By Cyndi Sommers, Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts
Inside a cupboard in the recently restored butler’s pantry at the Owens-Thomas House, sits a 109-piece set of hand-painted Limoges porcelain dinnerware, which rarely sees the light of day! That is because it was made and decorated in a later era than the museum currently interprets to the public. Despite being quite utilitarian and simply decorated, the dinner service has great sentimental value because the decorator was our benefactor Margaret Gray Thomas (1871-1951), who bequeathed the house and its contents to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences (now Telfair Museums).
China painting became fashionable as part of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the 1870s–1890s. Special schools formed across America in a manner similar to sewing circles. Wealthy young women of leisure painted china as a hobby, with the more accomplished artists participating in exhibits and juried shows. In the early 1890s Caroline Harrison, wife of President Benjamin Harrison, held a series of china painting classes in the White House conservatory.
Margaret Thomas, her sister Maud, and their friends painted china as a hobby in Savannah during their late teenage years. My co-worker Nancy Warth owns a plate painted by Miss Thomas, originally given to her grandmother Emma Sutliffe Cabiness (1869–1952), who was a friend to the Thomas sisters.
Limoges porcelain was produced by a number of factories in the Limoges region of France from the late 1700s until around 1930. These factories primarily produced elaborately molded white wares. The undecorated pieces, also known as blanks, were taken to decorating studios away from the factory, or exported without decoration. Margaret Thomas’ grandmother, Sarah W. Owens, owned a lovely set of porcelain dinner plates from France, made and hand-painted in the factory, c.1835.
England’s potteries also trained and employed women to do hand painting in their factories. Some of the porcelain produced was partially decorated and glazed, leaving blank spaces designed for hand-painted decorations. This plate has a transfer-print center design and beautiful cobalt blue glaze. The florals are all hand painted.
The sugar bowl pictured in the gallery above, marked with a T, belonged to Miss Thomas. It comes from the William Lycett Studios in Atlanta (1883–1909), which was famous for hand-painted porcelain decoration.
The next time you’re in an antique shop looking at pretty plates, run your finger gently over the surface (I won’t tell!), or tilt and catch the light just right to see if the paint is over the shiny glaze, and you’ll be able to discern whether or not it was hand-painted. I always wonder who it was that did the painting. If you buy a hand-painted plate, be sure to only wash it by hand. A dishwasher will scrub the paint off pretty quickly. Happy hunting!