Monday, July 20, 2009

Field Talfourd: Gymnast, Artist, "Lovely Flower"

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Field Talfourd
I’ve been quiet, but only because I am waiting to hear back from some archives in regards to potentially relevant holdings. In the interim, I’m thinking of writing something on Field Talfourd, neighbour to Sutherland, and one of the founders of Froomfield (with his brother Froome, of course). In particular, I suspect he was key to the Ruskin-Sutherland connection. Talfourd lived in Upper Canada briefly, before returning to England where he gradually transitioned from making his living as a civil engineer to a career as an artist. Elizabeth Barrett Browning thought his portrait of her the best of them all (then again, she didn’t really like having her portrait done). In some ways, I wonder to what degree her approval was due to Field’s personal charm. Smart ladies apparently found him quite compelling, including Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron) and Sophia Peabody (wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne). Mrs. Hawthorne practically swoons when describing him as “a lovely flower”—after commenting on both his “high breeding” and “marvelous power as a gymnast.” Despite such successes Talfourd appears to have been a confirmed bachelor (though you can interpret that however you would like).

My question for anyone who stumbles across this: a travel diary Talfourd kept in the 1850s survived into the early part of the twentieth century at least, and appears to have been passed down among his brother’s descendents, or the descendents of Grace Sutherland and Dr. Thomas Johnston in Canada. If anyone is aware of its current whereabouts, I would be very gratified to hear of it.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sutherland China

George Montag was kind enough to send me photos of the china plates he inherited which once belonged to Thomas Sutherland (1772-1850) and his wife Grace (abt. 1777-1853). This is one of three plates George owns, marked on the back “Rose Medallion, 1840.” Family stories document that Thomas and Grace Sutherland brought china with them when they first arrived in Upper Canada. This was not uncommon, and such china was treasured not simply for its functionality, but also for its rarity. One only has to recollect Susanna Moodie’s distress when the sleigh carrying all her “household goods and chattels” overturned. Moodie writes of the event:

Alas, for my crockery and stone china! Scarcely one article remained unbroken.

“Never fret about the china,” said Moodie; “thank God, the man and the horses are uninjured.”

I should have felt more thankful had the crocks been spared too; for, like most of my sex, I had a tender regard for china, and I knew that no fresh supply could be obtained in this part of the world....

A year after the Moodies’ sleigh accident, Grace Sutherland unpacked her own china. The date on the plate affirms this was not part of her original collection, but rather acquired later. Legend has it that it was brought back from England, most likely the Sutherlands' trip to the UK in 1842. However, it could also have been acquired in Canada or the US.

This plate is not representative of the Rose Medallion pattern, which generally features a central gold medallion with a bird and flower inset. Flanking the medallion are four or more panels featuring people, birds, and/or butterflies. The plates generally boast five colors. In fact, the “Rose” in “Rose Medallion” refers not to the flower—indeed, peonies were the flower of choice—but to the color rose, which dominated. Instead, this plate and the others appear to be Rose Canton. That said, this distinction is minor: Rose Canton does not feature people or birds, only flowers. (To complicate things, Rose Mandarin features flowers and people, but not birds.) They are all in the same color family, feature the same aesthetic, and were produced by the same factories; it is simply a distinction in subject matter that determines what the pattern is called—and it is a distinction made primarily by contemporary collectors and appraisers, less relevant to consumers of the mid-nineteenth century.

Rose Medallion and its counterparts were first created in eighteenth-century China for the export market. By the mid-nineteenth century it had lost its cachet in England, and was being shipped primarily to America. The United States and Canada relied on such imports to fill the void Moodie lamented. As one historian notes, “most antebellum homes contained some blue-painted Canton china. Wealthier householders purchased the florid Rose Medallion, Rose Mandarin, and Bird and Butterfly wares during the middle years of the century.” Such wares continue to be handed down and treasured in North America as nowhere else.

For Sutherland to purchase such china is telling. It was not meant to be used, but rather intended for display. As such, it made clear to visitors that the owners had disposable income, as well as exhibiting the value they placed on fine things. Overall, it seems to have been a marker of upward mobility and class position. And yet I have also found references to Rose Medallion and its counterparts as “gaudy,” “garish,” and “gloppy,” as well as “crowded and fussy.” (I’ll admit I had to look up “gloppy,” which apparently means “soft and soggy; mushy.”) I’ve been thinking a lot about these descriptions. In part, I think such an assessment is a reflection of the turn in many early nineteenth-century Britain elite households away from imported to China to British firms like Wedgwood. And Wedgwood’s early aesthetic, drawn from classical antiquity, is deliberately stately, and might make Rose Medallion and its counterparts appear busy or sentimental (which is what seems to be implied by “gloppy”) when juxtaposed. That said, Wedgwood was not immune to the charms of chinoiserie, as evidence by their some of their productions in the early nineteenth-century.

The somewhat-derisive adjectives did make me consider the possibility that Thomas Sutherland was prone to the nouveau riche tendency to not recognize the distinctions so clear to their more established counterparts. But I dismissed this rather quickly: it appears that Rose Medallion simply signified something different in the Americas, exuberant with the expansion of trade routes and the products they supplied, than it did in England, where goods from China were no longer a novelty or luxury. And, quite frankly, if I was decorating a house in 1840s Canada—knowing the long winters ahead—I think I might go for a bit more color.

Thank you to George Montag for the photo, as well as permission to post it.