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From Souvenir Shopper to Savvy Collector

MaryLou Boone has quickly amassed an impressive cache of French ceramics, as exhibited in a show at Scripps College spanning nearly 400 years.

March 01, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

MaryLou Boone is not a born collector. Born-again is more like it. "I can't believe how wrong I was all those years," she said of her pre-collecting life. "I'm like a convert to a religion. I think everybody should collect. It makes traveling so much more interesting to have a focus."

During the 15 years since she found the faith that has captivated art acquisitors through the ages, Boone has quietly amassed a major holding of French ceramics--primarily from the 17th and 18th centuries. Her travels have taken her from her San Marino home to dealers and auctions in Paris, London and New York and to ceramic factories all over France. Meanwhile, she has gone back to school, earned a master's degree in art history at USC, published her writings on French ceramics and improved her command of the French language.

Now her private passion is making a public debut in "Terre et Feu: Four Centuries of French Ceramics From the Boone Collection," an 85-piece exhibition of works made from 1600 to the 1980s, at Scripps College's Clark Humanities Museum in Claremont. Continuing to March 27, the show coincides with the "54th Scripps Ceramic Annual," an exhibition of contemporary clay work in the college's Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery (to March 22).

At first glance, objects in the Boone show and illustrated catalog may strike casual observers as nothing more than remnants of a frivolous period when elaborately decorated ceramics were widely used as containers for everything from food and drink to makeup, medicine and ink. Consider, for example, an egg cup decorated with a Japanese-style dragon, perched on the tail of a fish, or an apothecary jar adorned with a French artist's conception of a Chinese landscape.

Among other improbable items is a flowery desk set, topped by a sculptural woodsman eating a piece of fruit while leaning against a candle holder in the shape of a tree stump. In a completely different, trompe l'oeil vein, a small blue-and-white plate appears to be filled with real almonds, but they are actually made of clay.

Most of the objects on display are functional, but the decorative motifs are over the top--and all over the map. Still, the artworks are a telling reflection of the society in which they were created.

"In documenting, decoding and contextualizing these pieces, MaryLou Boone fashions a physiognomy of France seen through the art of ceramics," Eric T. Haskell, a Scripps professor of French and director of the Clark Humanities Museum, wrote in the catalog preface.

While some pieces reveal the strong influence of imported Chinese and Japanese ceramics, others provide insight into domestic social issues. Two wine-glass coolers, a mustard pot and a large plate made around 1740-50 in Moustiers are adorned with satirical scenes of anthropomorphic beasts drinking wine, playing musical instruments or traipsing around the countryside in high style.

A 1735 bowl from Nevers portrays a group of women trying to entice their lovers out of a tree while two particularly frustrated members of their party are sawing through the trunk. In text printed on the plate, the dissidents contend that the men deserve to fall because they are "cowardly and lazy."

Another piece from Nevers, a perforated "puzzle jug," is even more of a curiosity. Made in 1755 and probably used in a tavern, the decorated pitcher tells the story of a man and his unfaithful wife, but it also presents a challenge to anyone attempting to use it. Holes in the neck of the pitcher make it impossible to pour liquid without spilling.

Intrigued by the "puzzle," which she purchased in 1985, Boone filled the pitcher with water and discovered she could drink from the container by holding one finger over a hole in the hollow, curved handle and sucking through a small opening on the rim.

"I got a mouthful of dust along with the water," she said. But such are the perils and rewards of collecting 200-year-old objects.

Boone's adventures began about 15 years ago with faience--the French and German name of tin-glazed earthenware, known as Maiolica in Italy and Delft in the Netherlands and England. A lifelong Francophile, she bought a few pieces of modern faience for souvenir gifts on a trip to Brittany.

"When I got home I couldn't bear to give them away because I knew no one would love them as much as I did," she said. "They reminded me of the little towns where I had bought them." Soon after that fateful purchase she wandered into an antique shop in Paris and emerged with a much older piece of faience, a 17th century apothecary jar.

"What attracted me to faience initially was just the look of the material," she said. In other forms of ceramics, glazes are generally applied to fired objects, so that the decoration lies on the surface. In faience, colored lines and shapes are painted on powdery, unfired glaze, allowing the color to sink into the glaze during firing and appear to have more depth, she said.

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