In 1974, an extraordinary figural object was donated to the New-York Historical Society as part of a group of objects passed down through a prominent New York family. Accessioned and erroneously cataloged as a “porcelain seated lady” of questionable date, it was placed in storage. During recent recataloging of the historical society’s collections, however, this exciting object was rediscovered and subsequently identified as a rare and important seventeenth-century English delft salt.
Made in London, the salt takes the form of a seated young man, probably a servant or waiter, holding an oval basin (fig. 1). The press-molded figure is wearing a decorative open-necked tunic, stockings, and square-toed shoes, all delineated in cobalt with green highlights. The basin on his lap is decorated with cobalt scrolls and bears the initials “P” over “I S” and the date “1673” (fig. 2). Molded examples of delft were produced in far fewer numbers than wheel-turned forms, partially because of the coarse clays used by English and continental potters. Surviving delft animal and figural forms are, thus, exceedingly rare.
The historical society’s salt, the only one of its type in an American museum, increases the number of known examples to five. Only two others are dated: a 1657 example with candleholders applied to the back of the seated figure, and a 1676 figure that holds a flat, star-shaped tray. The other known examples were made between 1655 and 1680.They are related to Flemish prototypes from the late sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries that were inspired by Italian maiolica. The elaborate form and decorative detail lavished on these figural salts reflects the great value placed on salt as a commodity. Prized as a preservative and a seasoning, salt played a central role in seventeenth-century cuisine and occupied a prominent place on the dining table.
The historical society’s example is unique because of its possible American provenance. The salt was a gift from Mrs. Nathaniel McLean Sage on behalf of her friend Lucille de Luze Foley, a descendent of Major General Philip Schuyler (1733–1804). Also included in the bequest of family pieces were several examples of colonial American silver that descended in the Schuyler family. Prominent among the pieces was a footed salver made in New York about the same time as the 1695 marriage of Johannes and Elizabeth Staats Schuyler. Genealogical research is underway to determine whether the initials in the salt’s basin can be linked to a member of the extended Schuyler family.
In November 2000, the salt was placed on permanent exhibition in the historical society’s Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, a newly constructed study facility housing 40,000 fine and decorative arts items from the society’s permanent collection.
Margaret K. Hofer
Associate Curator of Decorative Arts
The New-York Historical Society
Figural salt, polychrome decoration, London, dated 1673. Tin-glazed earthenware. H. 7 3/4". (Courtesy, New-York Historical Society.)
Detail of date and initials in the basin of the figure illustrated in fig. 1. (Courtesy, New-York Historical Society.)
Michael Archer, Delftware: The Tin-Glazed Earthenware of the British Isles: A Catalogue of the Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London: Stationery Office, 1997), p. 325
Leslie B. Grigsby, The Longridge Collection of English Slipware and Delftware, 2 vols. (London: Jonathan Horne Publications, 2000), vol. 2: 236–37.
These examples are recorded in Grigsby, The Longridge Collection of English Slipware and Delftware, and in Bernard Rackham, Catalogue of the Glaisher Collection of Pottery and Porcelain in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935).