Collections Spotlight: China Painting

By Kate Hesseldenz, Curator

China Painting Blog illustration one

Plates. Liberty Hall Historic Site has a lot of them. I know this because I’ve been doing an inventory of the museum’s collection. Some of the more interesting ones (if plates can be interesting!) are a series of nineteen hand-painted plates dating to the 1880s. The designs are floral scenes and they are all painted on Haviland and Co. Limoges porcelain from France.  Some are signed by Brown family women.

In late 19th-century America, china decorating was a popular hobby for middle- and upper-class women.  In this period after the Civil War, wealthy women engaged in artistic pursuits because they had more leisure time than ever before.[i]  In fact, the first line of a manual about china painting states “The art of painting on china is certainly a beautiful one, and is, perhaps peculiarly fitted to be an agreeable pastime for persons of leisure.”[ii]

These amateur painters often created scenes with floral or fruit decoration in a naturalistic style. They purchased blanks at local stores and took lessons or learned from manuals at home.  One such manual was written by Mary Louise McLaughlin, China Painting: A Practical Manual for the use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain, 1877.  McLaughlin was from Cincinnati and she and Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, also a china painter and the founder of Rookwood Pottery, created early interest in china painting. The china painting movement began in the 1870s and lasted through the first quarter of the 20th century. 

Eliza Eloise (Brown) Baily (1845-1923), a grand daughter of John Brown, seems to have been a china painter.   Three of the plates in the series are signed and dated by the decorator, “EEB” and “1888,” and eight plates are signed with an embellished “B.”   Eliza, or “Lylie” as she was called, was married to Army Surgeon J.C. Baily and lived in Virginia after her marriage and later in Texas. In 1888, Eliza’s husband was stationed in New York City.  After her husband’s death in 1894, Eliza moved to Frankfort and lived at Liberty Hall with her two widowed sisters, Mary Yoder Brown Scott and Margaretta Brown Barret.   It is possible that Eliza Baily painted these in New York or while visiting her sisters in Frankfort.  Five of the plates bear the signature of “S” and they could have been painted by Eliza’s sister Mary Yoder Brown Scott or Mary’s daughter, Mary Mason Scott, who also lived at Liberty Hall during this time.

China Painting Blog illustration two

As wealthy women who did not work outside the home, the Brown women were perfect candidates for china painting.  Lessons and blanks were available in Frankfort during the 1880s and 1890s.  The Frankfort Roundabout newspaper includes ads for both.  In an 1886 ad, a store advertises, “New shapes in Haviland's French China for painting at Day & Huff's.”[iii]  An 1895 ad states “Miss Natalie Sawyier has rented a studio in the new Todd building and desires to take pupils in china painting water colors and drawing.”[iv] The decorators often displayed the finished plates as artwork on their sideboards, mantels, or in china cupboards.[v]  

Today Americans are confined to their homes and some are becoming amateur artists like the Brown women. Creating art of all kinds or doing something as simple as coloring in coloring books allows people ways to express their artistic talent. Who knows china painting may come back into vogue?

To view all of the plates in this series, click here and search "plate."

China Painting Blog illustration 3

Endnotes

[i] Brandimarte, Cynthia A. “Somebody's Aunt and Nobody's Mother: The American China Painter and Her Work, 1870-1920.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 23, no. 4 (1988): 203–24.  Accessed April 17, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/1181199.

[ii] McLauglin, Mary Louise, China Painting: A Practical Manual for the use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain (1880): Robert Clarke & Co., Cincinnati

[iii] Frankfort Roundabout newspaper, October 9, 1886

[iv] Frankfort Roundabout newspaper, March 2, 1895

[v] Brandimarte, Cynthia A. “Somebody's Aunt and Nobody's Mother: The American China Painter and Her Work, 1870-1920.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 23, no. 4, (1988): 203–24. Accessed April 17, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/1181199.


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