functions or other organized gatherings.  Reggie found himself donning a jacket and tie at least several times a week when he was an undergraduate at Yale.

When Reggie joined the workforce after college, taking a job in a large bank on Wall Street in New York City, men were expected to wear a suit and tie to the office each and every day of the week.  And so it was for the next fifteen years or so, until all Hell broke loose and "business casual" took over like so many canker sores.

Yale College ties

Reggie is a firm believer in the positive benefits of students and employees abiding by dress codes, and he rues the day that so many schools and places of employment relaxed or did away with such requirements altogether.  He would far rather see a young man wearing a jacket and tie in a lecture hall or his place of employment than one wearing an oversized golf shirt and ill-fitting, no-iron khakis.  Or—even worse—a tee shirt and blue jeans.

Yale Whiffenpoof ties

But Reggie isn't the only one who feels this way.  In the last several years there has been a movement in financial and other firms in New York City to reinstate the daily wearing of suits and ties in the office.  In fact, the Investment Bank where Reggie works on Park Avenue has recently re-instituted a policy that requires its client-facing male employees to wear suits and ties to work every day, at least during the cooler months of the year.  It's thought to be more respectful of the institution, our clients, and one's colleagues.  And it brings a level of discipline and professionalism to the firm that reflects well upon it.

Needless to say, Reggie is rather happy with this development.  And he would, of course, be overjoyed should his firm require men to start wearing proper hats again, too . . .

All photographs by Boy Fenwick
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