Thursday, February 2, 2012

Saucer of the Week: French Cornflowers

Bear with me, Dear Reader.  I promise that I will stop writing exclusively about ceramics.  But humor me, please, and let me share with you but one more ceramics post before I move on to more interesting topics.. . .

Here goes:

Many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I spent several memorable days in Charleston, South Carolina, in the company of my dear friend George Pinckney, a southern gentleman if there ever was one.  At that time, George and I were more than "just friends," and our visit to Charleston—a city he spent much time in as a boy—was a honeyed journey down the memory lane of George's then recent youth. It was a place he took pleasure in showing me, when we were callow young men starting out in the world.  I remember the trip with great fondness and pleasure.

A French porcelain cornflower-decorated saucer, ca. 1780s
Photograph by Boy Fenwick

During our visit to Charleston, George and I came across an old-fashioned antiques shop of the kind that is rarely seen anymore today.  It was a shop devoid of decorators' tricks or furbulows, and the interior was an unadorned, whitewashed shell containing the owner's wares on display for sale.  That's it.  It was all about the goods.  The shop was owned by a woman who seemed positively ancient to me at the time, probably then in her late seventies, a contemporary then of my grandparents.  Today she would be a contemporary of my parents, if they were still alive.  My how time flies.

A botanical print of a cornflower, ca. 1895
Image courtesy of Vintage Collectibles

In the shop I was captivated by a fine porcelain saucer, decorated with blue cornflowers, to which I had a visceral I-must-have-this reaction.  I learned from the dealer that it was probably French, dated from the late eighteenth century, and was in a pattern that was supposedly a favorite of Marie-Antoinette.  The saucer's marked price was well beyond my pocketbook at the time.  The dealer, however, graciously offered the ceramic bit to me at half the asking price, for—as she said—she recognized in me someone who had the potential to become a collector, and she wanted to encourage such an inclination.  So I bought it, and I was thrilled to have it, as I have been ever since.  It is one of my treasures to this day.

A similarly decorated bowl in the collection
of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Image courtesy of same

It is my understanding that Marie-Antoinette was responsible for the popularity of cornflower-decorated china, which became all the rage when the doomed Queen commissioned a service of it from Sèvres in the early 1780s.  It has been popular ever since, as can be seen in the following photograph:
A cornflower-decorated Corning Pyrocerama® casserole, ca. 1970
in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Image courtesy of same

I ask you, Dear Reader, to keep in mind the influence that you have on others who are younger and more impecunious than you, and I implore you to share your passions with them, as the Charleston antiques dealer did with me thirty years ago.  For, if appreciation for such objects is to continue beyond the madness of our times, it requires that we pass the flame of ardor for such things along to those who can carry it forward, when we are gone.  Not as a labor, mind you, but rather on the wings of love.  We are all but stewards of our possessions, and good fortune and responsibility come with them hand in hand.  It is our duty to ensure that they be well cared for during but the whisper of time we are fortunate to own them, before we pass them along to the next generation.

Tell me, have you engaged a younger person in discussions of your collections yet?  It is well worth it, I believe.


  1. A wonderful saucer and a wonderful story to go with it. When I started collecting, many people were nice to me and gave me objects at a substantial discount or as outright gifts.

    I love the cornflower theme on your ceramics. They remind me of the closely related chicory flowers that grow by every roadside, and that to me are one of the main symbols of pleasant summer days. Seeing that plate on a cold February day transports me directly to a country road on a July afternoon.

    --Road to Parnassus

  2. I did not realize that my parents' house had so many ceramics comparable to those in the collection of the V & A. There's more of the Corning ware than the porcelain, however. Your bellflower saucer is charming, a true classic that never goes out of style.

    1. Dear Mr. Darling,

      I will never grow weary of reading your enlightening posts on ceramics. I have a passion for 19th century porcelain and receive immense gratification each time you post on the subject, and with each photograph you choose to illustrate your essays. Please do continue writing on the subject, knowing that as your devoted readers, we enjoy these types of posts.

      I would welcome the chance to engender a passion for collecting antiques in a member of the younger generation. Unfortunately, my own daughter delights in anything "modern" and has already pronounced she will grow up to live in a "modern house", architecturally and decoratively speaking. I can only hope her views on such topics will expand as she comes of age.

  3. Hello Reggie:
    Yes, we are absolutely with you regarding the encouragement of young people. They are, after all, our future, and we are certainly grateful for the many kindnesses and generosities shown to us throughout our lives.

    Your Cornflower decorated saucer is so very pretty and the story of its acquisition is equally delightful.

  4. Dear Reggie and Boy,
    I consider myself "the saucerer's apprentice"
    and enjoy reading about the history of your latest find.
    Please continue writing about all of your interests.
    Your humble reader,

  5. An excellent post of very well expressed sentiments that go far beyond ceramics and collecting! Thank you for sharing Reggie D.
    ...Goodness I just clicked the George Pinckney reference in the 1st paragraph and now appreciate this even more with it's Sister Parish connection!

  6. A beautiful piece of 18th century porcelain that makes one think of the more positive aspects of the Ancien Regime. Would that such delicacy were common in these days of very showy china and porcelain! As always, Reggie, thoroughly enjoyed your post and, again as always, look forward to the next.

  7. Listening to personal stories attached to the antiques my great grandmother had, and left to me, never tired me when I was young. I wish that my children had an interest in these things. The stories add to the value as a collectible by connecting them to people I knew. Hopefully, with maturity they will come to value the connection between real life and all my "stuff".

  8. What a delicious pattern. Not so fond of the more contemporary versions, but the 18th century stuff has a crispness that is very appealing -- how is it that nearly anything floral these days ends up looking so poofy and frivolous, whereas past patterns manage to suggest the botanical? I would suppose it would be the greater likelihood that the designers/painters of these patterns had actually spent some time with cornflowers.

    And I agree with you, the young should be encouraged! Having only recently left the ranks, I regret that I'm losing the cuteness that used to inspire collectors to give me things when they noticed my interest. I received so many beautiful presents. The friends who gave them to me were happy that something they loved was going somewhere it would be appreciated, and I think of these treasured friends whenever I see one of their gifts.

  9. Dahhhling Reggie, you could never have enough post on porcelains for my taste... I have a very well documented obssesion with them, so for my part, do carry on.
    Regarding your introduction by the encourangement of an older person to discover the pleasure of porcelains all I can say is bravo! I certainly do my part in taking on younger people under my wing when ever they show interest in something I can share my very limited knowledge about always with the hope they will grow to love it as much as I do.

  10. It is absolutely beautiful.I still have the very prosaic blue wedgewood box that an antique dealer gave me as a child.


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