A tale of gold and clay

In 1873, an amateur German archeologist working in western Anatolia, claimed to have dug up a trove of gold he called “Priam’s Treasure” and ascribed to the king of Ilium during the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad.

Whether any of his claim was true remains contentious; Heinrich Schliemann fibbed about many of his claims. But what is not under question is the public attention roused by the gold. Nothing dug from the earth quite hypnotizes the layman so much as gold. Treasure. Pirate’s booty. Roman coins.

The fascination seems unquenchable. Museum blockbuster shows are predicated on that fascination. “The Treasures of Tutankhamun;” “Treasure Houses of Britain;” “Catherine the Great: Treasures of Imperial Russia;” “Splendors of the Ottoman Sultans;” “Treasures of the Czars.” The list is long. And so are the lines to get in.

But while traveling blockbusters are tarted out with gold, the permanent collections of major museums also offer more humble relics of antiquity. Visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Boston Fine Arts Museum, even a smaller one, such as the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., and you find vitrines highlighting the pottery dug up from the historic layers of soil. While the gold glitters, the simple ceramics — more common than the jewelry — yield up more useful information about the people who lived before our ancestors knew they were our ancestors.

Shards of Egyptian pottery have turned up in Afghanistan, evidencing the far-flung trade network from before the 12th century BCE, Greek red-figure ceramics show up from Spain to Iran. When archeologists want to find out about the lives of the earliest European settlers in the New World, they search out the middens of refuse from those early outposts and it is the broken dishes, cooking vessels, drinking cups and flatware that tell us perhaps the most. We learn where those dishes were made, how they were used, about the trade networks that brought Delftware from the Low Countries to southern England and to Massachusetts, where the village burgermaster showed off his status, while the laborer ate off tin plates.

But such clayware isn’t shown in museums only for its historical importance. You can find great esthetic value in archaic Greek ceramics, in red-figure and black-figure pottery, in the designs of pre-Columbian figurines, in Egyptian clay palettes, in ancient Chinese vases. They are shown in museums for their beauty. They are works of art.

On a visit to Colmar in eastern France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece, that huge symbol of the sorrows of life on earth, the museum also had a whole wing of domestic arts, including some fabulous dinnerplates, hand painted with flowers, abstract floral patterns and the occasional family crest. There was no question that those beautiful plates deserved their spotlight behind the glass.

Which brings me to my own kitchen. I have way too many dinner plates. The cause is esthetic, not practical. In fact, it is anti-practical.

My interest in what I ate off of was nil until my second unofficial marriage. I have no recollection at all of what plates we had during my first official marriage. Anything that held victuals was sufficient.

I know we had a few blue-speckled enamel tin plates. As humble as our incomes at the time. (I still feel a nostalgia for tin plates). Years later, between relationships, I lived with friends whose plates were a traditional Pfaltzgraff design. I came to feel a comfortable homeyness about them. Who knew you could have emotional feelings about baked mud?

But with my second unofficial pairing, the two of us sought out dinnerware that expressed who we were, or who we thought we were. Something vaguely arty.

We found the perfect answer in the stripped-down esthetic of Dansk breakfastware. The large plate was as plain as could be, with a mildly speckled blue ironstone, about 10 inches in diameter, with a half-inch lip around the edge, almost as if it were a pie tin. We had the bowls and mugs to go with them, and for years, they served as a signal of the kind of Modernist esthetic we cared for. Others might choose more flowery plates, or something elegant with gold rims, but we liked the showy simplicity of our Dansk dishes.

Where those dishes went, I have no idea. Through divorce and  break-up, they have vanished. But many years — many decades — later, I came across a pair of Dansk plates in a thrift store. These were brown rather than blue, but they were the same design. I snarfled them up and use them to this day, still enjoying that heavy crockery feel, that masculine, stripped-down directness.

Pfaltzgraff pattern

But when it came to my second official marriage — the one that took — there was a problem. Although Carole and I were perfectly matched in so many ways, there was a significant rupture in our esthetic senses. Where we were the same was that neither of us tolerated bad design. We both wanted something well thought-out and pleasing to our senses. But Carole tilted toward the traditional, the more feminine, the more what I called “doilied-up.” While I, of course, favored the blunt, direct and undecorated and modern look. This could be a problem.

So, over 35 years of living together, we tried many ways of satisfying both of us. She usually won in this struggle. She came with an heirloom set of Haviland settings, well over a hundred years old. But they were too valuable to actually use. So, they sat in a cupboard looking elegant. Elegant if that is the sort of thing you value.

She also had a thing for Blue Willow ware, and collected platters and plates, bowls and tureens in the pattern. Some so old their whites had begun to turn brown. They came from Goodwills and Salvation Army stores, and while they didn’t cost us a whole lot, took up way more pantry space than their use warranted.

Blue Willow was perhaps the sweet spot for Carole, but it wasn’t enough. She brought home random dinner plates from her sallies into various thrift stores. We collected quite a few floral plates. Then, there was a mismatched set of autumnal plates that she meant to use for Thanksgiving dinners. Those plates featured grouse or hunting scenes.

There was a new set she bought without telling me. One day, it showed up: A bright red and white set of Christmas dishes, bordered with reindeer and sleighs. The whole disaster — plates, salad plates, bowls, cups, saucers. Hardly room in the cabinet to hold them. And they were used, maybe, once a year. The crowded shelves hardly left room for the wine and water glasses.

Fiesta ware

My Modernist taste was clearly being drowned under a welter of semi-kitsch. Meanwhile, the growth of Blue Willow continued.

Clearly, there had to be some kind of compromise. Weighted to her side, of course, but at least a little give.

The clue came in France, while we were visiting the gardens painter Claude Monet had established for himself in Giverny, some 40 miles northwest of Paris. We have been to Giverny three or four times, in different seasons. It is powerfully beautiful, restored to its original glory.

And in the inevitable gift shop, there were offered for sale reproductions of the tableware that the painter used for his guests. In 1898, Monet designed a porcelain dinner service by painting a simple white plate with a blue edge and a yellow rim. It was executed by the company of Godin and Arhendfeld and perfectly set off the bright yellow dining room the painter fitted out in the old farm house that he refurbished.

In 1978, the Foundation Claude Monet commissioned the Robert Haviland and C. Parlon company of Limoges to recreate that original set of crockery. We gawked at it in the Giverny gift shop, salivated over it, distressed by its price. If you wanted to buy such a dinner plate now, it would cost you $155. Yes, per plate. A single five-piece place setting was $570. Standard setting for six, nearly $3500. Clearly this was out of our price range.

Yet, we knew we had found that compromise. Both traditional and Modernist, with the imprimatur of a great artist we both loved, it would have been the perfect set for our kitchen. We pined; we sighed; we longed.

In the meantime, every few years, we would see some place settings we liked, and if it was in our price range, we might buy it. We did both love the joy of the hunt for dinnerware we both could live with. There were compromises, mostly by me.

But then, we found a perfect knock-off. The Italian firm of Pagnossin had a set of blue-edged, yellow-rimmed plates. They were on sale. They weren’t exactly the same as the Monet plates. Monet’s had a light, powdery blue edge. These had a navy edge. But the yellow was identical. They were elegant, traditional and modern. We fell in love with them. I still have them and use them whenever company comes over.

Now that Carole is gone, the Blue Willow is gone, too. So are the red Christmas dishes. Alone, I find myself eating off of paper plates more than I care to admit. But I still have the faux-Monet plates and the replacement Dansk plates. And I keep several of Carole’s additions. There are two beautiful, simple plates with blue flowers drawn, not painted, on them. And there is a set of four Rita Monti hand-painted dishes, with floral and Renaissance patterns on them, very Mediterranean, which are perfect for pasta or fish. It seems I have mellowed; my need for masculine simplicity has softened into an absorption of some of Carole’s personality into my own, where it persists, even as she no longer does.

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