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New Yorker Sidney Knafel has been collecting French faience since the 1960s. The entrepreneur shares with Apollo his passion for what he calls his 'friends', many of which are currently on view at the Frick Collection

Serendipity is an unsung heroine in the history of collecting. So many remarkable assemblages have begun with a chance encounter--a casual glance in a shop window, a visit to someone's home, a gift. New Yorker Sidney Knafel's curiosity was piqued by an impromptu purchase made by his late wife Susie in 1962. He had joined her in Paris where she had bought a gaily decorated but cracked 18th-century faience platter. It sparked a journey of discovery and a love affair with French faience that has endured for more than five decades, prompting a collection that has no rival in the United States, and probably only one or two peers in France. Some 75 of its treasures are currently on show at the Frick Collection, where they are a promised gift.

'The display is decimated,' warns Knafel as he ushers me into his double-height drawing room (Fig. 8). The 87-year-old entrepreneur has delayed his usual visit to the office on this Monday morning in October to show me the remainder of the collection. It is something of a surprise, therefore, to find plates, platters, dishes and sconces still lining all the walls, and to see every surface bearing some kind of vessel or figure--flasks, jugs, bowls, vases, chocolate pots, apothecary jars ... Even the floor in front of one of the full-length windows overlooking the Hudson River boasts an exuberant Nevers wine cooler decorated with Biblical and hunting scenes. It is not only books that furnish a room, it seems.

A closer look reveals broken symmetries and the telltale marks of absent friends. For Knafel, these pieces are friends. 'When I agreed to lend the faience, I had no idea how much I would miss them,' he explains, sounding genuinely bereft. As a consequence, various pieces have come out of drawers and Knafel's second wife, the potter and sculptor Londa Weisman, has been thinking up ingenious ways of reimagining them. On the far wall, for instance, she has made a kind of holographic three-dimensional image of a particularly rare plate of around 1645 from the Nevers workshop of Antoine Conrade, made in emulation of Chinese blue-and-white export porcelain created for the Middle Eastern market. In the study, figures from a mid 18th-century Rouen tray painted with a Teniers-style genre scene of a peasant country dance have been copied and cut out and set behind the tray's painted border. There have also been some new acquisitions.

'When Susie showed me that little Rouen platter, I didn't even know what faience was,' recalls the collector with a smile, pointing out the piece in question on the wall, the appropriate apex of a pyramidal family tree that has spawned so many pottery progeny. His mystification about this kind of tin-glazed earthenware was hardly surprising given that so little faience was--and is--exhibited in the museums of the United States. 'I sought out books on the subject but the only one I could find in English was a brief but exemplary volume by Arthur Lane [first published in 1948], and I found the handful of faience displayed at the Met from the large collection of J.R Morgan.' It is a great sadness to him that the wonderful collection at the V&A is also largely hidden. Needless to say, he has visited most reserve collections of faience in France and the UK as well as that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

'I did not start off as a collector,' he continues. 'I just bought a few pieces because I liked them. At the beginning I could not afford many, and I couldn't afford the ones I really wanted, but when I went to France, which I did increasingly, I would stop at the dealers. It was a new world for me. I learned a huge amount from these people--I suppose educating potential clients is a good sales technique --and the collecting continued in fits and starts, and included some detours.'

The most significant detour lasted around a decade, and involved--usefully for a detour--maps, atlases and globes. The impetus for this was the purchase of a country property at Martha's Vineyard, which afforded fine views over the Atlantic and prompted Knafel to imagine how this land must have struck those Europeans who arrived half a millennium ago. 'I began with maritime maps of Massachusetts and then New England,' he explains, 'but I found I got through New England maps pretty promptly and so ventured into early world maps.' A group of them toured the United States in an exhibition in 1992 to commemorate the 'discovery' of America by Columbus 500 years earlier, and were published in Thomas Suarez's Shedding the Veil: Mapping the European Discovery of America and the World. After that show, as so often happens, he felt he was done with the maps, and ended up giving the entire collection to his old school, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, although a few prized early maps and globes remain.

Another interest is contemporary ceramics, which he keeps at Martha's Vineyard--save for the three stoneware canisters by Londa Weisman that he and his first wife bought at a gallery in Scarsdale. About 10 years later, Knafel and Weisman met and married. 'Isn't that really something?' he says.

Detours notwithstanding, Knafel is by no means done with faience. As he puts it, he is interested in these particular tin-glazed earthenwares almost to the point of obsession. 'I still love it; I don't need any more and I don't have room for any more, which is what I say when a dealer makes contact with me now; but they end up showing me a piece and I say yes.' What is it about French faience, in particular, rather than any other ceramic or any other work of art, that is so compelling? 'It's a good question,' he muses, elbows resting on the arms of his chair, fingers interlocked. 'I think I admire and respect all sorts of works of art but I don't need to own any of them. I have to respond to something emotionally, and tactilely. I think the appeal of faience is to do with glaze and colour but also the shape, weight and feel of a piece and, in some cases, the use. I am not worried about a chip. In fact, the Frick asked if a conservator could make a temporary repair on the rim of a ewer on display, and I said no. As far as I am concerned, it is part of the history of the piece. Some of the pieces had been seriously broken and repaired in the past but in such a way that you cannot see unless you look at them with ultra-violet light. Do I wish they hadn't been broken? Of course. Does it keep me from wanting to pick a piece up and look at it? No, it doesn't.

'Some of my relatively recent acquisitions I would pick up when I came home from work and take to that chair in the window, where the light is good, and look at for a while. An example is the octagonal Rouen tazza of around 1730 [Fig. 5]. I just could not believe I owned it. I adored it. Typically when I get a new piece, I put it out on one end of the dining-room table. If I am not having people over for dinner and am dining alone--my wife usually spends midweek in Vermont -1 look at it, and make friends with it until it finds a home in the collection.'

It is often said that people do not choose the musical instruments they play, but that the instruments choose them. It is tempting to conjecture that French faience chose Sidney Knafel. For he has always bought precisely what he liked, and what he liked turned out to be almost always French rather than any other type of glazed earthenware. 'I had a pretty open mind about what I was buying but I discovered that my taste was narrow. There is only one piece of Strasbourg ware, for instance, and it is in a drawer because I don't really care for it. It just doesn't really capture my imagination.' There are one or two pieces of favoured faience from Spanish and German workshops, but no Dutch delftware, for example. 'It is not that I don't like it, but I have always thought that it was for someone else. I pulled the shade down and closed the door.' He feels fortunate that he did not alight on either Delft or Italian maiolica, which he does respond to, because both are heavily collected. 'In the US, you can't find a piece of faience on the market, but there is interest and knowledge of it in France, where I suspect there are probably a lot of old collections gathering dust on people's shelves. Every now and then a bunch of stuff comes on the market from different directions, some of it interrelated, and I have been able to make wonderful, wonderful acquisitions in the last year or two, which has been a shock to me.' Rather like the map collection, Knafel started with later material and then progressed backwards.

He also found himself drawn almost exclusively to grandfeu (high-fired) rather than petit feu (low-fired) wares. All earthenwares are porous and require glazes to make them impervious to liquid. Potters working around the Middle East and the Mediterranean all employed an oxide glaze that allowed for an opaque white surface suitable for decorating. That ground was painted with different metal oxides mixed with water, and then fired at around 900 degrees Celsius. Few oxides can withstand that firing temperature. Thus the grand feu palette is intense but limited to blue (cobalt), yellow (antimony), purple and brown (manganese), red orange (iron) and green (copper).

By the mid 18th century, however, the clay body began to be fired before glazing, which allowed for a far greater range of colour, including the likes of pink and gold, and pieces could be fired for a second or third time at around 750 degrees. This lower firing temperature also enabled greater precision in painting. Either way it is a challenging technique given that the glazes are brown or grey before they transform miraculously in the kiln, and once applied they cannot be easily removed or modified.

These French tin-glazed earthenwares had taken their name from Faenza, a major north Italian centre for maiolica production during the Renaissance--just as the name maiolica derived from Majorca (known by the Italians as the Isola di Majolica until the 14th century), a trading centre for Hispano-Moresque lustreware. It was the arrival in Lyon during the second half of the 16th century of various maiolica potters and painters from Italy--the economic migrants of their day--that launched the production of faience. Unsurprisingly, it is often fiendishly difficult to distinguish French from Italian production. The only recorded early French pieces with signatures are those by Gironimo Tomasi, who had trained in the renowned Fontana workshop in Urbino and arrived in Lyon in 1581 and died in 1602. Stylistic comparison allows for the attribution of several pieces here to Tomasi. One is a plate painted across the entire body with an istoriato --'story painting'--illustrating the Biblical scene of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (Fig. 3). Such ambitious painterly compositions usually derive from an amalgam of various graphic sources. While the source for this is not immediately apparent, the painter evidently amused himself greatly, for among the horse and human heads floundering in the water there is also the bare backside of someone upside down.

Fear of plague and famine prompted Lyon's Italian potters to move to Nevers in the late 16th century. A city controlled by Luigi Gonzaga of Mantua, it soon established itself as the main centre of faience production in France and found the patronage of a Parisian and provincial nobility and a bourgeoisie eager for Italian-style maiolica with both istoriato and grotesque decoration. A spectacularly complex moulded blue-and-white dish here (Fig. 4), dated to around 1630-50--a near pair to a polychrome version in the V&A and long thought to have been Italian--suggests that potters had brought moulds as well as print sources with them from Italy, and continued to make pieces originally conceived decades earlier. Decadent Italian maiolica is the starting point of French faience.

What this collection reveals is the growing freedom --perhaps irreverence--of the faience potters and painters who thought nothing of combining various unrelated shapes and sources. We find istoriato scenes painted onto 'Chinese' covered jars, a helmet-shaped ewer based on silver prototypes and decorated by motifs in the style of Jean Berain (both Elder and Younger), a pierced puzzle jug that derives from those in glass. Blue painted on an ochre ground simulated silversmiths' niello, where black enamel is inlaid on to metal. The largest piece in the collection, a monumental orange-tree planter, combines fanciful chinoiserie landscapes with two very French masks of Apollo, and introduces a new emerald green. Sources range from Japanese Imari porcelains to Ottoman Iznik tiles. The latter inspired the sprays of tulips, roses and carnations set against the vivid blue ground of a large Nevers platter (Fig. l). As soon as Knafel admits this is his favourite piece, he corrects himself: 'I take it back. They are all my favourites.'

The pieces he describes as 'drop-dead incredible' are the ambitiously formed ewer (Fig. 7) and basin, again in this intense 'Nevers blue', a specialism that derived from Ligurian prototypes. It is painted in white with all manner of exotic figures, birds and foliage. Faience had at last developed a distinctive aesthetic identity. Knafel had owned the ewer for six or seven years before, astonishingly, the basin came on to the market. 'Clearly they were made at the same time, and were probably intended to be together.'

Although Knafel did not intend to create a comprehensive collection, he has, fortunately for the Frick, achieved one. The group offers a sweeping panorama that takes in all the major regions of faience manufacture, grand pieces intended for display and later wares made for use as part of table or toilet services. Various sumptuary laws passed by Louis XIV after 1679, and the melting of silver plate, proved the impetus for a rapid geographical expansion of faience manufacture, not least in Rouen and in Moustiers and Marseille in the south of France. Just as blue monochrome wares were famed in Nevers, the signature Rouen decoration involved lambrequins, borders imitating embroidery originally found in Chinese porcelain.

Strikingly, the paler palette and delicate painting of these 18th-century wares increasingly resemble contemporary porcelain. An example is a platter from the Clerissy manufactory in Moustiers, decorated with a finely executed harbour scene. A quite different lightness of touch and whimsy is found in the delightful compositions of fantastical figures and creatures decorating the wares of Moustiers, perhaps the most appealing of these grotesques executed in monochrome manganese (Fig. 6). These essentially provincial wares are refined, but they are not exquisite like porcelain; I suspect that this is part of the appeal for Knafel, who describes his taste for furniture as well as ceramics as more Provencal chateau than Parisian court.

At home none of the faience is kept in vitrines, and Knafel has made a special plea to the Frick not to 'close them in' at the museum. Of all people, he understands the importance of engaging with these pieces in a very intimate way. This show, and the small accompanying catalogue by the curator Charlotte Vignon, is intended to introduce an American public, and others, to the pleasures of French faience. Knafel is heartened by how well it is attended and how carefully visitors look, every time he stops by to pay a call on his old friends.

Susan Moore is associate editor of Apollo.

'Masterpieces of French Faience: Selections from the Sidney R. Knafel Collection' is at the Frick Collection, New York, until 22 September 2019 (

Portrait by Reed Young

Caption: 1. Platter, c. 1660-70, Nevers tin-glazed earthenware, 40.6 x 50.2cm

Caption: 2. Sidney Knafel in the dining room of his manhattan apartment, with part of his collection of French faience

Caption: 3. Plate, c. 1582-85, with painting attributed to Gironimo Tomasi (d. 1602), Lyon, tin-glazed earthenware, diam. 45cm

Caption: 4. Dish, c. 1630-50, attributed to the workshop of Antoine Conrade (d. 1647), Nevers, tin-glazed earthenware, 49.5x62.9cm

Caption: 5. Octagonal tazza, c. 1730, Rouen, tin-glazed earthenware, dlam. 29.5cm

Caption: 6. Sugar castor, c. 1750, Olerys and Laugier manufactory, Moustiers, tin-glazed earthenware, ht 25.1cm

Caption: 7. Ewer, c. 1680, Nevers, tin-glazed earthenware, ht 69.9cm

Caption: 8. Sidney Knafei's drawing room, which overlooks the Hudson River, has been partially rehung after 75 pieces of faience left for exhibition at the Frick Collection
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Title Annotation:Sidney Knafel faience collection
Author:Moore, Susan
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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