Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - March 12, 2010

A passion for plates

Platters dish up a soupçon of history

by Carol Blitzer

Most of us have eaten off those lovely blue-and-white plates, decorated with everything from hunting scenes to floral patterns. The most famous — and most common — is Blue Willow, with its enchanting tea-house setting.

But few can match Palo Altan Judie Siddall's passion for transferware, a style of pottery made by tracing a design — often an original botanical print — directly onto the ceramic. Siddall will be sharing her passion, and her knowledge gleaned over a lifetime, in a class focusing on botanical and floral prints used in transferware at Gamble Garden on March 21.

Illustrating her lecture with a PowerPoint presentation, Siddall will also provide hands-on opportunities to see and feel transferware up close and to compare the designs on the platters, bowls and pitchers with the prints. Participants are invited to bring a piece or two of their own to the session, where Siddall will offer her expertise on their origin.

An English-literature major, with a minor in history, Siddall was always attracted to blue-and-white ceramics, beginning with her grandmother's Flow Blue wedding china (her grandmother was married in London in 1903).

Flow Blue is actually early transferware, in which cobalt-oxide dye was absorbed by pottery and further blurred in the glazing process by mixing with lime — an "accident that made pottery popular," Siddall said. An early pioneer in the process was Josiah Wedgwood.

She bought her first piece in 1977, a blue plate she picked up in Oakland for $35. Later she learned it dated back to the 1820s, truly a find.

Why a passion for transferware?

"You fall in love, just like with a boy- or girlfriend," she said.

Soon she was spending every waking hour looking into the history of ceramics, learning they were mainly created in Staffordshire, England, in the late 18th through the 20th century. She's made trips to England, visiting the potteries, including the Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent before it closed in 2007.

Because of her self-described "insatiable" interest about finding things out, she became the youngest member of the San Francisco Ceramics Circle in the late 1970s. Then she haunted antique shows, bought books and later began searching on the computer.

All the while she was either teaching high school English or children at Pre-School Family in Palo Alto, where she worked for more than 25 years.

By 1990, her husband, David Hoexter, gave her an ultimatum: Either stop collecting transferware or go into business. So she began Merlin Antiques, often traveling to nearby antique shows. Today she mainly sells through her website, www.merlinantiques.com.

Although she's no longer teaching, she doesn't spend all of her time on her business. She's now a pattern editor (and membership secretary) for the Transferware Collectors Club, helping to create a database of the tens of thousands of china patterns. So far, club volunteers have entered 5,100 patterns — 829 by Siddall.

The database not only includes photographs of a pattern, but the source print as well.

Many of those prints were by best-selling naturalists, back in the days when copyright laws were largely ignored, Siddall said.

She and two friends started the club in 1998, and it's grown to 365 members throughout the world, but mainly in the U.S. and Europe. The group publishes a quarterly bulletin and meets once a year, last year in Bristol, England, and this year in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Siddall said she loves most transferware but prefers those pieces made between 1800 and 1835. After 1842, she describes the pottery as "more romantic, more stylized, not based on a source print."

The rarest (and most valuable) she's seen depict scenes of early America, such as an Arms of Pennsylvania platter, which sold for $35,000 at auction. Even a damaged one went for $16,000 a few years ago, she said. One can see a platter on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The most common are plates, since most middle-class folks had at least 24 in any service for 12, which can sell for anywhere from $125 to $400 per plate.

Her personal favorites are anything with an animal — from lions and tigers to hyenas. And she's very fond of hollow pieces — jugs, pitchers, coffee pots. But her home collection is very broad: She has everything from a footbath to a platter with a cartoon depicting a man advertising for a wife, plus oddities such as knife rests, a ceramic toast rack and a small dog dish.

Some of the scenes depicted, such as the bee master, are really little slices of history. The scene shows a beekeeper handing off a hive to a newly married couple.

"You learn a lot about history" while researching the pieces, she said.

She mainly catalogues animal or children's patterns. Her personal collection includes a child's plate called "Early Sorrow" depicting the death of a bird and a mug that says "A Grandmother's Gift," dating back to 1820.

Siddall's knowledge of transferware is encyclopedic. She easily rattles off how early transferware arrived on U.S. soil, mainly as ballast on sailing ships after the War of 1812.

Today her Palo Verde Eichler is filled with 800 pieces of transferware; about 300 of them are photographed and available for sale on her website. Not all are blue and white: By the 1830s potteries mastered techniques that allowed them to produce pink, red, yellow, green, and eventually purple and brown. Siddall said the brown is becoming popular today because it complements more contemporary furnishings.

READ MORE ONLINE

For more Home and Real Estate news, visit www.paloaltoonline.com/real_estate.

What: Botanical Patterns on English Transferware

When: Sunday, March 21, 2 to 4:30 p.m.

Where: Gamble Garden Carriage House, 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto

Cost: $40 for nonmembers, $30 for members

Info: Call 650-329-1356 or visit www.gamblegarden.org.

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be e-mailed at cblitzer@paweekly.com.

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