Gallery Glance: ‘Castles, Cottages and Crime’ at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

This Staffordshire Mantel Ornament in the form of “Stanfield Hall” is on view in “Castles, Cottages and Crime.” Measuring just over 5 inches tall, it was made of glazed earthenware with polychrome enamel decorations about 1849–1860. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

Shortly after his arrival as deputy director of curatorial affairs at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in February 2020, William Keyse Rudolph began exploring the museum’s storage areas. There he discovered a collection of Staffordshire objects that had been donated by Richard A. Wood in memory of his wife, Virginia Conklin Wood, in 1978, when they were accessioned as part of the reserve collection. Four decades later, Rudolph decided it was time for the Wood collection to be re-assessed, researched, and see the light of day after more than four decades. The works were formally accessioned in 2021, and viewers can now enjoy them in the exhibit “Castles, Cottages and Crime.”

The tiny houses were created between 1840 and 1860 by several pottery makers in Staffordshire. The glazed earthenware pieces were mass-produced from molds, embellished with bits of color and gilding before being purchased by Britain’s working and middle classes. While they might have served as a bit of decoration for a mantel, they also offered an ancient form of air freshener. Pastilles, or wooden discs infused with perfumed oils, such as rose and eucalyptus, were burned inside the miniature abodes, simultaneously banishing 19th-century odors and allowing picturesque smoke to escape through the chimneys and windows.

Jean Churchman, daughter of Virginia Conklin Wood, recounted how her mother began to collect the little buildings. Wood loved going antiquing with her friends, but ultimately decided that it would be even more enjoyable if she had something specific (and inexpensive) to look for on their outings. One of her friends visited Canada and brought her a Staffordshire piece from that trip, launching the birth of her collection.

Churchman also knew exactly when her mother acquired her first piece of Staffordshire: 1939. Wood kept a detailed account in a notebook, recording every purchase and the price paid; usually they cost no more than $5 or $10. Wood managed to amass more than 200 examples of Staffordshire ceramics, which were divvied up between friends and family after a small group was designated for the museum.

While researching the objects, Rudolph discovered that some of the edifices depicted had been the locales for notorious murders. British tabloids became very popular during the 19th century, especially when they reported lurid details of crimes. Churchman said her mother had had absolutely no idea that there was any connection between some of the ceramics and their homicidal history.

The whimsical appeal of the works belies the somewhat crude construction. Meant to be seen only from the front, their backs remained unfinished. Many were embellished with oversized flowers, which Rudolph explained were a kind of Victorian shorthand for nature. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the English thatched roof cottage became a nostalgic symbol for a simpler time, adding to its charm.

While it is always illuminating to discover rarely shown artworks from the vaults of an institution such as the Nelson, some might feel that these pieces are not “museum-quality.” Rudolph does not agree. “One of the things that a museum does is to show the range of human creativity. If we get hung up on a hierarchy of quality, we inadvertently become exclusionary. The question of ‘Whose standards are these?’ could rightfully be asked.”

“Castles, Cottages and Crime” continues at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak. St., through March 6. For hours, COVID-19 protocols and more information, visit www.nelson-atkins.org.

Nan Chisholm

Nan Chisholm is an art consultant and appraiser of 19th- and 20th-century paintings. After a long association with Sotheby’s, she founded her own business in 2003. She has appeared as a fine art appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow” since its inception in 1995.

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