“At the age of 40, I decided that I would rather be an antiques dealer than practice at the bar,” the London antiquary Alistair Sampson wrote in Cabinet Secrets , a collection of whimsical essays on collecting and dealing that he first began penning for Punch magazine in 1984.
Sampson’s seduction and eventual defection from his legal career †tongue-in-cheek, he wrote that his greatest struggle was “waking up in time to get to court by 10:30 am” †began with English creamware. In the 1960s, it was still loosely referred to by Sampson and others as Leeds Pottery, even though many firms manufactured creamware and not all Leeds was the enamel-free variety favored by Sampson.
Sampson sold his first creamware collection at Christie’s in 1967 on the eve of his marriage to Camilla Madoc. He wanted his new wife to, as he put it, “move her bits and bobs into the cupboard, which had previously been home to 80 teapots.”
Creamware nevertheless remained one of his great loves. The dealer mingled it with the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century English furniture, delftware, treen, needlework and naive painting that he so artfully displayed in his Mount Street gallery and at antiques shows in New York and London.
The Sampsons also had a private collection of creamware, beautifully displayed on mantels and shelves in their St John’s Wood, London, home. As Alistair Sampson once explained, “Nothing is more decorative than a selection of the early forms in plain creamware displayed against a colored background.”
As a collector, Sampson was interested in illustrating the stylistic evolution and great formal diversity of the earthenware first produced in Staffordshire, England, in the 1740s using calcined flint clay and a lead glaze that, when fired, turned a transparent creamy-white.
Alistair Sampson died on January 13, 2006, age 76. In June 2006, the Sampson firm merged with Jonathan Horne to create Sampson & Horne Antiques. Sampson’s creamware collection was once again destined for auction when Anne K. and Ray J. Groves got wind of the sale.
A Historic Deerfield trustee since 1991, Anne Groves currently chairs the museum’s board. In addition to being an avid sponsor of many of the museum’s building and collections initiatives, Groves collects Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century delft and Eighteenth Century salt glaze and decorated creamware objects. Some of her best pieces came from Alistair Sampson.
“I met Alistair in 1972. He had often expressed to me his wish for his collection to stay together and be purchased by me for my collection or go to a museum, preferably Historic Deerfield because of the outstanding ceramics which are there,” Groves explained. “We put our heads together and found a way to fulfill Alistair’s wishes.”
Through the generosity of Anne and Ray Groves, Historic Deerfield recently acquired Alistair and Camilla Sampson’s personal creamware collection, consisting of 162 figures, vases, urns, tureens, sauce boats, mugs, teapots, food molds, shaving bowls, candlesticks, spittoons, pierced dessert wares, baskets and other forms.
“Any museum or teaching institution, which is how I view Historic Deerfield, moves forward not only with a great staff but with evolving collections. The Sampson collection builds on one of our great strengths, ceramics,” says Philip Zea, president of Historic Deerfield.
Perhaps because of their fondness for color, Historic Deerfield’s founders, Henry and Helen Flynt, were especially drawn to delft and Chinese Export porcelain, subjects that Amanda E. Lange, curatorial department chair and curator of historic interiors at Historic Deerfield, has written about in two catalogs, Chinese Export Art at Historic Deerfield and Delftware at Historic Deerfield: 1600‱800.
“Our creamware collection, while representative, has never been outstanding,” admits Lange, delighted that Historic Deerfield’s latest acquisition will make it possible for the museum to show how these lead-glazed earthenwares were used in the Connecticut River Valley.
“We have evidence of all sorts of the more utilitarian creamware forms †teapots, coffee pots, cups, saucers, plates, butter tubs and stands, tureens, sugar pots, punch bowls, milk pots, castors for pepper and sugar, basins, ewers and wet syrup jars †being used here. On the other hand, some of the very specialized pieces in the Sampson collection might not have been found in the Connecticut River Valley,” says Lange.
For instance, there is probably “no chance” that a large, impressive, circa 1767 Wedgwood urn with lion’s head decoration “would have crossed the ocean for an American interior.” Even it, however, offers fruitful opportunity for investigating “vase-mania,” the Grand Tour-inspired fashion for pottery imitating antiquities, says the curator.
Also known as Queens ware, creamware was invented by Enoch Booth (1717irca 1743) of Tunstall, England, in the 1740s. Josiah Wedgwood (1730‱795) perfected and successfully marketed the ceramic body. Wedgwood’s version of creamware resulted from many experiments with white clays and improved glazes.
By 1762, Wedgwood developed a light, sturdy, refined and inexpensive cream-colored earthenware body. It could be left plain or elaborately decorated. Creamware’s smooth surface was ideal for hand painting or transfer printing.
Creamware was immediately popular on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1768, Wedgwood wrote that “The demand for this sd Creamcolour , Alias, Queen’s Ware , Alias, Ivory , still increases. It is really amazing how rapidly the use of it has spread allmost over the whole Globe, & how universally it is liked.”
In 1765, England’s Queen Charlotte ordered a complete tea set made of green and gold enameled Wedgwood creamware. Middle-class consumers rushed to purchase creamware, ending the fashion for tin-glazed earthenware and salt-glazed stoneware, which was difficult to decorate. Pearlware, tinted with cobalt to give it a blue cast reminiscent of porcelain, subsequently replaced creamware.
The creamware in Sampson’s collection is rococo or neoclassical in style. An outstanding example of the rococo taste is a sauceboat dating to about 1780. The overall form, which features gadrooning, is inspired by silver of the same period. The sauceboat is lavishly decorated with a molded handle fashioned, much like a ship’s figurehead, as a female bust. The sides are decorated with scenes from Fables of Aesop and Others (London, 1722).
Sampson’s preference was for later, more architectural forms in the neoclassical taste. One great rarity is a set of four candlesticks. Their vase-shaped stems are elaborately ornamented with scroll handles and swags of husks. Lange identifies an illustration in James and Charles Whitehead’s 1798 pattern book as the probable source of the design. The candlesticks were made in Hanley, Staffordshire, between 1796 and 1800.
Says Lange, “A lot of these pieces are press-molded. They are decorated, but not enameled. Sampson admired form and crisp molding.”
One departure for the collector was a partial tea and coffee service decorated with the popular transfer printed pattern “Liverpool Birds,” also known as “Exotic Birds.” The service was made around 1775, probably by Wedgwood, and printed by Guy Green of Liverpool.
One of the curator’s favorite pieces is a circa 1800 Toby jug. Says Lange, “Even though whimsical, it is a great demonstration of the potter doing his work. His manipulation of the clay to give the figure expression and to simulate the appearance of froth on a mug of ale is remarkable.”
“Very few potteries marked their wares,” notes Lange. Roughly 15 pieces in the Sampson trove are marked, either by Wedgwood or by Leeds Pottery, also known as Hartley, Greens & Company. Pattern books remain a good, if not infallible, way of attributing unmarked pieces.
Traditionally, Historic Deerfield’s small creamware collection has been scattered among the 13 museum houses that contain much of its 25,000-object collection. Lange hopes to introduce more into these period vignettes.
The majority of the Sampson collection will be on view in the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, the museum’s purpose-built galleries for open storage and changing exhibitions. Information about the collection can be accessed through Historic Deerfield’s collections database. A printed handout is planned.
“It used to be that if you wanted to see creamware in the United States, you visited Winterthur, Colonial Williamsburg or Longue Vue House and Gardens in New Orleans. With the Sampson collection, Historic Deerfield is on the creamware map, too,” says Lange, who looks forward to sharing the varied riches of Historic Deerfield’s ceramics collection with experts and novices alike.
As Sampson wrote, “When you are bored with Bow, depressed by Derby, miffed with Meissen, weary of Worcester, pulverized by Plymouth, choked with Chelsea and nauseated by Nymphenburg †love Leeds.”
Historic Deerfield’s museum houses and Flynt Center of Early New England Life are open daily 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, through December 30. For information, 413-775-7214 or www.historic-deerfield.org.