Review by Carl L. Crossman
The Unforgiving Minute

David S. Howard. The Unforgiving Minute. Durham, Eng.: Memoir Club, 2004. 464 pp.; bw illus. throughout; index. £25 (hardcover).

It was at the suggestion of his wife Angela that David Howard wrote his memoirs. The Unforgiving Minute and his other two major publications of the past decade, A Tale of Three Cities and the monumental Chinese Armorial Porcelain II, were written while David was fighting cancer.[1] These represent three remarkable publications by one remarkable man. He began work on the present book in September 2003 and began transfusions in October; by the end of November he was told he had two or three months to live. It is extraordinary that he was able to persevere, despite leukemia, for sixteen months and produce a book of 464 pages, as well as work on other projects. Given these circumstances, a certain lack of editing in two or three of the sections can be forgiven. As Angela has stated, it was more important for the book to be published while David was alive than to tackle revisions that were beyond his physical limits.

The Unforgiving Minute begins with David’s early years. Born in 1928, the first child of a successful businessman and his wife who were both from old-line English families, he is brief in his descriptions and mentions only the highlights of a happy childhood, shared with one other sibling. While he was at the preparatory school Belmont, World War II broke out, and concern for student safety led to the closing of the school on the coast and its removal to a pre-Georgian house farther north. At the close of the term, the suggestion was made to move the school to the Bahamas in case of invasion. At the time of the Battle of Britain, the school was evacuated to Clerihew House in Nassau, owned by an American entrepreneur named Harry Oakes, knighted in England, who generously offered it to the school.[2] The story of an English schoolboy’s life in Nassau is perhaps the most delightful part of this book. The return to England in January 1944 is described modestly but must have been a hair-raising experience with war raging in the Atlantic Ocean. The route home was circuitous, flying from Nassau to Miami, traveling by train to New York for visas, back to New Orleans by train, boarding a neutral ship heading for Lisbon, again by plane to Ireland, and thence to England. What an adventure in the middle of the war for a sixteen year old!

After two years at Stowe, the war just over, David was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards, the oldest regiment in the prestigious Brigade of Guards, with the plan of going to university after he had served his time of duty. He was sent to Palestine, where the ever-interested, ever-observant young platoon commander enjoyed the extensive archaeological ruins of the Middle East and explored Petra. He returned to England two years later and wrote to Trinity College, Cambridge, that he would not take up the scholarship held for him. Rather, he had decided to go into business and travel. David joined Bridport Industries, a family business with his uncle and other relations being chairman and directors. Bridport was a manufacturer of cording and twine, especially the sports nets used for tennis and cricket. For outside interests, he became an active member of the Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society and captained the Dorchester Rugby Club, again illustrating the vast breadth of his accomplishments.

In 1952 David married his first wife, Elizabeth, with whom he had four children. Throughout this period David’s interest in heraldry burgeoned, first working on his own ancestry and then identifying coats of arms for others. It was in this manner that he was introduced to armorial Chinese export porcelain. He became fascinated by the collection of porcelains owned by Cecil Bullivant, who, after David had identified the arms on some six hundred pieces in his possession, introduced him to other collectors and owners. It was Bullivant who convinced David he should write a book on the subject. David drove throughout England photographing and cataloging armorial export porcelain in anticipation of publishing. While working on his future tome, he traveled extensively throughout Europe for Bridport. In 1962 he decided to leave the company and join Arnolds, the largest school supply business in England. This job would lead to extensive travel all over the world, including Africa, India, and the Middle East. It is difficult to understand how a man who traveled so much and was raising a family was able to write the most comprehensive volume on Chinese armorial porcelain ever printed.

David’s first major volume, Chinese Armorial Porcelain,[3] had been greeted with great surprise and enthusiasm by collectors and scholars of Chinese export porcelain. No such comprehensive volume on the subject of armorial porcelains for the British market had ever been produced, and its sheer size reflected years of research and writing. The last book published by Oxford University Press in letterpress format, it broke new ground with David’s insistence that each illustration be placed with the relevant text.[4] Containing 1,034 pages and hundreds upon hundreds of illustrations, it became an invaluable resource; the cover of my own copy has broken away and the edges of the pages are soiled from use.

David was well aware at the time that perhaps as many as three or four thousand additional armorial services might have been produced for which he had no visual record. In 1974, after the publication of the first volume, he began collecting photographs and documentation to extend his study. Thanks to his broad contacts with collectors, dealers, old aristocratic English families, auction houses, and museums, he was able to amass the material for a second volume. His enthusiasm, modesty, and energy infected all he met, and the ceramics world was more than willing to supply illustrations and information. Through his shop—first in London and later at Manor Farm near Chippenham, Wiltshire—the Internet, and his extensive correspondence, he was able to glean more than 1,300 new armorial examples for the British market. The second volume is almost entirely in color with some 2,000 illustrations, greatly adding to the ease of identification.

Both volumes reflect an innate sense of organization. The idea of arranging the services by border patterns, with introductory examples at the beginning of the book, was brilliant. Only someone with the most comprehensive knowledge of heraldry could write such entries for each example of porcelain. David’s ability to compare services owned by different families and by members within the same families reveals an understanding of his subject that few other authors have attained.[5] And to think that all of this research and writing were done while running a business and lecturing extensively in the United States and Great Britain! The appendixes in both volumes are as enlightening and fascinating as the text and illustrations.[6] The appendix of family mottoes, for example, saves hours of time looking through the various services for the correct coat of arms.

When the first book was published in 1974, David decided to leave Arnolds and open his own heraldry shop at Hay Hill in London. This would enable him to make lecture tours, especially to the United States, which was to be the source of a large number of his clients. In the meantime, David had been approached by Mildred and Rafi Mottahedeh in New York. Their collection of Chinese export porcelain was legendary, and they wanted it published as a reference source for other collectors and curators. It was David who, with John Ayers, was to write the two-volume China for the West, published in 1978, which records this extraordinary collection that has now been dispersed throughout the world.[7]

David’s A Tale of Three Cities was produced for the Sotheby’s London exhibition commemorating the transfer of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997. The exhibition followed in the tradition of a number of significant China trade exhibitions that contributed greatly to the understanding of the imported exotic and practical products and the impact of the China trade on the West, beginning with the one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1941.[8] David’s first major China trade exhibition in 1984, including all of the objects made for export to the West, not just ceramics, was “New York and the China Trade” at the New-York Historical Society.[9] Later that same year David was guest curator for an impressive heraldry exhibition commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of the College of Arms, London. The catalog accompanying Patrick Conner’s exhibition “The China Trade, 1600–1860,” held two years later at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England, included contributions from David.[10] Thus it was only natural that he should be the person to organize the show and write the Three Cities catalog for Sotheby’s. David was the honorary curator of the project, while others in the field contributed to the catalog. The exhibition and catalog were equally comprehensive in their coverage of the subject, with sections on porcelain, lacquer, furniture, paintings, textiles, and metals, all tied together with documents, historical background, and survivals from dated shipwrecks. David did the research and writing for this immense production while undergoing treatment for cancer. The exhibition opened to rave reviews, and the beautifully illustrated and well-arranged catalog is a required addition to any library on the China trade.

David became a consultant for Stair and Company and began his extensive and well-known lecture tours throughout the United States. I was fortunate enough to lecture in a number of symposia with David. He always had a fresh approach to his subject and infected the audience with his enthusiasm. His recollections of the lecture tours in the book drag a bit and would have benefited from more careful editing to focus on the highlights alternating with the author’s writing, publishing, and business pursuits.

Over the years David moved his business from Hay Hill to Grafton Street, then to Bath, and finally to Wiltshire. He and Angela generously and graciously entertained house guests from the museum and collecting world; the list of their guests reads as a who’s who of the ceramics world. The last section of the autobiography relates the stories behind the exhibitions and publications, the extensive lecture tours, the recording of a full and busy life. In 1994 he published The Choice of the Private Trader, a beautifully illustrated catalog from the collection of Leo and Doris Hodroff, part of which is now at the Winterthur Museum.[11] This included in its introductory chapters previously unpublished information from the East India Company records on the role of the private trader and the way in which the company auctions worked.

One of the most enduring qualities of this recollection is the modesty with which it is told. There is no effort to impress or overwhelm the reader with the importance of the author’s accomplishments. The story is told in the same self-effacing manner with which he had led his entire life. Although there are times one might put down the book, saturated with information and names, until another reading, it is a fascinating record of a fully led life—a life of diversity, far-flung interests, intellectual pursuits, research, exhibition talents, sports, the arts, acting, gardening, travel. I know of few people who can say they have used their time so well, for their own pleasure and the pleasure of others. I am only thankful that David was able to leave us this memoir as a reminder of what can be accomplished in a single person’s life, and that he had the dedication and drive to produce such a work under the direst of circumstances. A fitting reward for his heroic efforts was for him to have seen it published.

Carl L. Crossman, Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Ceramics in America 2006

  • [1]

    David S. Howard, A Tale of Three Cities: Canton, Shanghai, and Hong Kong; Sino-British Trade in the Decorative Arts (London: Sotheby’s, 1997); idem, Chinese Armorial Porcelain II (Wiltshire, Eng.: Heirloom and Howard, 2003).

  • [2]

    Within a year, the murder of Sir Harry Oakes was to become a cause célèbre, implicating even the governor, the duke of Windsor.

  • [3]

    David S. Howard, Chinese Armorial Porcelain (London: Faber and Faber, 1974).

  • [4]

    Traditionally, for the sake of economy, the photos in art books had been placed at the back. 

  • [5]

    The two volumes are necessary companions. In the first, the introductory chapters explain the history of the trade and Chinese export porcelain with such headings as “The Hon. East India Company,” “Canton,” “The Porcelain and Its Painting,” “The Armigerous Families,” “Heraldry and Chinese Painters,” and “Collections and the Salesroom.” Only a dealer very familiar with the trade could have written the last chapter and the similar but more comprehensive one on the analysis of prices paid in the second volume.

    Chinese Armorial Porcelain II does not go over the old introductory territory of the history of the trade and porcelain but adds new and equally important chapters: “Reflections, Replacements, Reproductions and Revival,” “Of Counters, Carriages and Bookplates”—the sources of inspiration for the Chinese decorators of porcelain—“Scotland and the Swedish East India Company,” and “The Market during the Last Century and in the Future.” Therefore, for a comprehensive overview of the trade and manufacture as well as later history of sales, both volumes are mandatory, yet each can stand alone. Although the first volume has long been out of print, Angela’s intention is still to fully revise and publish, in the next few years, a second edition of volume 1, in color, to match volume 2. This will include a Supplement 3 for all the newly discovered services (more than two hundred to date) not in either volume.

  • [6]

    Appendixes cover the governors of India, the directors of the Hon. East India Company, the captains, supercargoes, Bombay Country ships, lords mayor of London, City of London livery societies, analysis of occupations of owners of services, analysis by county of families with services, known bookplate originals of armorial services, and—last but not least—the invaluable list of mottoes on armorial porcelains.

  • [7]

    David S. Howard and John Ayers, China for the West: Chinese Porcelain and Other Decorative Arts for Export Illustrated from the Mottahedeh Collection, 2 vols. (London and New York: Sotheby Parke-Bernet, 1978).

  • [8]

    The China Trade and Its Influences, exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1941). This show was followed in 1954 by an exhibition and catalog at the Los Angeles County Museum, American Ships in the China Trade (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum, 1955). My exhibition of China trade paintings and objects at the Peabody Museum and book, Carl L. Crossman, The China Trade: Export Paintings, Furniture, Silver, and Other Objects (Princeton, N.J.: Pyne Press) followed in 1972. My second book, The Decorative Arts of the China Trade (Woodbridge, Suffolk, Eng.: Antique Collectors’ Club) was published in 1991. A comprehensive show at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in the late 1970s (Kee Il Choi Jr., The China Trade: Romance and Reality [Lincoln, Mass.: DeCordova Museum, 1979]), emphasized life in Canton and the China trade. The exhibit, which ran from June 22 to September 16, 1979, was organized with the Museum of the American China Trade, Milton, Massachusetts. From the early 1960s until its merger with the Peabody Essex Museum, the Museum of the American China Trade, founded by Crosby Forbes, made a major impact on the field with its rotating exhibitions and outstanding collections.

  • [9]

    David S. Howard, New York and the China Trade, exh. cat. (New York: New-York Historical Society; Frenchtown, N.J.: Columbia Publishing, 1984). 

  • [10]

    Patrick Conner, with contributions by David S. Howard and Rosemary R. Wallis, The China Trade, 1600–1860 (Brighton: Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery, and Museums, 1986). 

  • [11]

    David S. Howard, The Choice of the Private Trader: The Private Market in Chinese Export Porcelain Illustrated from the Hodroff Collection (London: Zwemmer, 1994).