Few decorative styles are as emblematic of the 18th and 19th centuries as the grace and elegance of the Neoclassical. At its height in the transitional decades of these centuries, with regional expression in Regency Britain, Empire and Restauration France, Biedermeier Germany, Imperial Russia, Federal America, and beyond, the rediscoveries of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748 ignited a classical revival unprecedented in scope since the Renaissance and whose echoes are still visible in both domestic and official architecture and decorative arts today.
The Grand Tour of the early 19th century – defined both as a literal journey through the recently excavated wonders of ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, and as a more philosophical collecting category of objects and antiquities either directly from or representative of the ancient Mediterranean world – was an undertaking practically de rigueur for polite society in America, continental Europe, and, most especially, Britain, as the requisite polish on a proper education. Young men (and even women) of means packed their trunks full of linen suits and headed off to Rome, while erudite libraries amassed specimen marbles, bronze models and maquettes, archaeological artifacts, maps, and prints that recreated the best of the Classical world in the comfort of home.
Chief among these objects was ceramics, already experiencing a revival since the mid-18th century with manufactories and chemists in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China experimenting with new methods of porcelain production and glazing techniques. Discoveries of Greek and Roman pottery in ancient sites only served to enhance interest in the historic and decorative value of ceramics and, especially, terracotta. Important finds like the Portland Vase (Roman cameo glass) and the Hamilton Vases (Greek terracotta) were widely reproduced, and humble red terracotta was elevated from the utilitarian to the chic as its restrained style was imitated in glass, porcelain, stoneware, and other media in varying levels of quality.
Many craftsmen became highly adept at working in terracotta, finding ways to turn this simple, terrestrial clay into light-as-air fantastical forms decorated in gentle palettes of pastels and golds punctuated by deft swipes of black. One of the foremost of such potters was Rasmus Peter Ipsen (Danish, 1815-1860), who rose from brick maker to artisan thrower at the Royal Copenhagen Manufacture before the age of 30. By the early 1840s he was working on his own, in typical Danish fashion focusing on form rather than surface decoration in small unglazed terracotta pots. In 1842 he founded his own factory in Copenhagen, together with Professor Friedrich Hetsch (Danish, 1788-1864) of the Academy of Fine Arts and the Royal Copenhagen Manufacture. Their success was furthered by a storefront in 1848 and exhibitions at craft shows and international competitions by the early 1850s.
Working in various shades of terracotta lightly decorated in oil and sometimes enriched with gold, his factory employed several noted artists and sculptors who created unique revival forms inspired by ancient Etruscan, Mycenaean, Greek, and Egyptian works, particularly those held in the Thorvaldsen Museum and King Christian VIII’s collection of antique vases, both in Copenhagen. It also produced busts and statuettes after both Classical and contemporary sculpture such as that by Antonio Canova (Italian, 1757-1822) and fellow Dane Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844).
Peter Ipsen died suddenly in 1860, at only age 45, just as the factory was beginning to develop international fame. Continuing under the leadership of his wife, Lovise Christine Ipsen (1822-1905), and his eldest son, Bertel Ipsen (1846-1917), the factory submitted works at the Universal Exhibitions in Stockholm (1861), Paris (1867), London (1870), Philadelphia (1876), and Amsterdam (1883), winning first place prizes at each. The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia brought hundreds of the Ipsen Factory’s pots, sculptures, and busts to America for the first time, to great acclaim. The works were rapidly acquired by important collections in the area and across the country.
Freeman’s is exceptionally pleased to offer a group of 21 pieces of Ipsen terracotta in its May 25 sale of British & European Furniture & Decorative Arts, representative of the variety of forms produced by the factory prior to 1876. These works have been held in a private collection for several decades following their deaccession from the Reading Public Museum in West Reading, Pennsylvania. Founded from the collection of Dr. Levi W. Mengel in 1904 as an educational tool for experiential learning, the Museum comprised works from across human civilization to expose young students to examples of art and culture. This collection of Ipsen terracotta was likely acquired locally by Dr. Mengel around this time, as he deliberately sought ancient and important works from Europe as well as the best of modern craftsmen at the 1907 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
It is not unreasonable to suspect that this collection of Ipsen terracotta hails from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, purchased by a now-unknown buyer in the Philadelphia area and held for a generation. By the early 1900s, the craze for Neoclassical terracotta had largely passed, providing Dr. Mengel with a perfect opportunity to acquire a group of pottery perfectly tailored to his new museum’s mission. Later deaccessioned by the Museum in order to streamline their collection of genuine antiquities, these pieces have been out of public view for many years. They are one of the largest single collections of Ipsen terracotta ever offered at auction, second only to Christie’s major 1995 sale, which liquidated 36 pieces held in storage at the Ipsen Factory since its closure in the early 20th century.
Offered together with additional Continental Neoclassical terracotta and a variety of works from Regency Britain, Empire France, and the Grand Tour all from the same collector, as well as a highly important collection of early Wedgwood ceramics, Freeman’s May 25 sale of British & European Furniture & Decorative Arts represents the breadth of Neoclassical Europe and highlights the important role of ceramics in domestic interiors at all levels of society in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Images: A collection of Danish terracotta pottery by the Peter Ipsen Factory, to be offered May 25, 2017; The Ipsen Factory display at the Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.