Saturday, August 20, 2011

Magical Moorcroft

A Moorcroft Claremont ginger jar, circa 1920.
Sold at Christie's London in 2010 for ~$2,300.

Moorcroft. No, not Mycroft, Sherlock Holmes's brilliant brother: Moorcroft, as in the brilliantly hued British pottery made in Staffordshire, England. The name, as you might imagine, is taken from that of the company's founder, William Moorcroft.

As a young man, Moorcroft designed pottery for James Macintyre & Co. beginning in1897, the tail end of the Arts and Crafts movement. While employed at Macintyre the designer, in a move that was either proud, prescient or some combination of the two, took the then unusual step of signing or initialing all of his pieces. A few years later, with his name well established, Moorcroft thus had no trouble going into business for himself.

As with William Morris wallpaper, pictured above, many of Moorcroft's designs
are inspired by everyday natural beauty.

The Sherlock Holmes mention works for another reason as well: like the famous sleuth, Moorcroft is regarded as something of an English national treasure. The pottery's popularity took off when Queen Mary, a fan, issued the company a royal warrant. In the modern era, Christie's and Sotheby's have held dedicated  Moorcroft sales (in London of course). Moorcroft is still in business, still privately held and still beloved, though its most sought after pieces stem from around 1920 and no wonder: those early designs are both naturalistic and reductive, a link between Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau.
© Massimo Listri/CORBIS
An Alphonse Mucha-designed jewelry store, circa 1900, now at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris.

Classic and highly coveted patterns include Clermont, up top, and Moonlit Blue, below. Individual pieces, of  early 20th century Moorcroft can easily fetch a few thousand dollars at auction. Mid-century pieces of popular designs such as Hibiscus and Anemone fetch a few hundred dollars. Several wonderful examples of Moorcroft are up for bidding soon, many at the reliable Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey.

Moorcroft Moonlit Blue vase, circa 1925.
Sold at Christie's London in 2010 for $1,100

Moorcroft vase, Anemone pattern. At auction September 1st, estimate $400-600.
Note the design similarity to the poppies in the Alphonse Mucha poster, below.

Moorcroft vase in Hibiscus pattern, at Rago on September 1st, estimate $600-900.
Pair of Moorcroft vases, at auction in Florida on September 9th, estimate $300-400.
photo, Simon Upton, designer: Matthew Patrick Smyte, courtesy of Elle Decor.
As we prepare for fall and its stronger colors instead of slipcovers, Moorcroft designs become even more appealing, I think. Which piece would you pick?
photo, Peter Estersohn, interior by Sheila Bridges, courtesy of Elle Decor.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Woman's Work...

Decorator Suzanne Rheinstein collects embroidery and other types of needlework, many of which are showcased
beautifully in At Home: A Style for Today with Things from the Past.

Embroidery has often been known, somewhat pejoratively, as "women's work." The reason for the dismissive attitude, I suppose, stems from the art form's reputation as a pursuit practiced and enjoyed exclusively by the leisure classes. Now, this is largely true, of course, especially prior to the 19th century. But even in more distant eras, the art form often served a dual purpose. One glance at Austen's oeuvre, for example, makes it apparent that embroidery was not simply done to pass the time, but also presented a relatively subtle way to show off an eligible daughter's ability to make fine, delicate, pretty things. Stitch a delicate doily, ensnare a husband--or something like that.

A trio of antique embroidered silk flower pictures hang above a nightstand,
courtesy of At Home: A Style for Today with Things from the Past.

In 1800s, however, an interesting shift occurs: more and more, women start using embroidery as a way to support themselves. In 1872, The Royal School of Art-Needlework opened in South Kensington, London, precisely for the purposes of professional training of--and this is their term--"decayed gentlewomen." (Interesting to note that the school still exists today as a charity and actually assisted designer Sarah Burton with Kate Middleton's wedding gown.)

In 1876, some embroidery done by students of this new Royal School was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. A woman named Candace Wheeler saw the exhibit and realized that America needed a similar school on its shores. Well, of course it did: more than 600,000 men had died during the Civil War. Add to that the financial depression and panic of 1873, and many families were simply destitute. Middle class women--that is, former middle class women--often had minimal education and work experience, and thus were better off burnishing on of the few skills they already had. And so, in 1877, Wheeler formed the Society of Decorative Art in New York City.  The widow of General George Armstrong Custer, unable to survive on her meager pension, soon came to work there as a secretary.*

Early 19th century silk needlework and watercolor picture, at Skinner August 14th, estimate $1,500-2,500.
Why such a lengthy back story?  Because I think it is interesting to look though "women's work" though this lens: not as busywork for idle fingers, but as one of the first ways that women were allowed to support themselves in society without fear of ostracism. These pretty pieces, in other words, can been seen as golden tickets to a better life.
One of a lot of two continental needlework pictures, at James D. Julia in Maine, August 23rd, estimate $800-1,200.
 The reason we're discussing embroidery at all is because several auction houses currently have impressive specimens on display, the most exciting array at Skinner. The Boston auction house will hold its American Furniture and Decorative Arts Sale on August 14th. Its catalog showcases some of the finest needlework, much of it by known artists. These items are not cheap: many go for well over $1,000 apiece. But for those interested in this art form--as I am--it's helpful to look at the creme de la creme before searching for your own more modest treasures. (Though if you think these are expensive at auction, look at what a premier dealer charges!)

Silk embroidered pouch, early 19th c, at auction August 14th, estimate $1,500-$1,800.
One highly collected category is momento mori, or momentos that honor the dead. This silk pouch, above, has such delicate embroidery and is in beautiful condition, especially considering that it is 200 years old. Below, we have two more classically styled silk memorial pictures. Note the weeping willows in all of three of these items, a classic symbol of loss and mourning.

Silk memorial picture, 1811, at Skinner on August 14th, estimate $2,000-4,000.
19th c. memorial needlework by Alida Graverat Dunbar,
at auction in Thomaston, Maine on August 27th, estimate $3,500-4,500.
But as mentioned, not all needlework is this costly, partially because not all needlework has survived in such pristine condition--or done by such a skilled hand to begin with. The framed Victorian needlework, below, is an case in point. While the work is quite lovely, the silk is fairly spotted.
Framed Victorian needlework, at auction August 12th, estimate $80-120.
Stair Galleries, the well known auction house in Hudson, New York, has several lovely examples up for bidding at its American Exposition Sale. (Note "exposition" is used to indicate a quality level that is more decorative than collectable, neophytes should absolutely look for this word in auction titles!)

19th century silk needlework picture of a basket of fruit,
at Stair, August 13th, estimate $200-400.

Victorian silkwork, "Piety." (Forgive the odd cropping--that's on me.)
At Stair Galleries on August 13th, estimate $300-500.

Some people shy away from this style of art because they aren't sure how to incorporate it without their homes looking old fashioned.Needlework does seem to blend more naturally with traditional decors, certainly, but that doesn't have to mean formal or stuffy. Suzanne Rheinstein has countless examples in her book (in addition to the ones I've illustrated above). Below are a variety of additional interiors that would be well suited to a few pieces of needlework.

photo: William Abranowicz
Mari Ann and Michael Maher's home, courtesy of Elle Decor.

photo: John M. Hall
Jane and Stephan Garmey's home, courtesy of Elle Decor.

photo: Simon Upton

Kit and Tim Kemp's home, courtesy of Elle Decor.
photo: Miguel Flores-Vianna

  A Miles Redd designed bedroom, courtesy of Elle Decor.
photo: Roger Davies

  A bedroom designed by Roberto Peregalli and Laura Rimini, courtesy of Elle Decor.
I finish with a great piece of women's work that is not embroidery to be sure, but I bet will make you smile! Happy Bidding, everyone!
Early 20th Century Pictorial Rug, in Boston August 14th, estimate $600-800.
 *Much of the background information in this posting comes from Donna Cardwell's informative book,Silk Art Embroidery: A Woman's History of Ornament & Empowerment.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Collecting for the Kid in You

Bel-air pedal car, circa 1955, fully restored. At auction August 12th, estimate $300-600.

When most people think of antique collectors, they imagine bespectacled old biddies peering at the underside of a sofa. Well, there are people like that, of course, but there are lots of other types, too, collecting a slew of interesting items--including toys.

Now, "toys" is in and of itself an extremely broad category. Be that as it it may, there is one auction house seems to have EVERY kind of toy up for bidding at some point during the calendar year: Dan Morphy Auctions, out of Denver, PA. Dolls, comic books, toy soldiers, marbles, cast iron banks, sports memorabilia--if it elicits a pang of nostalgia, then Dan Morphy probably specializes in it.

On August 12th and 13th, the auction house has its Toy, Marble and Comics Auction (each day is listed separately: the 12th here and the 13th here). Here are some highlights.

1959 Tonka truck, with box and tags, at auction August 12th, estimate $150-250.
 Now, I have discussed scale before, and how it is so IMPORTANT to really make sure you read and process and map out the measurements. Here we have a great example why. The Bel-Air car up top is actually a 38" pedal car, that a child sits in, whereas the Tonka truck, directly above, is a 13" toy car. Can you tell the difference at a ready glance? Not so much.

On the subject of cars and trucks, a popular one at toy auctions,  of course, we also have these two great finds.

Cast iron double decker bus, aat auction August 12th, estimate $200-400.

Wooden Buddy L Farms milk truck, at auction August 12th, estimate $150-250.
 If you like the occasional toy but don't want to come across as socially awkward as the 40 year old virgin, don't devote rooms to the stuff,  just incorporate a few fun vintage pieces into your  decor. Above the bookcase is a classic spot, of course...

photo: William Waldron; designer: T. Keller Donovan for Elle Decor. is throughout the bookcase, below. I love how this designer did a row of vintage pottery on the top shelf, for color, then interspersed other pieces with the books, adding textural and visual interest to an otherwise Spartan decor.
photo courtesy of Elle Decor.

You can also collect for color and then integrate toys into that collection, as Martha Stewart shows us how to do here.
Photograph courtesy of Martha Stewart.

Vintage wooden boat, at auction August 12th, estimate $200-400.

Boats can always go in the bathroom: on brackets flanking the mirror, above the medicine cabinet, or on a shelf lined wall, where you can have a revolving collection of nautically themed items.
photo: Dominique Vorillon, designer Jacques Grange, courtesy of Elle Decor.

Bathroom, courtesy of Lonny magazine

Now, since these are toys, we're talking about, one obvious place to put them is in a child's room. Young children, of course, will find it too hard not to incorporate their collected items into the toy box. But older children, typically age 11 and beyond, can often become great collectors. And keep in mind that collecting teaches them some important traits: how to take care of something they value, how to study and learn about a topic, how to set goals and achieve those objectives.

photo: William Waldron, designer Randall Ridless, courtesy of Elle Decor

Look at this little girl's room, above. It has stuffed animals today, but as she grows older, she could start to ease of of the plush toys and start to fill her shelf with collectibles.

Maybe she'll become obsessed with Fred Flintstone (feel old yet?) 

Lot of four Fred Flintstone vehicles, at auction August 13th, estimate $200-400 (!)

Or cast iron banks (note the good motto for a child's room: "Be Wise Save Money").

Trio of cast iron banks, at auction August 12th, estimate $150-300.
Platform toys? 
Hand painted tin horse platform toy, at auction August  13th estimate $100-300.

Note how great a vintage pull toy, not unlike the one above, looks on the dresser of this lovely room, below. The window is a great backdrop for another antique find. (P.S.:the beds are a modified lit a la Polonaise made by Neirmann Weeks. Love those too.)

photo: Peter Estersohn, designer: Katie Ridder, courtesy of Elle Decor.

There are few little girls who aren't charmed by paperweights. Michaan's in Alameda, California, has several nice ones up for sale in their 20th C. Decorative Arts auction on August 12th, a few of which appear below.

Angel fish  paperweight, circa 1976, at auction August 12th, estimate $300-400.

Pair of glass paperweights, at auction August 12th, estimate $200-300.
Lundberg glass paperweight, at auction August 12th, estimate $200-300.
And finally, I'm including an item that took me down memory lane: does anyone remember the Brownies? This ladder, shown in two parts, is just adorable!

Early Palmer Cox Brownies ladder, at auction August 13th, estimate $200-400.