Every passion borders on chaos, that of the collector on the chaos of memory- Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
(Collecting) is a “strategy of desire” whose task is the ever-impossible effort to bridge the gap between expression and experience- Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection
Readers of this blog and the people in my life know that I am a collector. Mainly, I collect late 19th century aesthetic transferware pottery in brown and black which displays a strong Japanese influence as exemplified by a 9.5” soup plate in the Nipon pattern by Doulton-Burslem circa 1888.
This Japanese influence occurs on the level of style such as in the Doulton soup plate pictured as well as subject matter as seen in this small 8.25” platter in the Jeddo pattern by Brown-Westhead, Moore & Co., 1872.
In the last few years, I have started to modestly collect silver both plate and sterling. My first interest in silver paralleled in form and content my interest in Aesthetic transferware pottery. While it is English pottery that excelled in Aesthetic styles, it is American silver manufacturers who produced really wonderful Aesthetic patterns in both plate and sterling. For example, a teaspoon in the rare Japanese pattern was introduced by Gorham in 1871.
Lately, I have also begun to collect patterns which feature handles with rounded medallions featuring Roman/Greek heads in profile. These patterns are from the 1860’s. Here is a teaspoon in J. R. Wendt’s Medallion pattern introduced in 1864.
Medallion patterns were also made in silverplate. Roman Medallion by Reed & Barton was introduced in 1868 and is a multi-motif pattern. Here is a salt spoon and a pie server. I love the broken nose of the soldier on the spoon medallion and the plumed helmet of the soldier on the pie server.
I also have a great love of what I would call classic, heavily ornate late 19th, early 20th century patterns that feature a shell motif. Of course, the use of the shell references the Rococo and earlier Kings patterns. I look for patterns such as Whiting’s Imperial Queen introduced in 1893, Gorham’s King George introduced in 1894 and Whiting’s King Edward introduced in 1901 for the coronation of Edward VII of the United Kingdom. Here is a pair of forks in this pattern.
This love of ornate flatware also manifests itself in my interest in Art Nouveau inspired patterns that feature chrysanthemums which are one of my favorite flowers. Here is a teaspoon by Durgin in its Chrysanthemum pattern introduced in 1893.
And a piece of sterling holloware, a small 6” dish circa 1900 made by Gorham with a chrysanthemum rim.
Finally, my interest in classic flatware patterns has led me to acquire a small collection of English sterling mostly small table pieces made in the Edwardian period and up until the end of the Great War in 1918. For example, a salt cauldron by Horace Woodward & Co. hallmarked London 1912.
But what does it mean to collect? How does it relate to nostalgia, memory and desire? In Illuminations, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin writes, “Every passion borders on chaos, that of the collector on the chaos of memory…” There is truly a sense of disorder to collecting. The act of collecting resonates with strong emotion; it is not just a routine or mundane activity. A collector must collect on some level. There is something essential to it for him or her and there is an accompanying feeling that at any moment collecting and the collection could tip over into the abyss of confusion.
There is also chaos in the sense of the myriad of objects that remain to be acquired. A collector can be confronted with an endless inventory of objects (especially true with the advent of the Internet) that is dizzying and there is a constant need to make order out of one’s collection, to refine and define it, to select with care. When I first began to collect silver, I focused on the Aesthetic period, but as I learned more and saw more, I was drawn to other periods and styles such as medallion flatware and my collection expanded and would continue to grow if I did not set limits and try to focus on just a few styles and periods to avoid falling into the abyss.
This need for order or limits to my collection is an attempt to tame the chaos. There is a constant striving for this order through an understanding of the object in terms of style, maker, date etc., so that the object can be positioned within the totality of the collection and more simply to prove the authenticity of the object, so that it can attain its place in the collection. Also, I have written inventories of both the English pottery and the silver as a means (however futile) to make sense of what I possess and what I ultimately want to discover in the future.
But what does Benjamin mean by the “chaos of memory”? Memory of course is never always accurate. Bits go missing and bits are sometimes given new meanings depending upon circumstance, context and time. The objects I collect also possess memory. It is visible in the physical traces of the item’s use: knife marks on a plate, scratches on a sterling spoon or spots of plate loss on a silverplate coffeepot.
There is memory in the engraved initials on silver flatware and holloware. For example, on the back of a Wendt Medallion teaspoon is engraved FPK from WKP. The spoon was obviously given as a gift from one person to another, but I do not know their names, or relationship or the occasion for which the spoon was given. Nor do I know if this teaspoon was part of a larger set, now dispersed. So, the memory that inhabits these objects of silver and pottery is vague, undefined, unknowable and in a sense chaotic. I feel and see traces of their past, but I can never really know the whole story.
In her book, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Susan Stewart states, “(Collecting) is a “strategy of desire” whose task is the ever-impossible effort to bridge the gap between expression and experience.” This is an intriguing quote. At first Stewart defines collecting as carefully considered plan or method which is designed specifically to achieve a goal. Yet, on the other hand, this “strategy” is one of desire. Desire is never careful or well thought out or contained or reduced to a few considered moves to attain a goal. To need, to want, to covet is to a degree not restricted within boundaries or limits. To desire is to be unbound. Yet, a collector does need a strategy, a plan to avoid the utter chaos which Benjamin considered to be at least in part an aspect of collecting.
The conflict within the Stewart quote continues. She states that the strategy is itself “the ever-impossible effort to bridge the gap between expression and experience.” So, there is a careful plan that is “ever-impossible” and that cannot “bridge the gap between” knowledge and symbolism. The experience of the object in a collection is what can be learned through direct observation. For a piece of silver, I am usually able to discern the maker, sometimes a retailer, style, date, engraving, weight, composition, value and condition in terms of damage, crispness of the pattern, etc. The discovery of this information is readily available in books and on the Internet.
But, this knowledge does not explain the “expression” of the piece, its symbolism, its meaning, its emotion in a general sense as well as in terms of myself the collector. For example, here is a large berry spoon in the Imperial Queen pattern by Whiting. I know the maker Whiting, the retailer Frank Herschede of Columbus, Ohio, the pattern name, its Rococo inspired style, the relative date: the pattern was introduced 1893, it has an engraved S on the front of the handle, it is of medium weight, it is made of sterling with a gold washed bowl, I paid a fair price for it and it is in very good condition.
But why did I need/want/covet this spoon? What does it symbolize and express in general and for me in particular? It is evocative of the Gilded Age in its ornate and elaborate shell motif. I am attracted to its form. As I stated above, I like shell motifs in flatware especially the over the top patterns of the late 19th century like Imperial Queen.
Yet, what this berry spoon means to me is more ineffable beyond my attraction to its form and content. In part, my own desire to collect is a vital need to connect to the past, to concrete objects that have an aura. These items of silver and pottery were all previously owned and witnessed the lives of the people who owned them. Who was S? These objects were invested with love or not, memories, utility, a need to showoff and keep up with the neighbors. They are imbued with something I cannot name or quite discern, but it speaks to me and gladdens my heart beyond just its knowledge/appearance/information/value.
For me, the things I gather also stand against a ever-expanding technology which has continually effaced the body and to a degree isolated people from one another. In contrast, these items are a source of permanence and resistance in our transitory culture in which capitalism is always offering us new things to buy and encourages us to simply throw away what is old, unfashionable and outdated. These objects are of course part of their own capitalist moment, (for example the absolute infinity of specialized silver utensils for almost every food was in itself a marketing strategy: dinner fork, luncheon fork, pastry fork, cake fork, ramekin fork, strawberry fork, terrapin fork, oyster fork), but they have survived and endured.
I think of this survival every time I use a piece of my silver or a pottery plate or bowl at a dinner, brunch or dessert soiree. It gives me great pleasure to use these items and share them with my guests. These objects with a past, a memory are being now imbued with new memories, new desire, new use and I hope that long after I am dead, these items of silver and pottery will find themselves in another collection and my traces on or in them will prevail and their adventure will continue.