Spotlight on the Collection: A Flowering Passion for Porcelain – George and Helen Gardiner
They deliberately chose to specialize, allowing them to collect with focus and in depth, rather than build an encyclopedic collection illustrating the history of world ceramics. This manner of collecting has been in favour since the nineteenth century. However, what is remarkable about the Gardiners is that their collecting taste covered a wide temporal, material and geographic range: pottery from Ancient America, sixteenth-century Italian Maiolica, seventeenth-century tin-glaze English Deftware, eighteenth-century German Meissen, Austrian Du Paquier, French Sèvres and English Chelsea, Bow, Worcester and Derby porcelain comprised their collecting purview. They also concentrated on specific forms, amassing one of the world’s largest and finest public collections of eighteenth-century rococo porcelain perfume bottles and commedia dell’arte figures. George Gardiner served on the board of the Harlequin publishing house, hence his attraction to the dramatic form and the mischievous Harlequin character who played a starring role in the Commedia series.
Remarkably, the Gardiners made the decision to gift the collection to the nation and build a museum. When a collection is transformed from a private collection to a public institution, new meanings unfold.1 For example, the Gardiners had a penchant for the colour yellow, and their personal taste influenced their decision-making so much that, to this day, many Gardiner Museum visitors ask if yellow was a popular colour amongst eighteenth-century porcelain manufacturers and consumers. The answer is no, just one preferred by the original collectors and founders of the museum.
A pair of delightful botanical plates made by New China Derby Works between circa 1796-1805, a manufacturer operated by William Duesberry II, evidences the Gardiners’ privileging of the colour yellow. The Gardiners purchased the plates from a London antique store in 1979. One plate is filled with lush renderings of rose buds, and the other with tulips, and both are encircled by brilliant yellow ground rims with plain and foliate wreaths in gilt. They are signed in blue on the back with the names of the flowers, “Moss Rose Buds” and “Tulips,” respectively.
New China Derby Works specialized in large dinner and dessert services featuring named, hand-painted topographical views of Derby or botanical images. The dessert course was a potent sign of elite status in the eighteenth century because it was a luxury affordable to few, as was the medium of porcelain since the material was extremely difficult and expensive to make. A dessert service in the late eighteenth century typically comprised 24 plates, two covered tureens for sugar and cream with stands and ladles, 13 compotiers or serving dishes, footed centre dishes, ice pails and ice cups. Desserts included ice creams, nuts such as pistachios, walnuts and chestnuts, and fruit including apricots, pineapples, plums, grapes and pears. The fresh fruit often came from the owner’s hot houses, and represented yet another symbol of status and wealth.
These two plates reproduced here come from “Pattern 216,” which was in production for approximately ten years, and are attributed to a leading flower painter, William “Quaker” Pegg (1775-1851). Pegg was active between 1796 and 1801, and he most likely drew upon contemporary botanical illustrations from William Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, which Duesberry purchased in 1787 to serve as sources for Derby’s china painters.2 Interestingly, Pegg’s father was a gardener who worked at Etwall Hall near Derby.3 The younger Pegg apprenticed at the Potteries in Staffordshire as a china painter. When he heard John Wesley preach at Hanley in Staffordshire, he left the Baptist Church and joined the Society of Friends. Because of his religious beliefs, which discouraged ornamentaion as it was perceived as a form of vanity, he stopped decorating and worked instead at a stocking manufacturer. Fortunately, however, he returned to china painting in 1813.
In all, the Gardiners bought 16 yellow-ground botanical pieces of dessert tableware by New China Derby Works to create a small service. The pieces are currently on display at the Gardiner Museum for all to enjoy.
Excerpted from Spring/Summer 2014 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.
Rachel Gotlieb is Chief Curator at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto.
1 Ruth Formanek,“Why they Collect; collectors reveal
their motivations,” in Susan M. Pearce, Museums,
Objects and Collections (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1992), 334-5.
2 Patricia Ferguson, “The Nature of Dessert,” Potpourri (Fall 1999), 7.
3 John Murdoch, John Twitchett, Painters and the Derby China Works (Trefoil: London, 1987), 62.