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Review by Amy C. Earls
A Fragile Union: The Story of Louise Herreshoff

James W. Whitehead. A Fragile Union: The Story of Louise Herreshoff. Richmond, Va.: Celeste Dervaes Whitehead, 2003. xiv + 218 pp.; 28 bw and 14 color illus., genealogical chart. $27.95.

Part biography, part narrative of a collection’s disposition, this privately published slim volume is a fun read for anyone interested in the late-twentieth-century American antiques market. The author, James Whitehead, is a former university administrator who became the first director of the Reeves Center for the Research and Exhibition of Porcelain and Paintings as a result of his role in acquiring the collection of Euchlin and Louise Herreshoff Reeves. Although touching only lightly on specifics of the ceramics collection, the book made this reader want to see the collection and its catalogs.[1] 

I will not reveal the details for fear of spoiling the tale of how Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, acquired the 1,800-piece Reeves collection (expanded to nearly 3,000 pieces in the thirty-seven years since then) except to point out that serendipity can be as strong a factor in the eventual disposition of a collection as in its acquisition. “For [Whitehead] it was a new world, entered into by accidental circumstances, following the receipt at the University of a penny postcard” (p. xix). This seventeenth- through nineteenth-century study collection of decorative and fine arts is most famous for its Chinese porcelain but also includes eighteenth-century English porcelain, white salt-glazed stoneware, and Meissen, Sèvres, and other continental porcelains. 

The collection makes tantalizing appearances in the book during Whitehead’s first visit with Euchlin in Providence, being glimpsed in the Reeves residence, filling the unheated dark “little museum” next door, and in the form of pieces on loan to the Rhode Island Historical Society’s exhibition on decorative arts from 1730 to 1810. The sheer quantity of the collection lent urgency to plans for its eventual disposition: “The highly personal collection that began as an orderly display of antiques for [the Reeves’] pleasure and viewing by friends and other collectors slowly became unmanageable” (p. 138). 

The author’s point of view as a ceramics novice, nonplussed by terms such as famille rose and uncertain how to reconcile Euchlin Reeves’s apparently modest lifestyle with his wife’s old-money connections, provides an effective introduction to the collection. New to the field as he was, he could not at first appreciate or evaluate the Reeves collection. As the university’s treasurer, however, he knew in a crass sense that “200 barrels of anything had value” (p. 155). How an officer of the university’s board of trustees became the first director of the Reeves Center is suggested rather than explicitly addressed in this book, as is the issue of how and why Louise Reeves became a collector. Also not addressed explicitly is the answer to students’ question of why Washington and Lee University needed all those dishes. Perhaps this omission is intentional, however, meant to direct interested readers to the collection or its catalogs for more information.

While planning an exhibition center for the collection, Euchlin Reeves recommended auction catalogs and books on ceramics and eighteenth-century history to the author, whose efforts at self-education continued through unpacking, washing, and sorting the pots on campus in the evenings. “A detective game of sorts began as we assembled items from the same service, identifying the country of origin and the manufacturer. Excitement filled the room when the cover of a tureen with an armorial coat of arms matched and fit a bowl or base unpacked and placed on a shelf several weeks or months before. The same was true of matching a cup with its saucer, or finding the warm milk creamer that completed an English, French or Chinese tea set” (p. 167). Although catalogs and online virtual collections serve important functions, they cannot replace learning by handling the pots.

Another aspect of Whitehead’s self-education strategy was to bring in experts, many of them the dealers who had sold the pieces to the Reeves. Famous names in the antiques world surface in the text and acknowledgments: collectors, dealers, museum curators, auction-house specialists, Antiques, and the Decorative Arts Trust all had connections with the Reeves collection. The tale of Louise Reeves buying a Hong bowl from Elinor Gordon whet my appetite (unfortunately in vain) for anecdotes by Jeff Miller, John Austin, David Sanctuary Howard, John Cushion, and William Sargent about the collection and the American antiques market. 

Although Euchlin comes across as a name-dropper during Whitehead’s visit to Providence, he possibly was belaboring the point in reaction to his guest’s confusion about the collection’s value. The collection’s historical associations with New England china traders and figures such as the Washingtons, Lees, and Van Rensselaers (p. 136) make a certain amount of name-dropping inevitable. David Sanctuary Howard’s work on heraldry and armorial porcelain shows the research potential of biographical china in terms of dating and historical context. 

Whitehead’s description of Euchlin Reeves serving him a glass of Manhattan Cocktail mix in a clear jelly glass and supper on two dime-store Willow plates is an endearing snapshot (p. 139). Perhaps the Reeves’ everyday dishes were a function of mixed auction lots, not being able to throw away any pot, and innate frugality. “Should they see one item in a large lot, they would buy the entire assortment. In doing so they would keep all the unimportant pieces—inexpensive plates, cups and saucers given as premiums at local movie theatres on Saturday nights and dishes given with the purchase of gasoline added to their eclectic accumulation” (p. 158). 

I disliked Tom Wolfe’s foreword, which primarily demonstrates that he knows much less about collecting than about fiction. Wolfe unduly raises expectations for a tale that, though with tragic aspects, evokes not Dickens but Alice Earle Morse.[2] 

Although the author’s portrait of Euchlin Reeves is well rounded, the biographical sketch of Louise Herreshoff Reeves seems incomplete, given the book’s title, with the details of her youth and the touching glimpses of her last years out of balance with the paucity of detail on her collecting. Perhaps this perception is simply the result of my greater interest in collecting, collectors, and ceramics than in biography or fine art. Louise’s frustrated romance and her abbreviated career as an artist never evoked the wince of sympathy I felt as Whitehead described her collection overflowing the available space. Another factor may have been her inaccessibility, for she was in a nursing home during the time that the author was getting to know her husband.

How and when did Louise Herreshoff start collecting? She grew up among family porcelain, including Chinese porcelain teacups and French porcelain with a magenta band and gold lines (pp. 23, 25). If she bought a Meissen platter in the collection when she lived in Europe (p. 137), she must have been collecting while painting in France, before her aunt died and long before she met Reeves in the early 1950s. Unfortunately, none of her still-life paintings containing porcelain (pp. 68–69) is reproduced to illustrate Whitehead’s interesting tale of his rediscovery of Louise’s paintings and his efforts to have them recognized in the fine-art world. Louise Herreshoff apparently began collecting porcelain in earnest only after inheriting her father’s money in 1932—five years after her aunt’s death, an event that had caused her to stop painting. A stronger editorial hand might have brought the portraits of the Reeves, the collection, and the author’s relationship with the collection into better balance. 

Why do collectors collect? Although the author attributes the Reeves’ collecting to a desire for immortality, Louise commented while the collection was being packed, “Boy [Euchlin] liked objects belonging to historic American figures, and I love beautiful things” (p. 154). Whether their purchases appreciated as investments “was of no moment for they had the pleasure and excitement that came with the hunt, the find, the purchase and especially the possession” (pp. 166–67).

The author’s portrait of the Reeves’s relationship, told through interviews and family letters, seems fairly clear. Euchlin’s father was a principal in Dukes and Reeves Crockery and Fine China Store in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and Euchlin operated an antique shop with his brother. Louise and Euchlin met at a meeting of the Providence Pottery and Porcelain Club, “brought together by their mutual interest and passion for seeking out and acquiring antiques, she for the rare and beautiful, he for the old and historic” (p. 94). I cannot agree with the author that “Euc’s marriage to Louise, which some felt was for love and money, but not necessarily in that order, was undoubtedly a fragile union” (p. 114), as stated in the book’s title. After all, the marriage lasted twenty-five years. The affectionate notes from Euchlin to Louise that Whitehead discovered when unpacking Liverpool jugs and, most of all, the tender way in which the couple disposed of their collection, each wanting it to be a memorial to the other, reflect an enduring bond.

Amy C. Earls
Book and Exhibition Reviews Editor
Ceramics in America

Ceramics in America 2005

Contents
  • [1]

    Katharine G. Farnham and Callie H. Efird, Chinese Export Porcelain from the Reeves Collection at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia (Lexington, Va.: Washington and Lee University, 1973); and Thomas V. Litzenburg Jr., Chinese Export Porcelain in the Reeves Center Collection at Washington and Lee University (London: Third Millenium, 2003).

  • [2]

    Alice Morse Earle, China Collecting in America (Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1973 [orig. pub. 1892]).