Flashback: The Lure of Collecting Historical China

August 1st, 2009

This article discusses how the author became interested in china, describing auction procedures, the images represented on china items, and specific items in the author’s collection. It originally appeared in the August 1947 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

I have long since become familiar with the query: “How did you start collecting historical Staffordshire china?” I was casually introduced to the subject 27 years ago but at the time it did not seem to be a momentous occasion; neither did a number of unrelated incidents which I now recognize as contributing factors toward my association with the field.

1. The first piece of "Old Blue" Staffordshire acquired by Mrs. Larsen, leading authority on this ware — a pitcher bearing a border of State names, figures of America and Independence and a medallion landscape of an English Castle. Made by James & Ralph Clews.

1. The first piece of "Old Blue" Staffordshire acquired by Mrs. Larsen, leading authority on this ware — a pitcher bearing a border of State names, figures of America and Independence and a medallion landscape of an English Castle. Made by James & Ralph Clews.

Some of us start out in life with one objective and finish with another. From childhood it was the writing of short stories about children, not the collecting of china, that I intended to make my avocation.

To an informed observer it might seem a “natural” for me to have leanings toward things of historical significance. I was born in New England, on Cape Cod, and spent most of my first twenty years there. The surroundings were steeped in history with which I was so familiar that I didn’t fully appreciate it until I had left the Cape. A few years ago a genealogist tracing my descent found that I had more than one ancestor who made me eligible to join the Mayflower Descendants and the Magna Charta Dames. The well-known Sandwich Glass Works was only a few miles away, and Plymouth, with its famous Plymouth Rock-and-Pilgrim traditions, only 50 miles from my birthplace, was the mecca which all Cape Cod children conscientiously visited in the difficult “horse and buggy” days.

However, though I had the geographical background, mine was an acquired, not an inherited interest in old glass, old pictures, Cape Cod cottage-type houses and the historical china on which I have concentrated most seriously. I recall that only one member of my family, my maternal grandmother, loved the “old things,” and at the time of her death few heirlooms were retained by the family. My own home was modern. During my teen-age it was considered more fashionable among my associates to admire the new trends in thought and design.

I left the Cape to study near Boston; then taught in public and private schools in St. Paul, Minnesota; was married and came back East, to live in New York City. In teaching I had found child psychology fascinating. Using certain idiosyncrasies of pupils as background, I sometimes wrote them into stories, decreasing or blowing up their inherited tendencies and developing their reactions.

I was fortunate enough to sell the stories. Thereafter all through my teaching my spare time was devoted to work under literary instructors. I aimed to broaden my preparation for short story writing. In New York I studied for a couple of years with the late Clayton Hamilton, writer and lecturer at Columbia University. He asked me at the outset what I wanted to do in stories. I answered, “Write about the psychological reactions of the child’s mind from the standpoint of the adult.” He replied, “Well, why not? Myra Kelly is dead.”

2. Pink and white Staffordshire cup and saucer won at auction by the author in an exciting moment.

2. Pink and white Staffordshire cup and saucer won at auction by the author in an exciting moment.

Later Mr. Larsen’s business took us to Ohio, my present home. I hadn’t been on the Cape for several years. One summer we rented a cottage there and the next season we purchased a home, built in 1818, overlooking a quiet harbor and Nantucket Sound beyond. Afterwards we restored the house to its original lines and landscaped the two and a half acres around it. We wanted to complete the house according to early Cape Cod standards.

Mr. Larsen and I settled down to do as thorough a job as possible, and as we accumulated furnishings we learned their history. We had the time of our lives buying old furniture and other furnishings at auctions, in antique shops and private homes. We learned to know all the dealers from Buzzards Bay to Provincetown. Suddenly all of my latent colonial instincts sprang into life and before I realized my new acquisition of interests I was poring over braided and hooked rugs, Currier & Ives prints, wall-papers with quaint garlands of flowers and landscapes with early steamboats and stage coaches, horse-hair sofas and chairs of varying degrees of comfort.

In a high little china closet in the “front parlor” I set out plates sold to me as “Staffordshire” in brilliant cobalt blue, with English, Italian or rural scenes. Like most beginners who haven’t yet learned the value of historical Staffordshire with American views, I bought only colorful pieces with no regard for the importance of design in the border or central scene. At this time one dealer would tell me over and over, “This pineapple glass, that luster pitcher, those rare cup plates, I bought at your grandmother’s auction.” I was just beginning to appreciate their worth.

Another dealer, who sold us curly maple twin beds and grand-father clocks, brought out the Staffordshire pitcher illustrated here (fig. 1). His father had loved these old “dishes” produced in England from 1818 to 1860 and the son was passing on the father’s enthusiasm. He pointed out the names of the various States in our country which we see in this States Design border. The names and number of States vary with the space allowed for a border on each piece of china in question.

3. The view, a famous one, is New York from Weehawk, taken from the 1823 Engraving of Wall's painting. Made by Adams & Sons.

3. The view, a famous one, is New York from Weehawk, taken from the 1823 Engraving of Wall's painting. Made by Adams & Sons.

There is also in this border a portrait of Washington and figures of America blindfolded and Independence kneeling. Generally the scene depicted on the china is one of our famous American views of this period (hence the value), but in this rare instance the twelve views shown in the series are English. However, the border is so typically American that I believe it makes a quicker appeal to the uninitiated than any other design originated by the English potters who produced this china after the War of 1812 to quicken trade with our country.

I bought the pitcher to please the dealer. The bread thus cast upon the waters came back to me a hundred fold. This pitcher laid the foundation of my collection of Staffordshire china with American scenes, a collection now numbering about 500 of the approximately 700 different views that have been listed.

From then on, each season, with our two small sons, we toured from our home in Ohio to our summer home on the Cape, a distance of a thousand miles. Occasionally we stopped at antique shops and I picked up a piece of historical china; but I was wary of buying until I knew something of the values and importance of the items. For a long time I bought only inexpensive pieces yet later they fitted into the list like blocks and helped to complete the record of some of the less valuable series.

According to established information each potter made only a limited number of American views. Sometimes a new piece, particularly of the items in lighter colors by certain potters, is discovered, but lists of many of the well-known producers have not been changed for years.

4. Light blue Staffordshire tray bearing the arms of six States and a medallion view, one of Bartlett's paintings of Little Falls, N. Y., as engraved in Willis' American Scenery. Made by Mellor, Venables & Co.

4. Light blue Staffordshire tray bearing the arms of six States and a medallion view, one of Bartlett's paintings of Little Falls, N. Y., as engraved in Willis' American Scenery. Made by Mellor, Venables & Co.

One winter early in my collecting I wrote a paper on “Great Grandmother’s China” for an Art Club of which I was a member, and illustrated it with a few pieces of my historical “Old Blue,” Crown-Derby, Lowestoft and other types of china. The more I read on the subject of English wares the more impressed I became with the rare worth of every item of the historical Staffordshire. Each piece with its different scene was individual. The story of America as portrayed by leading artists of that period had been transferred and thus preserved by these ceramics. On soup tureens, platters, pitchers and all kinds of plates, there were transfer views of memorable buildings, many of which have since been demolished; there were battle scenes of our Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; portraits of our naval and military heroes; events commemorating our national achievements every piece with a certain bit of history.

Meantime I was taking an extension course from Columbia University on the “Technique of the Short Story” and eventually received my certificate. I now would have time to carry on the writing by myself. But just as soon as I had concluded the course I was asked by a local women’s club to tell the members about my historical Staffordshire. At that time I had about 100 pieces. I lectured about the china. Two other clubs requested me to repeat the talk. Shortly afterwards a tour of six cities in Kentucky was arranged for me, and with 50 autochromes and a lantern I filled the engagements. My lectures have continued ever since.

For some time I was disconcerted by the fact that one book on historical ware disagreed with another on various points. I began my own research and the writing of articles on the disputed questions. I had some data gathered for me by a research worker in England who traveled into the Staffordshire district, 145 miles north-west of London.

5. Mulberry Colored Staffordshire plate with a view taken from the engraving of Wall's painting, Rapids Above Hadley's Falls. Made by James & Ralph Clews.

5. Mulberry Colored Staffordshire plate with a view taken from the engraving of Wall's painting, Rapids Above Hadley's Falls. Made by James & Ralph Clews.

Later I went to England for personal research in the Staffordshire potteries. In 1936 Mr. Homer Eaton Keyes, late editor of the Magazine Antiques, asked me to write a book on this historical ware. The result was American Historical Views On Staffordshire China, published in 1939 and dealing with the pictures seen on the china, the artists responsible for them and the reasons (or significance) for their inclusion by the English potters in the list of china produced for America.

In the 1930s I often attended Park-Bernet auctions in New York when historical Staffordshire was to be sold. From the advance catalogue I would mark pieces I wanted, and my limit in price, and give this list to a New York dealer from whom I long had been purchasing this type of ware. Even if I were present at an important sale, he would do the bidding.

When rare items were to be sold, bids were taken so fast that I was afraid I would lose my voice in the excitement or in some way miss the bid. In those days agents of two millionaires generally outbid any ordinary collector. When rare items were brought out the agents soon would have the floor, bidding against each other without giving any sign that was noticeable except to the uniformed attendant stationed nearby.

Staffordshire china history was made in those days in a minute’s time. Before one auction I told my dealer of about half a dozen pieces I wanted him to buy and stressed my anxiety to acquire a special cup and saucer. I said, “They won’t run high. They are not especially rare, but I need them to illustrate a certain point in an article. Please get them if you lose all of the rest.”

The auction began. I didn’t see my dealer. I sat on the front row. In their turn my little cup and saucer were placed on the exhibition rack on the stage and the auctioneer started his description, and repetition of bids. I looked around again. No dealer, no cup and saucer! I entered the race. Once I bid against myself. The auctioneer smiled. In a minute I raised some one else’s bid and he knocked off the pieces to me. Later I saw my dealer across the room and I let him handle the rest of my list.

6. Unique washbowl (purple), showing view taken from the engraving of Wall's painting, Hadley's Falls. This view has not been found on Staffordshire till now. Made by James & Ralph Clews.

6. Unique washbowl (purple), showing view taken from the engraving of Wall's painting, Hadley's Falls. This view has not been found on Staffordshire till now. Made by James & Ralph Clews.

At the close of the sale he came over and said, “I’ve bought all of the pieces you wanted except the two very rare medallions that, as you know, went sky high, and the cup and saucer. I was a little late in arriving and those two small pieces got away from me. I wish I knew who bought them. I would buy them back.”

I told him that as I hadn’t seen him there I had bought them myself. However, such a necessity never occurred again. For new collectors, I am reproducing the cup and saucer as figs. 2 and 3. The view was transferred from the famous painting, New York From Weehawk, by William Guy Wall. It was published in 1823. The sailor boy and girl were added by the potters.

For serious collectors who are conversant with established lists, I am reproducing here a photograph of a Mellor, Venables & Co. tray with the view of Little Falls, New York (fig. 4). For years it has been a matter of speculation as to which view of the English painter, William Henry Bartlett, was used for the item of Little Falls by this firm of potters. Bartlett painted two pictures of this town, Village of Little Falls (Mohawk River), which was used on this tray, and Little Falls (On the Mohawk), which has buildings on both banks, on the left and right sides of the picture. Both were published in American Scenery by N. P. Willis in 1840.

7. Source of the view in fig. 5 — Wall's painting, Rapids Above Hadley's Falls, as engraved in the Hudson River Port Folio, 1823.

7. Source of the view in fig. 5 — Wall's painting, Rapids Above Hadley's Falls, as engraved in the Hudson River Port Folio, 1823.

This view on the tray settles the question, since up to date the latter view has not been identified on Staffordshire by this firm. The border used by Mellor, Venables & Co. consists of Arms of States. On this tray are the Arms of Pennsylvania, New York, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Missouri and North Carolina.

In the Picturesque Views Series of Clews is the item, Rapids Above Hadley’s Falls, listed in several books and commonly found in 6 3/4 and 7 inch plates in black, blue, brown and mulberry, and in cup plates, 3 1/2 inches, in brown. Recently I have found a unique washbowl marked Hadley’s Falls. It was listed by Barber in Anglo-American Pottery in 1901, but I have never before seen this view on china in any collection or shop, or mentioned in any other book or catalogue. Both views were painted by W. G. Wall and published in the Hudson River Port Folio in 1823.

Now that Hadley’s Falls has been found, we may list nineteen out of the twenty views published in the Port Folio that were transferred to china by Clews in this series. I am illustrating the two items of china (fig. 5 and 6) and the two photostats (fig. 7 and 8) of Wall’s paintings in the Hudson River Port Folio.

8. Source of the view in fig. 6 — Wall's painting, Hadley's Falls, as engraved in the Hudson River Port Folio, 1823.

8. Source of the view in fig. 6 — Wall's painting, Hadley's Falls, as engraved in the Hudson River Port Folio, 1823.

In looking back over these twin interests that have absorbed a large part of my spare time for so long, I may say in passing that my studying of the technique of the short story was done at night when I was teaching and had time for only one hobby. This was also true when my sons were small and demanded most of my energy. I thought then that I would easily find time at a later period for writing stories.

On the other hand, Staffordshire always presented a challenge of something to be done at once — whether a lecture to be given, an article to be prepared or a problem for research on a disputed question. We are told that “the child that cries the loudest gets the most attention.” Staffordshire had crowded out stories and ushered in an imperative, specialized subject for writing.

My advice to a new collector of historical china would be to study the authoritative books on the subject; familiarize himself with the views and the borders used by each potter, and acquire a knowledge of values. Know what you are buying, THEN BUY. For a variety of reasons these historical items are growing more and more scarce each year. Through depressions, values in general have remained consistent. Some items have increased materially.

Collecting historical Staffordshire china is an alluring hobby, a fascinating avocation and, as rare Americana, it will become more important with the years.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

One comment so far

  1. Barbara Fiore Says:

    I have a pink & white wash bowl and pitcher signed brooklyn on the bottom .I would like to know about it . It is a large set.
    thanks
    Barbara


Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.