Leighton Hammond Coleman III
Citizen Kane had his sleigh, Rosebud, and Proust had his madeleines. I have my Chinese export porcelain and each piece transports me to my own happiest childhood moments—moments when I lived with my paternal grandparents at their farm on Long Island’s North Shore. Moreover, my love for this china is inexorably entwined with my love for my grandmother, a complex woman who inspired me in many ways.
I first became obsessed with Chinese export porcelain when this same grandmother, Jane Gardner Fraser Coleman, caught me, at the age of six, fumbling with a blue and white Fitzhugh leaf-shaped dish. She promptly snatched the piece away, and then, suddenly, smacked my hand while saying she was doing this for my own good. “One day,” she explained, “when you are much older, you will appreciate not breaking it.” She then explained to me how the Chinese-inspired pattern was named after an aristocratic director of the British East India Company and then turned over the plate to show me the “orange peel” bottom. So, wiping my tears away, I learned that by feeling a texture similar to that of the fruit, I was dealing with the the real thing not a copy. And I was hooked.
For those who do not know about Chinese export porcelain, here is a quick primer. It was part of a large group of luxury products (silks, lacquerware, ivory, etc.) that Chinese artisans were licensed to create for export-trade-only from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. The mass-produced porcelain, while thicker than that made for both the domestic and imperial markets, was nevertheless light-years ahead of what was originally produced by European technology. More colorful and made of exotic white clay, kaolin, it had the added bonus of being manufactured outside of European sumptuary laws and heraldic authorities. New wealth of that time were thereby able to purchase sets of china with forms of their own choosing as well as with “designed” coats of arms.
It was said that each piece of this china was handled by “seventy pairs of hands,” for there were guilds responsible for every step of production, from mining and purifying the clay all the way to those guilds that created the forms and those guilds that solely painted and glazed the pieces. Every step of the process had a specific set of highly trained craftsmen uniquely focused on a particular aspect of production. This had the added advantage of hindering industrial espionage, since the Europeans were constantly trying to figure out how to create similar china back at home. (It was not until 1709 that kaolin was finally found in Saxony. The English were mining it in the American colony of Georgia before discovering their own deposit in Cornwall in 1745. Finally the French located their kaolin lode in 1768 in Saint-Yrieix, France.)
Even when the Europeans did develop their own products, however, the exotic appeal of the Chinese variety was not diminished. In fact, by the 1880s, this variety was swept up by the Aesthetic Movement and collecting was revived during the subsequent nostalgia craze for all things associated with colonial America.
All this history aside, to me, upon coming across a piece of Chinese export porcelain, or “Lowestoft” as Granny referred to it, in an antique shop or at someone’s house, I’m immediately reminded of this grandmother, her obsessive collecting, and her treasure-filled home. It is funny to think that an object such as an eighteenth-century cannonball teapot can summon up a person’s complex personality, but indeed, for me, it does.
My grandmother was one of those uber-sporty WASPs, a mother of five children who never cooked. She was both cheap and generous. She would recycle used Christmas cards and wrapping paper and there would be a jar by the phone to collect quarters. Distant relatives, however, who visited from afar would be treated like royalty.
But she could be quite caring: when my brother and I were deposited at a Swiss boarding school at ages three and seven respectively, she got herself and my workaholic grandfather on a plane to Geneva to make sure we were happy.
Granny’s days seem to have consisted of auctions, tennis, golf, charity board meetings, garden club events, and cocktail parties. She was always on the go, especially to the aid of some elderly relative. According to family members, because my grandmother competed with her social peers, she made her infirm relatives her intimate friends and purported to be completely surprised when later she was named their main beneficiary!
These traits, along with her indifference to the latest fashions, non-use of makeup, blue eyes more piercing than her parure of star sapphires, and a maniacal reverence for ancestral detritus made her, to me, fascinating as well as enormously powerful.
Perhaps because of her athletic prowess, Granny was perpetually competitive. She did not only apply this competitive streak to sports, however. Flower arranging, ration book stamps, and antique collecting were just a few of the other playing-field challenges in which she felt compelled to succeed. No matter where she was, she had to best her siblings and friends.
Take for example English and American needlework samplers.
While “Lowestoft” was Granny’s own thing, her erudite older sister Myra was famous for an informed collection of American samplers. Some of these samplers are actually now at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. But my grandmother could not resist the temptation to compete with her sibling and suddenly acquired over 150 of the same kind of samplers, needleworks, and embroideries.
This competitive spirit was once illustrated at a cocktail party where another guest presented their host with a four-leaf clover found while parking their car in a field. Not to be outdone, my grandmother went out to the lawn and after about ten minutes flaunted another four-leaf clover to the astonished assemblage.
At the time I was growing up, no Colonial Revival home would be without a tidy collection of Chinese export on display. It could be the ubiquitous rose medallion, or basic blue and white Canton, or the coveted armorial designs, but in the case of my grandmother’s collection, it was as vast as it was indiscriminate. It even included many broken pieces that were repaired in different periods by now-charming means such as handmade staples. Some even illustrated the ingenuity of an anonymous local tinsmith who replaced broken ceramic features such as tea spouts, lids, and handles with forged metal parts.
In the late 1990s, as we were clearing out the old homestead, we discovered Granny had bought boxes of broken, un-repaired plates, proving even the discarded, the broken, and the “make-dos” were to be admired as much as those in perfect pristine condition.
My grandmother had a remarkable ability to ferret out armorial porcelain with her family name. She was very proud of her Scottish lineage and being born a Fraser in particular. Her husband, my Coleman grandfather, got an enormous chuckle when, in the 1950s, he and my grandmother attended a party hosted by Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat. My grandmother informed her noble host that she, like His Lordship, was a Fraser. He replied, asking, “How does that American saying go? Well, Frasers are a dime a dozen in these parts.”
With that retort, my grandmother was actually rendered speechless; my grandfather was to secretly chuckle on the anecdote for the next forty years.
By the time Granny unexpectedly died from a fall from her boat in 1972 (ironically while helping the crew with the lines, forgetting that she was still wearing heels from hosting a cocktail party onboard), she had run out of places to display her enormous collection. What once was only exhibited in the dining room cabinets and on sideboards, the Chinese export pieces had worked their way into the hallways, library, living room, stairways, cloak rooms, bedrooms, dressing rooms, bathrooms, and even walls. Surface areas such as side tables, bureaus, curtain valances, and tops of Federal mirrors weren’t impediments to her powers of balance, placement, and symmetry. My patient grandfather used to lament that she would spend $10 dollars a day during the height of the Depression acquiring these pieces. Once, years ago, a visiting lady who owned a magnificent eighteenth-century Virginia house on the James River exclaimed in horror that she never expected to find an eighteenth-century soup tureen looming over her shoulder while on the loo!
Over the years I’ve added to the small part of Granny’s collection that I inherited. I’ve found pieces at yard sales, antique stores, and estate auctions. Dear friends have gifted me with little surprises they’ve found along the way. And sometimes I’ve even strayed from the path—that is, I’ve even succumbed to the charms of bogus Chinese export. I’m referring particularly to the set of armorial dinner plates by Emile Samson, a famous French nineteenth-century copyist of Chinese exports. I honestly love these plates, but they are a complete no-no to any more serious collector. Nonetheless, I was charmed by the fanciful heraldry and the sincere attempt to look authentically “oriental.”
These days, when reminiscing about Granny or, indeed, admiring my own little horde, the words of Oscar Wilde often come to mind. “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china,” he complained while at Oxford. Those who have succumbed to the charms of this special kind of porcelain will completely relate to this sentiment.
And yes, Granny, I’m an addict too.