The Story of a Dinner-Set
American Rivalling French Art
Theodore R. Davis Making Designs for a Dinner-Set for the White House How the Project was Devised and Successfully Carried Out
Asbury Park, N. J., July 31. Pleasant as a Summer resort, this place is also invested with interest as the temporary home of an artist engaged in a work designed to do credit to American industry. This gentleman is Theodore R. Davis, who has been connected many years with Harper's Weekly. I have just come from his studio, where he is engaged on a most unique work for an American artist, and one which interests every American and will challenge the attention of the connoisseurs of the Old World. He is making the designs for a State dinner-set for the White House, which Haviland, of Limoges, France, is now at work upon and declares will be the finest dinner-set ever made in Europe.
First take a peep into the studio. When Mr. Davis came down here for recuperation and work his eye settled on a somewhat isolated bathing-house containing several dining-rooms. Mr. Bradley, the founder of Asbury Park, gave him plenary powers. He appropriated three of the dressing rooms on the end facing the sea, knocked out the partitions, cut out a large space for a window affording a view of the ocean, and imported his artist's kit. The corner from which he draws his inspiration contains a box covered with a gorgeous American Indian wove blanket, of great value. Here the artist sits in his working hours with a water-color board on his knee, his colors at his hand, and the ever-changing sea before his eye. Sea tints and sea scenes enter largely into his designs, for which reason the studio could not be better located. The studio is in the shape of a letter L, and in size about 6 by 4 feet. In one corner is a basin of water-lilies. In the box is a big frog which, when there are no visitors, sits on the bench and looks with a quizzical eye at the artist, who once kept him for a model, but now boards him, for his company. Unfriendly pins hold beautiful insects and shining bugs to the walls, and a piece of dried fungus makes a delicately tinted background for a gorgeous beetle. Bold water-color drawings and engravings ornament the sides of the nook which contains the artist's throne, and over his head are shelves holding a few pieces of choice Haviland ware. A shelf holds brushes, glasses and other artist's utensils, and at one side are numerous bottles containing colors. A few days ago Mr. Davis had several large clam-shells ranged on the bench, and holding a variety of small creatures of the animal kingdom in a strong pickle. His friend Mr. Bradley put his teetotaller nose into the studio door and remarked, "It smells queer here!" "I should think it did," replied the unperturbed artist; "Mr. Bradley, it is with difficulty that I endure the smell of this liquor myself." The proprietor of Asbury Park showed that he respected art, even in pickles.
Upon a high shelf is a large photograph of the conservatory of the White House, with Mrs. Hayes in the foreground surrounded by her two youngest children, and Mr. Davis's little girl, who makes pies. In the sand outside while her father lays on the water-color. On this photograph hangs the whole story. Early last Spring Mr. Davis went to Washington on a mission for the Harpers, which was to make a picture of the President and the Cabinet,and which appeared in due time in the Weekly. Mrs, Hayes invited him into the conservatory, and after turning the camera on the group described above, the President's wife entered into conversation on a topic very dear to the housewife's heart. The china brought into the White House during the reigns of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant had gone mostly the way of all porcelain that servants handle at the State's expense. She found it difficult to set the table properly for a State dinner, since the china closet held only a Babel of remnants. She had ordered a new State dinner set of Haviland; the contract was signed, and Haviland was under $5,000 bonds to deliver the set by January, 1880. Mrs. Hayes regretted that she had been obliged to go to France for a dinner set. "They make very good ware at Trenton," said Mr. Davis, "but, of course, Haviland, of Limoges, makes the best. Still, if you cannot have American ware you could at least have American designs, representing the fruits, vegetables, game, fish and fauna indigenous to this country."
Mrs. Hayes caught at the idea, and acted upon it with the decision and authority of a Queen. "Scott," she said to her little son, "see if you can find brother Webb." The eldest son appeared. "Webb, will you ask General Casey to come to the conservatory?" General Casey appeared and was requested to write at the lady's dictation. She began, "Haviland & Co.: I desire to cancel the contract for the dinner set" "But" interrupted General Casey. "Remember, I am dictating," said Mrs. Hayes, enjoying his surprise, and continued, "and to enter into a new one similar to the first with the exception that Mr. Theodore R. Davis is to have exclusive supervision of the designs." This was the substance of the letter, which was dispatched at once.
It was now Mr. Davis's turn to expostulate. He urged that he was under contract to the Harpers not to do work for any one else. Mrs. Hayes, with a woman's faith, could see no obstacle in that contract, any more than she could in the first contract with Haviland. It may be that a President's wife can make and unmake business treaties at her will. At any rate, Haviland acquiesced with incomparable grace, and Fletcher Harper, when Mrs. Hayes's wish was mooted to him, said to his faithful artist, "I don't ask you to try to surpass everything of the kind that Haviland has done. I expect you to beat them, and I'll have one of the duplicate sets for myself."
Haviland was in this country, and offered Mr. Davis every assistance and cooperation, but at first he was disposed to doubt if anyone could surpass his favorite artist, Bracquemon. He brought out an oyster plate. "That," said he, "is the best oyster plate that was ever made." Mr. Davis didn't like it, and frankly said he thought he could do better. "If you do I will break this plate," said Theodore Haviland. A few days afterward Mr. Davis showed him the design, and the favorite plate was seized and dashed into a hundred pieces that strewed the warehouse floor. The artist has already furnished fifty designs, and Haviland grows more enthusiastic over them as they come in. There are to be twenty-five sets bearing the signature of the artist and maker; these will be similar to an artist proof engraving. Eleven of these come to this country, and the remainder will be sold in Europe. Mrs. Hayes will probably have two sets, Fletcher Harper is to have one, and Mrs. Theodore R. Davis is not to be forgotten.
Mr. Davis has had everything, his own way both as to the shapes of the pieces and the designs, and has aimed at, striking originality and strong, bold, effects of color and form combinations. Everything that enters into the designs is distinctively American. To give a running description of the different pieces: The tea-cup is in the form of a Chinese mandarin's hat, the handle being formed by a curling tea sprig, the leaves of which decorate the sides of the cup. For the oyster-plate decoration there are five Blue Point half shells in a curve. He has discarded the conventional half-dozen, adopting Emerson's saying, that nature loves the number five. Opposite the shells is a scene representing down on the seashore, a sea gull, and a tangle of sea moss bordering the picture.
The soup plates in coloring and form, are in imitation like the mountain laurel flower. There will be pictures on the bottom of the plates, such as a bullfrog croaking on a bag, in the midst of a rain storm, and an illustration of a clam-bake. The fish-plate is in form in imitation of a scallop-shell, with salt and fresh water scenes on the flat surface added to the heel of the shell to complete the oval form of the plate. In these water pictures are shown different American fishes, such as a trout lying under a lily pad, two lobsters fighting, a sheepshead nibbling at oysters fastened to a palmetto log. The platter picture represents a fine roe shad entangled in a golden net. In form the platter is nearly square with the corners turned up.
The designs for the dinner plates are very elaborate, and comprise such scenes as a bear attacking a honey tree, the antelope, the buffalo, a coon climbing a persimmon tree, with a "darky" looking for the coon; cranes dancing, with one crane beating time with his wing while the others enjoy a walk-around, which is not of the imagination but fact, etc. The platter of the bird plates will be adorned with a wild turkey, the chief of the American game birds, on the wing, with a prairie fire and its reflection in water adding color to the picture. The bird plates are placque in form and the prairie chicken, ptarmigan duck and other birds enter into the designs. The salad plates are a great novelty, the figure of a lobster being etched into the bottom of the plate, while the color will be applied underneath, the color with the varying strength of translucency, produced by the etching, uniting to form a fine effect. The dessert plates are decorated with fruits indigenous to the country. The plates for crackers, cheese and cigars will be furnished with pictorial designs intended to stimulate conversation. In form they will resemble an Indian plate, which is a stiff willow bent in a circle with thin strips of willow or reeds woven across. Mr. Davis's beautiful Indian blanket, on which he sits, will take a conspicuous place in these last designs.September 15, 1879. The Hospital Review 16(2): 18-20.