Lilies, links and a new artist

 

Sometimes it’s the bits and pieces and not the “big picture” that capture my attention. Here are a few things that caught my eye this week.

An artist to watch

This past Sunday Steve and I headed downtown to meet some friends at the Millennium Art Show (which was really an excuse to catch up, walk around bit and then grab something to eat.) This was a small show but with some really interesting pieces and I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time seriously looking at the works displayed. Hmmm, perhaps we were chatting more than looking? However, I did enjoy re-discovering Daniel Lai.

This piece by Daniel Lai is called “Teach a Man to Fish.”

Lai is a Tennessee artist who enjoys sculpting and repurposing books into the most amazing pieces of art. I first saw his work at the Wells Gallery at the Sanctuary on Kiawah Island. His work is so distinctive that I immediately recognized him at the show on Sunday. He says he started playing with books as a bored student, then was encouraged to re-purpose some of a friend’s books. I’m charmed by his imagination, the many ways he uses books and pages, those wonderful clay figures and the little extras, like the fishing pole. I think his work is both whimsical and provocative. What about you?

I captured the images, above, of his work from screen shots on You Tube. I wanted to share a few more images of his work and my photos just didn’t do it justice.

Three links to visit

I have been known do lots of blog-reading and coffee-drinking in the morning. Last week I was giving myself a real break after several especially busy days. And here’s the fun, my email inbox was full of links to some great blog posts.

Karianne at Thistlewoodfarms always has a fun take on life (she’s also a wonderful photographer and shares amazing DIY projects). She did a great post on 5-minute cleaning tips. I loved this, because she mentioned the messes that you (or at least I) forget about (like Cheerios in the silverware drawer). I also love the idea of limiting cleaning chores to 5 minutes. Click here for her tips, and if you have a 5-minute tip, please share!

This is just a sample of Jackye Lanham’s work that I found on the web.

Joni Webb at Cote de Texas did yet another of her beautiful, well-researched and illustrated posts, this time on designer Jackye Lanham and her home in Charleston, SC. First, Ms. Lanham does beautiful work: elegant, traditional rooms, minus the do-not-touch museum look. You would like to live in her rooms and her Charleston house, well, just take a look at the post! This is pure eye-candy. Pour a cup of coffee and just enjoy. (Joni’s posts are always a mini-course in art, architecture and design. She did a remarkable post on the real homes and rooms behind The Crown.)

Finally, Elizabeth at Blue and White Home, has a wonderfully clean, easy, mostly-traditional-but-sometimes-modern aesthetic (she’s also a Chicago designer, yay!). One of her recent posts turns that look onto some floral arrangements she made from blooms in her parent’s Vermont garden. They are simple, unpretentious, infinitely doable and most of all really pretty. It’s one thing to go to the store for a few bunches of flowers and greenery (we all do it all the time), but quite another to create such pretty pieces from what we have growing in the yard. Check them out.

The “stars” in my garden

My garden has a few spectacular successes this year, as well as a few failures. I don’t know if it’s the weather or, more likely, my not-so-green thumb. However, I walk the garden daily, sometimes taking pictures, often cutting some blooms to bring inside, pulling assorted weeds and dead-heading spent flowers. Not surprisingly, the stars of this year’s garden are the daylilies, and these purple coneflowers that are popping up everywhere. Take a look:

I hope you’re finding some “fun stuff” in your inbox and enjoying these July days!

Thanks for reading and see you next time!

 

The devil – and the delight – in the details

Sausages at the market in St. Remy are thoughtfully arranged.

Since we returned from our recent travels in Burgundy, Provence and Paris I have been thinking (and thinking) about the French attention to detail, the way fruits, vegetables and even sausages are carefully arranged at the market; simple pots bursting with flowers on every cafe table, cherries thoughtfully piled on a footed plate, individual pastries arranged in a boulangerie window. Even the arrangement of garden plots.

Although attention to detail is one trait that characterizes French charm, it’s not limited to that part of the world. I have been looking at details closer to home, from what catches my eye on my Instagram feed, to Pinterest boards, and garden plots. And for me, at least, it’s often the details — simply shown or in layers — that capture my attention and imagination. (Perhaps this explains how I can spend hours arranging plates on a shelf, pictures on a table, etc.)

I fell in love with this vegetable garden at the Chateau de Courmatin. Plants variously arranged, here by color and at an angle. Other parterres were arranged in various geometric patterns.

What makes these details so important? Obviously, we all want to put our best foot forward. We care about our surroundings and the people in them; personally, I want the surroundings to be visually appealing as well as comfortable. And I want the people to be comfortable and feel special or even pampered at my house.

In fact, I’m not comfortable if something is off visually. In my case, this may be genetic…

Some of us may be born detail tweakers

My mother had a way of arranging appetizers on a tray or serving platters on a buffet. She tweaked this and fluffed that and everything looked a little better. She fussed over curtains inside, then went outside to see how they looked from there (because pretty inside was only part of the story!).

My dad was no better. He was an ad man in the 50‘s and had an innate sense of balance (which he would point out is not the same as symmetry) and a sharp eye for details. One of my fondest memories is of the two of them engaging in a silent duel over the placement of a new pair of arm chairs. Dad happened to be home to accept the chairs, and after the delivery crew left, he adjusted the chair placement on each side of a table as he & Mom had planned. When she came home, Mom admired the chairs and then readjusted the angles on their placement. (Dad was out of the room.) Later, he walked back in and readjusted the chairs. And so it went for the better part of a week. Dad adjusted the chairs every morning. Mom, who left first and came home first, readjusted every afternoon when she returned from work. Until, that is, she finally caved and agreed to Dad’s angle.

There are details and then there are details

I can’t remember the name of this daylily in my perennial border, but I love the ruffle along the edge of the petals!

Obviously the details that I have been focusing on have to do with design and presentation. But life is loaded with other details. In my editorial days, I was involved in a lot of meeting/event planning (something for which I did not have much talent), and though I dragged my heels at many of the details we added to each agenda, itinerary, and banquet event order, you only need to be unexpectedly left in charge of one event to know how important those details are. You only need to run one meeting to appreciate the importance of a good agenda, including who reports on what. If you start skimping on those preparations, and someone always does, then it’s like fabric fraying around the edges. The result is not as crisp, clean and smooth as it should be.

And so the lesson is: the outcome depends on your attention to the details.

I hope I’m not painting myself as an uptight, Type A person. If anything, I tend to fly by the seat of my pants much of the time. This explains why, when I totally forgot a book group was coming to spend the evening on my back porch, I was able to invite them in, open some chilled wine and serve up cheese and crackers. My detail, as it turns out, is to keep cheese and wine in the fridge and crackers in the pantry.

Where was I going with all this?

Oh, yes, the French attention to detail. This is one of my souvenirs from France. I want to remember to take the time for the attention to details, the carefully wrapped package, the way the cheese looks on the board and the olives in the little glass jars (that I bought at the French flea market), the buttered cookie tins sprinkled with lemon zest to add a little extra. The bottom line is that it doesn’t take much time or money to add a bit of graciousness to our days. And that’s what I’m after.

Which details catch your eye and which ones bypass your attention? I’d love to hear from you.

See you next time!

 

 

 

My sweet & savory day at The Cook’s Atelier

Oops! That’s my husband in the doorway, probably reading a map.

Blog reading can lead in all sorts of directions. For me, it includes the discovery of The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune, France. The Atelier is a cooking school/wine shop/kitchen boutique created by American expats Marjorie Taylor and her daughter Kendall Smith Franchini to share their love of French food and wine.

I discovered them and the Atelier in a blog more than a few years ago and thought, “Wow! I’d love to do this.” Last winter as we began planning our trip to France, I realized I really could! Beaune was already on our itinerary and we made sure we would be there on a “class day.” This is the story of  the “Day in Burgundy” I spent shopping, cooking and dining with nine like-minded travelers and the charming and remarkable Marjorie and her daughter Kendall.

A day at the The Cook’s Atelier is first and foremost an extended class in French cooking with an emphasis on the Burgundian region and its traditions. However, it’s also a short course in the fine art of the French kitchen, in the selection and preparation of fresh, farm-to-table ingredients from the best local resources, in pairing food with the best local wines and then in serving it in a beautiful, casual-yet-elegant french tradition. It is, quite simply, what Marjorie and Kendall love best about France and how they share it.

If I sound smitten, it’s because I am.

We began at a local cheese shop. A total of ten participants, some in two’s and three’s, others like me on their own, gathered a little self-consciously in front of an enticing cheese shop on a square in Beaune. A few of us began introducing ourselves as class participants, but before we could really figure out who was who, Marjorie showed up, introducing herself and her daughter Kendall, connecting many of us to bits of information she had gleaned from our emails, and promising a full day of shopping, cooking and savoring the results. Whatever shyness we may have felt quickly dissolved under the influence of Marjorie’s warmth.

After a tour of the shop and talk of pairing soft and hard, strong and mild cheeses, as well as purchasing some of what we would need for the recipes ahead, we moved on to the Beaune market. Since my husband and I had made a brief tour of the market on our way to find our morning coffee and croissant, it was especially interesting to meet their favorite vendors. Marjorie and Kendall had shopped the market earlier to make sure they bought the best of the fruits and vegetables available. This is key to their cooking philosophy, the best and freshest ingredients, simply prepared.

From the market we moved on to the butcher where we discussed and tasted a variety of pates and acquired some veal rib roasts for our lunch. Then it was off to the Atelier where we trooped up to the second floor kitchen. (Deep breath!) It’s amazing!

The stove and the copper! We all wanted to take it back home!
This is a recent Instagram I saved showing this light-filled space!

This is a teaching kitchen, but I could easily live with it. In the U.S. we have such a different kitchen aesthetic, requiring space for a variety of tools, gadgets, appliances, and knickknacks. The Atelier kitchen is spare and simple, and what I think of as quintessentially French. It stars a beautiful LaCanche stove and Marjorie’s stunning collection of copper cookware, which, she tells us, are (along with her cookbooks) the only things she brought with her when she moved from Arizona to France. Next to the stove, a long, counter-height cabinet provides serious storage. Above it a knife rack holds enough cutlery for the class a few times over. In the center of the room, a narrow, marble-topped worktable was neatly set with chopping blocks, aprons and towels. And light. There’s so much light. The Atelier is housed in a 17th century building, and the second-floor kitchen features a floor-to-ceiling window at one end that looks out to the original, winding wood stair to the third floor, the wine shop and kitchen boutique at ground level below, and a skylight above.

 

Who wouldn’t be happy cooking here?

Simple storage, the freshest ingredients, basic tools.

So, we donned our aprons, and took our places while Marjorie chatted to us about the menu (grougeres, green garlic souffle, vegetables including fava beans, fennel, wild asparagus, carrots and potatoes, roast veal, madeleines, and simple butter cake). We cleaned and trimmed vegetables, prepared cake batter, and prepped the madeline batter and pans for later use. We learned about knives, storing fresh herbs and whole vanilla beans (but not together!), and how to crack and separate eggs (it took two dozen eggs to get the 12 egg whites we needed for our souffles, but that was part of the fun). We grated cheese, whipped egg whites, and learned to “french” the bones on the veal roasts. We discussed copper cookware and the basics of roasting any meat.

The veal roasts, seared on the stove top and ready for the oven.

And all the while Marjorie shared the story of her restaurant in Arizona, her daughter’s love of France and move there, Marjorie’s decision to follow and the serendipitous development of the business with their love of cooking, wine, and all things French. Kendall’s husband Laurent, has joined the business, running the store and negotiating the intricacies of owning a business in France. Together these three have created a successful family business focused on work that they love and accommodating the needs of Kendall and Laurent’s two small children who dart in and out of the business as they would their own house.

At the same time all ten students developed our own brand of kitchen comaraderie, asking questions, sharing tasks, basking in Marjorie and Kendall’s hospitality. I have wondered since then, did we all get on so well and enjoy our time together because we shared a love for cooking? Perhaps. But I also think the hospitality, the shared tasks and, later, the shared meal ultimately had total strangers trading emails and hugging goodbye.

The seven course lunch.

A simple, beautiful table that focused on the food.

After our cooking chores, Marjorie and Kendall gathered our aprons and shooed us upstairs to another sunlit room with another table for ten, this time set for dining. It was simple, set with white dishes and heavy, white monogrammed napkins simply folded. No overblown centerpieces or themed place settings. Despite the afternoon light, votives and candles glowed on adjacent surfaces.

We began with glasses of champagne and the grougeres we had prepared earlier, then some of the charcouterie from the market. Next, fava bean and shaved fennel salad and then the individual souffles in copper pots appeared. (Note so self: Serve something in individual pots. It’s magical!) We oohed and aahed over the presentation, then over the souffles themselves. Kendall served more wine (She chose something for each course, and I am so sorry I did not take a photo of each bottle. I would love to refer back to them!)

The souffles tasted even better than they looked!

I can’t go thru all the courses (I’ve probably already bored you), but clearly thoughtful presentation is the perfect complement to fresh, seasonal ingredients and careful preparation. We took the time to savor each course, the conversation (and wine) continued to flow, and the rest of the afternoon slipped away.

I loved every bit of the day, and I have continued to savor it, mentally as well as puttering in my own kitchen at home. I’ve tried a few of the recipes and look forward to doing more.

When we travel, it’s so easy to define what we want to see (the Eiffel Tower or Duomo) or experience (hiking in the Grand Canyon or walking China’s Great Wall). I think my day at The Cook’s Atelier was more; it was slipping into a heady slice of French culture, and now seeing what I have brought back home.

I encourage you to visit the new website for The Cook’s Atelier. The photos are gorgeous, you can learn more about them and their classes, and they have a shop!

For now, I’m so glad you joined me. See you next time!

 

 

 

We almost had a castle in France

We almost had a castle in France
The hoarding tower.

If you follow me on Instagram, you know we recently traveled to France and you also probably saw my post about the French castle that is, sadly, not in our family. But, in sixteen days of wonderful sights, sounds, tastes and people, the morning we spent at Sercy Castle has to be among the best of the best.

A bit of the back story.

Last year I gave my husband an international membership to Ancestry.com so he could pursue his mother’s family roots in Europe. The genealogical research was full of surprises, not the least of which was this castle in Sercy, France. In truth, the Castle Sercy part of the story required a few “leaps of faith” to get to the 12th century, but it was fun to pursue. In reality, our visit here was absolutely wonderful (and, no, these are not the right Sercy’s!).

I’m not sure what I expected. We had seen a few Google pictures on the web, but when we came around the bend in the road on this particular morning and saw the castle in person, I was totally blown away. A stone castle, with turrets and a diminutive lake out front! As one friend noted, it’s just like Cinderella! But of course, it’s very real with a very interesting history.

This is the castle kitchen.

Castle Sercy is a 12th-century structure, in Southern Burgundy near Tournus. Although it is not normally open to the public, except for certain special occasions, Steve had corresponded with the current owner and his welcome was genuinely gracious. The castle’s current owner, a retired naval officer and descendant of several centuries of owners, greeted us warmly and invited us into the small home he & his wife share on the property. (The castle has no running water or electricity, making residence there somewhat inconvnient.) Over coffee he shared some castle and family history.

Start in the 12th century

Construction on the Château de Sercy started in the 12th-century and continued for the next few hundred years. By 1470 the Château had become a fort with ramparts and a moat. The Sercy family owned the Château de Sercy (hence the name) from its initial construction until the 16th century when Philibert Sercy died in Lyon. The Château was subsequently uninhabited for over two hundred years and fell into ruin. It was sold in 1771 to a French army officer and then sold again in 1785 to an ancestor of the present owner.

The Romanesque Chapel is also the burial site for generations of the castle owners.

Those owners were royalists who were beheaded during French Revolution (Really!). Their very young daughter was spared, but the castle was sacked, its furniture taken, its sculptures and fireplaces broken and archives burned. Later, after the daughter had grown and married, a major reconstruction took place from 1811 to 1815 and the Château de Sercy was inhabited once again. Much later, in 1929, a major fire destroyed much of the structure, although some of the best parts of the Château were saved. In 1954 the family began to rebuild, again.

Castle living today

The French government can classify a building or part(s) of a building as historically significant. Castle Sercy’s round, northwest tower with the raised roof supported by a substantial network of wood pillars and trusses, called a hoarding, was built sometime in the 15th century to defend the castle. It’s one of the oldest hoardings in France, making that part of the castle historically very significant.

We had access to a limited part of the interior, but the owner did share the original castle kitchen with us, along with the courtyard area which dates to the 12th and 15th centuries. Despite the lack of conveniences like electricity or running water, the owners do use the main salon in the summer, as well as an adjacent room. Interestingly, the fireplace in the main salon is also classified for historical preservation, and has been restored but fires are not permitted per the architect.

We walked the grounds to see where the castle walls had once been and the moat beyond the walls. We also visited the castle’s Romanesque chapel where generations of forebears are buried. The chapel walls and ceiling are beautifully decorated in great detail.

Part of the courtyard dating to the 12th century shows more of the timber framing.
Detail of the restored fireplace in the main salon features remarkably delicate stonework and the owner’s family crest.
Another space awaiting restoration.
The chapel’s interior.

 

Rather than being disappointed that our family is not related to the castle’s original owners (which really was long shot!), Steve and I were both totally charmed by our time at Sercy and honored to have the opportunity to visit. It was a remarkable look at castle life “then and now” as well as a very personal lesson in one family’s French history.

Thanks for coming along.

See you next time!

 

Today the topic is Mother’s Day

Mom, shortly before she retired at 67.

Sometimes I struggle for a blog topic…

And sometimes I have too many.

That’s where I am today. Then I realized Mother’s Day really is “just around the corner,” so here I am. And here’s the truth: I have a love/hate thing going with Mother’s Day.

On the one hand, I think it’s wonderful that we stop, take a breath, and think about the impact of all the mothers in our lives. Not just my mom (whom I described at her memorial service as a “great dame”), but also my grandmother, who taught me so much about making room at the table (literally and figuratively) and my mother-in-law, who taught in a rural elementary school to pay her way through the University of Georgia during the Depression.

On the other hand, I think the Hallmark-card, gift-giving, Sunday-brunch side of Mother’s Day can be exhausting, expensive and — yes, I’ll say it — stressful. It’s about expectations, of course, and I’m as guilty as anyone. There were so many years when I was working and hosting a family dinner, buying presents, sending cards, and admittedly also being “feted” by my own kids (the free breakfasts at MacDonald’s really were the best!).

Later, when my kids were away at school and then off launching their adult lives in other cities, a friend expressed regret that they “would not be home for Mother’s Day.” That gave me pause; was she serious? Was it a “coming home” kind of holiday or a “don’t-forget-to-call-Mom-Sunday.” I vote for the latter. Let’s not get crazy about this. (As a mother, I was pretty proud of the fact that my son and daughter were out there succeeding on their own in the world.)

One of the really great things about my mom was that she was more than happy to dial back expectations. I took this lesson to heart. She understood how tough and “unnecessary” (one of her favorite words) some of this “fussing” could be.

Mom had a demanding career running a major department in a hospital. She was very, very good at what she did. She took her responsibilities seriously and often worked weekends and holidays. And she did it starting in the early sixties, when most women did not work outside the home. My dad always backed her up, but I think it was often a somewhat lonely stance. It took years for her friends and family to really understand and appreciate her professionalism. Mom, Dad and I learned years ago how to “bend” a celebration around other circumstances.

Celebrating the mother, not the day

I offered a glimpse into my mom, here, where I talked about her example of a lifelong friendship, and now you know a little about her career. Mom’s experience as a working woman was a huge support to me throughout my working life. She understood the ying and yang between family and work. She understood the pride in a job well done and the flip side, when you were having a truly horrible day.

One of my favorite memories of my mother’s work advice came on just such a day for me. I cannot even remember all that was going wrong, just that my day was totally off the rails and she happened to call me. I was pretty abrupt about what a bad day I was having and she sympathized.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, then added, “Maybe you could just crawl under your desk and hide for awhile.”

Looong pause.

We both burst out laughing, and suddenly I had my perspective back. A little Mom wisdom, a little Mom humor, then get back up, put one foot in front of the other, and move on.

I’ve remembered that afternoon call so many times since, especially the laugh that followed. It still makes me smile. Thanks, Mom.

Wishing you a wonderful Mother’s Day and a few quiet moments to remember the mothers in your life.

See you next time.

Nancy Drew, Louisa Adams & other smart women

Do you ever have one of those times when disparate things start strangely fitting together in the larger scheme? I’m having a week like that, with amazing women stepping out of the shadows to challenge my thinking.

On the first Wednesday in May the Wheaton-Glen Ellyn, Illinois, branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) holds its annual used book sale. This is a fund-raising tradition more than 50 years old that supports national fellowships and local scholarships for women. It’s also a true labor of love for the women (and men) who have now spent decades collecting, sorting and storing used books every year in anticipation of the sale, then unpacking and arranging the books at the Glen Ellyn Civic Center for the sale itself.

So, this is the week.

Despite endless box-schlepping, aching backs, associated and inevitable dust, long hours, and often tedious sorting into various broad categories, many if not most of us are happy to dig in. It’s for a cause we deeply believe in, we get to catch up with friends we may not often see, and perhaps even make a few new ones. And, we haven’t found a better fundraiser! We know how to do this, and after 50 years we’re pretty good at it. Book lovers and bargain-hunters know to look for this sale.

Most important, we have met and talked with the women these proceeds help. This is real empowerment.

And then there is Nancy Drew.

Volume One of the beloved girl detective series, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” was published 87 years ago on April 28, 1930, using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. The books, ghostwritten by Mildred Wirt Benson and later revised by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, were “the Depression-era Pokemon cards” says Theodore Johnson in a celebratory essay on the The Mary Sue. “They were collected, traded, bought and sold on both secondary and tertiary markets to the point where any kid, even those who couldn’t afford new books, would very likely get to read every adventure starring their favorite character within a reasonable interval.”

But more important was what the books showed readers that girls could do. As Johnson points out, “Nancy gets into fights, drives a car, packs a gun and relies on herself to get out of tough situations. She is mechanically inclined and at the same time doesn’t act like most people in the 1930s would have expected a teenage girl to act.” Nancy Drew’s heroics were just as important to my friends and I reading in the 50’s and 60’s as they were to the first readers in the 30’s. I’m sure I never realized what a great character/role model she was; I just liked the books.

I encourage you to read Johnson’s essay, here to appreciate his complete examination of the series — including its relationship to subsequent fiction. If you haven’t read Nancy Drew, what are you waiting for? And if you have, you can go back and reread one for fun. That’s what I’m doing.

But wait, there’s more.

I was connected with yet one more really interesting woman this week.

I love to cruise the Recommended, New Releases and New in Paperback shelves and tables in bookstores. I always find something interesting, sometimes a title I have been looking for or an author I especially enjoy. Louisa by Louisa Thomas looked interesting, but I had not heard about it before. Well, it was a great find!

Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams was the the daughter of an American businessman living in London and his English-born wife; Louisa became the wife of John Quincy Adams and daughter-in-law of John and Abigail Adams. After spending the Revolutionary years in France (her father was not especially welcome in British circles during that time), the family returned to London where she met John Quincy, who by then was on a diplomatic mission for the U.S. President.

Though their life, which initially took them to Berlin, Prussia and the court of St. Petersburg, sounds glamorous, it was also outright dangerous and remarkably lonely. She spent years separated from her young sons and her family. The newly established United States was trying to establish its foreign credentials. Louisa and John Quincy were not necessarily welcomed with open arms. If anything, Louisa’s British background and her years in France gave her easier entree into palaces than did John Quincy’s pedigree.

But that’s just the start of the story.

Louisa led a remarkable and challenging life, including a heart-stopping journey from St. Petersburg to Paris to meet her husband and, later, guiding his election as the 6th President of the United States in a “campaign” so remotely different from current politics you will be wondering if it was really in America.

So yes, I am a history geek. And yes, I love biography. But Louisa has the added perk of being a biography of a strong woman who witnessed and played a leading role in the formative years of our country. Win! Win! Win!

And this has been my week. Smart, resourceful women paving the way for more smart, resourceful women.

How’s your week going?

See you next time!

Never enough ironstone

Last winter when I caught up with my friend Laura, she whipped out the then-current issue of Country Living Magazine, with a feature on white ironstone. “Is it called ironstone because there is iron in the clay?” she asked.

Hmmm, I thought. This is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. I had named my blog Ivy & Ironstone, talked briefly about my white ironstone collection, and now at least one person thought I really knew something about it.

I didn’t think there was iron in the clay, but I had to go back to some of my initial research to confirm my suspicions. And, I was right. “Ironstone” simply refers to the durable nature of this particular pottery. And I can see why; despite cracking and crazing and chipping, it survived daily domestic life in the nineteenth century. These pieces were the family’s plates, water pitchers, meat platters, gravy boats, and more.

Ironstone was first made in the early 1800’s in Staffordshire, England, as an affordable alternative to the pricier porcelains popular at the time. In fact many of the shapes and details like handles and spouts were designed to mimic more expensive dishes. Although much of this pottery was decorated with the transferware patterns I discussed in a previous post, what we commonly refer to as ironstone today is usually thought of as these white pieces. Charles James Mason acquired the first patent in 1813, but a number of other china producers also made copious amounts of ironstone. I have pieces identified as Wedgwood, Johnson Brothers, Mason, and Meakin to name just a few.

These nineteenth-century pottery pieces can be chunky (like the large bowl at the left) or delicate (like the brown-stained pitcher), detailed or simple.  Some pieces retain their glazed finish, others are crazed and stained. Ironstone lovers accept those imperfections as part of the package.

My collection began with pitchers.

Like many collectors, I had this vision of a long line of white pitchers marching across a shelf (or shelves). And then there were my decorating muses, like Mary Emmerling (remember my post here?) who also embraced white ironstone, often using it to contain other goods, like towels or cutlery. But once I started looking for the pitchers, I found all these other great pieces. A square, fluted bowl to hold apples or berries. Pitchers, of course, for flowers, but also sugar bowls and a charming sauce tureen. And then there are the platters, in graduated sizes, ovals and rectangles. I purposely collected them to add to my entertaining gear. They are my serving go-to for everything from cheese and veggies to dessert. (Yes, I really do use this stuff. Why not?)

Because I can’t imagine an “end” to the collection (although I may get pickier at what I actually bring home with me), I tend to totally zero in on displays in antique shops. Look at this great collection. Who knows what I may discover here?

 

In its heyday, ironstone was both popular and affordable and, therefore, abundant. The combination of mass production and its sturdy nature undoubtedly contribute to its wide availability today. It simply outlasted a lot of other, more delicate pieces. Thanks to its popularity, it’s also been widely reproduced. Although I prefer antiques, some collectors are happy to include more contemporary pieces.

Antique pieces invariably show signs of wear on the bottom, around the top lip of a pitcher or bowl, or the edge of plate. The glaze wears off in places where it was repeatedly handled, maybe set down on a rough surface or pushed aside on a shelf. So those areas feel rougher, and sometimes discolor or even chip. Antique pieces also have a distinct, softer luster. I always check new finds for a manufacturer’s mark on the bottom. (Full disclosure: I do this with all kinds of dishware, a throwback to my days as a giftware buyer.)  The mark identifies the maker and often the city and/or country of origin. Contemporary marks are just that — much more modern.

One of the things I have come to appreciate about my ironstone is the amount of detail and design incorporated into what initially seems like simple white pieces. Look at the detail on this sugar bowl on the left, above. The overall shape is rectangular, and although it’s hard to see here, the “corners” have a subtle ribbed look. I love the “collar” around the top and the shape of the handles. The details on the handles of these two pitchers are just as charming. Who needs color when you can play with shape and and scallops like this?

Mine is certainly not a large or discerning collection, but it’s fun. There’s a lot to be said for the “thrill of the hunt.” I’m always on the lookout because I love finding a new piece. I also use these pieces all the time. As I write this there is a small bowl cradling a gerbera plant by the kitchen sink and one of my tallest pitchers has been recruited to hold flowers on the island. If you follow me on Instagram, you saw one of my favorite pitchers filled with flowers on my Easter table. I used the square bowl pictured above with apples for dyed eggs.

There really is never enough ironstone or a limit to using and enjoying it.

See you next time!