Photography by Andrea Zucker
I was thinking about a festive article for the holidays when, coincidentally, a distinguished gentleman in town, a retired businessman, just happened to mention his antique Mason’s Patent Ironstone China collection to me. Being well familiar with this historic maker of colorful English ceramics, not to mention my friend’s gorgeous East Memphis home, I realized this was the perfect story. First a little history. Miles Mason was a successful “chinaman,” the name given to British merchants who specialized in importing Chinese porcelain in the late eighteenth century. But when the British East India Company and others ceased bringing bulk imports from Asia, merchants like Mason turned to making their own products in and around Liverpool and Staffordshire. In 1813, in what is known as the Regency period in England, Miles’ son, Charles, patented their particular version of “ironstone” china, which was manufactured in such a way that the heavy earthenware products so resisted chipping and breaking that they seemed to be made of iron! It’s no surprise that the earliest patterns of “Mason’s Patent Ironstone China” are oriental in character, since the company was in essence imitating the Chinese export china so highly prized by both Europeans and by Americans. It was an instant success, and within several decades, this decorative ironstone was found on middle-class tables all over Britain and the world. Charles Mason himself ultimately experienced financial difficulties, but the brand has successfully survived many changes of ownership in the two hundred years of its existence. Since 1973 Mason’s has been part of the Wedgwood Group, and contemporary dinnerware bearing the name is still widely popular.
Believe me when I say that our collector’s magnificent array of Mason’s china is artfully arranged on every shelf, bookcase, mantel, corner cabinet, and table-top throughout the downstairs of his East Memphis home, and the overall effect dazzles the eye. The house is ablaze with the warm jewel-like glow of this richly decorated and charming china set against handsome wood paneling, antique furnishings, and coral-toned upholstery.
This all began many years back when my friend’s wife presented him with his first piece of Mason’s, something that she had happened upon in a now long-gone antiques store on Union Avenue here in Memphis. He was instantly drawn to the look and shape of this beautiful gift — a footed bowl called a compote — and, eureka, a passion was born. Though Mason’s is still being produced, the antique pieces that our homeowner collects were made in what is considered its golden age, the first 50 years of the nineteenth century. The luminous colors used are predominantly rich reds, blues, corals, and golds, and, more rarely, greens. Mason’s features wonderful and characteristic details such as foo-dog finials and serpent handles on the jugs. A wide range of wares was produced, and with regard to the process used, the basic decoration was transfer printed, then glazed and hand-colored with bright enamels and finished with rich gilding. I am told that you cannot identify Mason’s by just one maker’s mark on the underside of each piece, as there has been a succession of marks through the years. With his experienced eye, our collector can recognize a piece of antique Mason’s at a distance in a jumble of china. For him it is distinguished by a unique shade of creamy background white that cannot be duplicated. He looks of course for the best and rarest pieces, as well as favorite designs among at least a hundred patterns with names such as Old Schoolhouse, Water Lily (his personal favorite), Mandarin, Ribbons and Bows, and the well-known and much-copied Tobacco Leaf. Our collector says he will make allowances for small imperfections in the oldest objects. He buys from respected dealers and somehow finds room to add one or two Mason’s pieces a year — always finding ways to resist his mate’s question: “Where will you put it?”
The homeowner and his wife have for many years enjoyed antiquing together all over the country and abroad, and as a result, the contents of their home are a chronicle of their travels. When visiting England, they would rent a van at Heathrow airport and “off we’d go” (sometimes around in circles for anyone familiar with those infernal English traffic roundabouts), passing through one village after another in search of “finds.” For a while the lady of the house had a business selling in several of Memphis’ group-antique emporiums, though ultimately she decided to return to collecting as a hobby only, preferring instead “to spend more time as a grandmother.”
Like all collectors, my friend tells great stories — it just seems to go with the territory of travel and the resulting serendipitous adventures. For example, while visiting a dude ranch in Colorado with their three children, the family met a delightful Englishman whose hobby was collecting colorful, vintage English Huntley-Palmer biscuit tins — “cookie” tins in American parlance. In the end they all became great friends and fellow collectors, though thankfully not of the same objects! Our homeowners live in a stately Southern colonial-style house dating to 1959-1960. They feel their Mason’s collection works very well with their traditional English country décor with its refined profusion of red plaid-tartan ware, papier-mache trays, Staffordshire figurines, oriental rugs, oil paintings, and Windsor chairs. My friend praises his wife’s “unerring good taste,” and she in turn modestly says of her husband that “he is oftentimes more knowledgeable about antiques — certainly when it comes to Mason’s!” The home’s gracious grounds feature a canopy of towering old trees and a newly designed English-style garden by architect Oscar Menzer and landscaper Tom Pellett, all of which perfectly reinforce a pastoral feeling. In fact in this house, both inside and out, one truly feels transported to the English countryside. As a matter of general interest, Memphis has some well-known ceramic collections and collectors. The Stout collection of eighteenth-century German porcelain and the Hooker collection of antique English porcelain, both housed at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, are world-class. When you go to the museum, be sure to check out the beautiful set of Mason’s on display in a niche in what was the Dixon family’s dining room; you just might fall under this china’s spell. There are several other serious collectors of Mason’s in town as well, and worldwide there is a Mason’s Collectors Club. Jennifer Boles, an authority on gracious living with antiques and the voice behind the design-world’s favorite blog, “The Peak of Chic,” was in Memphis recently as a guest of the Decorative Arts Trust and gave a wonderful lecture at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. In her latest book, In With the Old: Classic Décor from A to Z, she tells us, “few things enliven a room more than a homeowner’s collection,” and that these decorative elements “season” one’s home with a personality all your own.
To this point, in the collection displayed on these pages, you will surely agree that the home’s rooms are indeed enlivened by the magnificent Mason’s china on display, or to put it another way, these treasures can be said to be “the jewelry” in the rooms. As one who shares a passion for china, I asked our homeowner what it’s like to live surrounded with his Mason’s. He simply says, “It’s beautiful, it makes me happy, and I like looking at it.” Wise words that in a nutshell for me capture the whole point of interior decoration. This man’s home is clearly his castle.