Back in July I had the pleasure of sitting down with Martha Glass, whose photograph regularly appears here in New York Social Diary, to discuss her passion for collecting ceramics. David Patrick Columbia introduced me to her and suggested that I interview her for NYSD about her ceramics collection, since it is a passion that both she and I share, as readers of my blog, Reggie Darling, will be aware.
The interview was held in Ms. Glass’ lovely, ceramics-packed apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where she lives with her husband and raised her recently grown children. She had just returned from her family’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, and was relaxed, good natured, and fun. Ms. Glass was a terrific interview, and she was generous with her time and in sharing her collections with me and JH, who took the accompanying photographs. In the interview, Ms. Glass shares her insights, experience, and advice on collecting, using, and living with ceramics, and there is much to be learned from her. But be forewarned: her passion for ceramics is infectious, and once you read what she has to say you just might find yourself looking at them in a whole new light ...
First, I have some background questions to ask you. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school, and what did you major in?
I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where my father was the curator of the rare map collection at Sterling Library at Yale. I am the youngest of six. I went to the Foote School in New Haven, followed by Miss Porter’s, and then to Briarcliff. I majored in European history, but I think I actually majored in partying!
An elaborately decorated English service plate, circa 1880.
A formal, gilt-decorated English plate, circa 1890-1910.
A detail of the Russian imperial plate's decoration.
A contemporary Chinese export style plate decorated with the Vietor family crest.
An English Worcester cake plate, circa 1860, found on eBay.
A family favorite at Christmas-time from Lynn Chase, featuring winter fowl, purchased by Martha in the late 1980s.
Tell me about your career and activities?
I moved to New York after college, and I started out at Christie’s in European decorative arts, just after they moved to New York. I started in the Madison Avenue office, where Ralph Lauren is now, and then we moved to 59th and Park, and I worked in English and French furniture, and decorative arts. I learned a lot. I had done a lot of studies of American decorative arts before that, studying with Charlie Montgomery at Yale, and things like that. Florence and Charlie Montgomery lived right down the street from us and were my father and mother’s closest friends. So the European side was very different for me. I’d always liked porcelain, in particular European porcelain, and Chinese export porcelain, too. But, really, there’s nothing I don’t like in the porcelain or china department!
Married, with two children.
How long have you been collecting ceramics?
Oh, probably since I was about twelve. When my great aunt died, we were able to go and pick what we wanted, and I picked out some plates and bits and pieces.
So this is something you’ve been doing since you were a girl, as opposed to something you’ve come to more recently.
But when did you begin collecting ceramics in earnest, going from buying a few pieces here and there to ... when did you realize that you’d been bitten by the bug?
I guess in my early twenties, when I moved to New York. But a lot of it was bits and pieces, in secondhand stores. Our friend Kirk Henkels had a wonderful place in Onteora, and we used to go up there to visit him, and there was this tiny, little junk/secondhand shop called Bethkins. She had so many things that are now up on our shelves that no one else had seen among the junk in her shop. We pretty much bought her out of everything that she had!
Your great aunt, was she the one who inspired you to start collecting?
No, it was my mother. She loved porcelains, too.
Was she a porcelain collector?
No, she was more of an accumulator, I think. My father was a true collector. He collected ship paintings and French watercolors. But my mother (and I too) are more accumulators. I love to set the table. I always used to do that when I was a little girl.
Another person who inspired me was Marjorie Merriweather Post. I went to Hillwood when I was young, and her big kitchen full of marvelous things was an inspiration to me. It’s all that I would want!
What is it about ceramics that draws you to them, that has led you to collect them?
Oh, I think their prettiness, and their forms, their three dimensionality, I’d say. They are lovely things! And you can use them, too.
So--beauty, dimension, and utility?
Yes. Other than ceramics, I used to collect those little Halcyon Days boxes. It got to the point where I had too many of them, more than three hundred! But now they are packed away, along with the miniature tea sets I used to collect. I like little things.
Do you share your interest for ceramics with any family members or friends?
My husband, a little bit. He’s bought a few things, but I’d say he’s more discerning than I am.
What type of ceramics do you collect?
I guess I’ve mostly collected plates and serving pieces, and bits and pieces. I’d love to get a big service, say a three hundred piece set of Meissen, but we’ve had children instead! I’ve always liked serving pieces, like berry coolers and things like that. And Monteith bowls. Plates are more for practicality, as I really love setting a table. I have plates for all occasions. I used to keep track of every dinner party’s place settings in a book.
Are there any particular manufacturers, or makers, or potteries that you collect, or are drawn to?
Probably French and Continental, mostly. Limoge and Herrend. I love Herrend. I’ve got my eye on the black and white Herrend ... but I’ve been told “no more!”
That’s because we haven’t any more room! Every cupboard and closet is absolutely packed with them. Before we renovated the apartment we used to have skirted tables, and we’d keep them under them, too, along with lots of other things. We used to have them under the beds, as well, but not any longer. We have a storage locker that we keep them in, too.
A view of the Glass family dining room, with the table displaying a selection of Martha's favorite plates.
A mix of contemporary and antique blue and white Chinese vases, crystal candlesticks, and coral on the dining room sideboard.
Is there any particular age or era that you like?
No, I seem to be all inclusive! I love to mix modern pieces with antique ones.
Would you ever buy anything that is in less-than-perfect condition, that has a crack in it?
Oh, yes, so long as it is pretty enough, and the price is right, and it's for display. I’ve got staples in the back of some of the pieces I have on display. The old-fashioned staple repairs. I got a number of them from my grandmother.
How often are you out and about, looking to add to your collection? Is it all the time, regularly, or some of the time?
I’d say now that it is only “some of the time.” I did a lot more collecting when I was in my twenties, but I’ve become more discerning over time. Because I’ve had to -- I’ve run out of room! I love looking in shops when I’m traveling or on vacation, and coming across something to bring home with me.
Sideboard with punch bowl from Tiffany private label decorated with the Vietor family crest, made in France, circa 1940, and assorted Chinese and English pieces.
A grouping of contemporary and antique blue and white Chinese porcelain serving pieces.
When you are buying plates, is there a set number that you have to have, a minimum?
No, you can’t always find eight or twelve. Sometimes you can just find four, and you can use them for different things.
Where do you look for ceramics?
Mainly in shops these days. I used to buy in the auction houses, too, when I worked at Christie’s. I go to the shows, too.
How disciplined would you consider yourself when it comes to collecting ceramics? Have you ever lost your head and done something rash?
Well, I wish my husband were here to answer that ... but the answer is, yes, absolutely! But not recently.
The dining room table, including three of Martha's favorite yellow Meissen pots de crème, circa 1790
Various dinner sets.
Have you ever regretted buying something, and found yourself asking later “what was I thinking?”
Never! I have never regretted buying anything. And you know how you buy something thinking you can always resell it? Well, I’ve never done it. I’ve never sold a thing in my life! Never given a thing away either! My children are not looking forward to dealing with it. They don’t like any of it!
How has your collecting changed over time, from when you first started out, became more knowledgeable over time, and then to today?
I’m absolutely more critical. I used to buy bits and pieces when I was young. Now, since I really have a lot, in order for me to buy something it really has to hit my eye. It has to be higher quality.
Are there any pitfalls to collecting ceramics?
Well, they break!
How do you use or display your ceramics?
As you see, we display them throughout the rooms in our apartment, and we use them when setting the table. And I rotate them. I get bored so I change them around.
A favorite English Aesthetic movement blue and white plate, circa 1880 inherited from Martha's grandmother Vietor, most likely bought in England.
Another view of the dining room table, with a Lynn Chase favorite in the foreground on the left, and a porcelain plate from the Russian imperial factories or the right, circa 1880-1910.
What are some of the particular favorites that you have in your collection?
Actually, the Monteith bowl on the shelf in our library is one of my favorites. I love the color. It’s Tiffany private stock, and very Meissen-esque. I love Meissen. Another great favorite of mine is the pair of Chinese export urns on the mantel in our living room that I inherited from my mother, and these creamware women, nearby. Those are my top three favorites, and were all inherited. I had my eyes on them for years!
I also love those two ice bowls on the top of the chest in the dining room, that I also inherited from my mother. They are from a set that was supposedly given by General Lafayette to my great-great grandfather. But that’s not a verifiable fact, and more probably family lore.
My parents were both only children, and they were the only niece and nephew, too. So a lot of the family things that were dispersed in previous generations came back to them in full sets. But since there were six of us things have become dispersed again! The green set on the sideboard, of which I have ten plates and some baskets and other things, used to belong to my mother, who had the entire set. But now it’s been divided again among me and my two sisters.
Martha's beloved Tiffany private-stock Monteith bowl, circa 1900.
What are some of your best scores?
My husband found a Limoge urn decorated with cornflowers in a secondhand store in Litchfield, Connecticut. He gave it to me for Christmas. We’ve collected quite a bit of cornflower decorated porcelain over the years.
I have also bought lots of modernday things from Tiffany. My best friend was head of china there.
That’s a dangerous friend to have!
Yes, it was!
Are there any things in your collection that you stretched to buy, and are particularly happy that you did?
I’d have to say it is an antique set of eight Meissen pots de crème on a tray, in an unusual, acid yellow. That was a stretch for me, and I’ve never regretted it for a minute.
A view of the shelves of the library, displaying ceramics, books, and shells.
A mix of antique Meissen plates, and a modern reproduction plate from the Metropolitan Museum of Catherine the Great's imperial service.
Various English and Chinese porcelain pieces on display.
Staffordshire dogs and various English pieces.
More shells, ceramics, and books.
Have you ever taken any classes or seminars specific to ceramics?
I did when I was in my twenties, at the Cooper-Hewitt.
What about related coursework, in art history?
Well, I did the Sotheby’s course in London. And when I worked at Christie’s I focused on furniture and decorative arts, including African art.
Do you ever visit ceramics collections in museums?
Yes, I do. I love going to Winterthur.
Martha's father commissioned this bowl as a teenager in the 1920s while traveling in China. It depicts the flag of the Edgartown Yacht Club crossed with his private signal.
Another view of Martha's father's bowl, with his initials 'AOV' in Chinese.
How important is it, do you think, to visit collections in building your knowledge?
Very important. Your eye gets trained. You get to see the really good examples, and it informs your collecting. The more you train your eye, the better you can tell what you are seeing. You can tell if it's hand painted, things like that.
I wanted to go on a trip last year of a behind-the-scenes tour of the Meissen factories, which included visits to the great palaces of Dresden. It was organized by a friend of mine who said “you’ve got to come on this trip.” But it was the same weekend as our daughter’s college graduation.
How important is it, do you think, to build out a library of reference materials?
I think it is good, but now it’s so different with the web. You can go on line and find almost everything. So you don’t need the books as much anymore. But thumbing through books is great, and is something you can’t do on a computer. I do love books.
What do you think of the Internet as a source for ceramics?
Oh, I think it's great, you can find all sorts of pieces there. We’ve bought some serving pieces on eBay. I think eBay was better a few years ago, though, than it is today. Like all things!
A view of the living room's mantel, showing Martha's beloved inherited Chinese export vases, circa 1800.
One of a pair of footed Paris porcelain sauce tureens and covers, circa 1820, marked JP for Jacob Petit, and given to Martha's family by the Marquis de Lafayette.
Chinese export porcelain urns, circa 1800, that belonged to Martha's grandmother.
Are you a member of, or active in any ceramics collecting clubs?
No. I was thinking you were about to ask me that, and wondering whether I should be?
Well, I’m not a member of one, either!
We do have a great friend, who is English, who comes over to the Ceramics Fair, and I usually troll it with him.
How much of your collecting is a function of knowledge, and how much of it is instinct?
More instinct, really. But it's hard for me to be discriminating, since I like it all!
What is your advice to the beginning collector of ceramics?
Immerse yourself and learn as much as you can. Go to the museums, go to the shows, and auction houses. Go to dealers, such as Bardith on Madison Avenue. Even if you can’t afford to buy there. As you educate your eye, you’ll come across more affordable examples elsewhere. But enjoy and buy. Don’t over think it. Buy what you like.
A contemporary Chinese export style tureen, made by Mottehedeh.
One of the apartment's many china-filled cabinets.
A favorite Meisen coffee pot, circa 1880, nestled among stacks of plates.
Not an inch to spare!
A pretty, diminutive contemporary cornflower decorated porcelain bowl, in the style of Duc D'Angouleme porcelain de Paris.
My last question is: Who does all the dusting?
You are looking at her! Which means it never gets dusted. Over the years we had a number of pieces chipped or broken by cleaning ladies. So I decided that I would be the one who dusted them, and have the cleaning ladies concentrate their efforts elsewhere. I’d rather have a pile of dust than a pile of broken china.
You know, I think that will surprise some of the readers of this interview, because their assumption is that you would have someone do the dusting for you. But as a true collector, your attitude is “don’t go near that, I’ll handle it.”
Thank you for being so generous with your time, it was such a pleasure to sit down with you and discuss your passion for ceramics, and see your marvelous collection.