J.H. purchased two copper plaques in Quebec in the 1960s. One ended up living in her husband's law firm in Santa Barbara for 50 years; the other, in a sunny room in her house. The first, titled "Gentlemen of the Jury," is a copy of a painting by Briton John Morgan capturing the boredom of jury service in 1861 at the Assizes in Aylesbury. This oft-reproduced image was executed over the years in lithographs, and here in copper at 23 inches by 38 inches.
Middle-class America in the mid-20th century had a love affair with sentimental narrative plaques, be they religious, whimsical or profession-related. Often reaching into American history, they pictured colonial men and dames, Asian faces, American eagles, and sailors and sailing. I was intimately acquainted with the American cowboy/Manifest Destiny theme: My brother's room in our childhood home in Illinois featured a pair of wagon wheel plaques, selected by my detail-loving mother to echo the maple cowboy beds. My room's walls held a pair of ceramic Hummel plaques of a little boy and pink beribboned girl, each startled by a bumblebee. Narrative plaques, which "blended" with themed rooms, made quite a decorating statement, the type of statement top-drawer interior decorators may laugh at today.
J.H., in researching the maker of your plaque, Copperama, I noticed that the brand's best-selling pair from the 1950s were unlikely bedfellows: A plaque of ubiquitous and armless praying hands is inconceivably matched with "The End of the Trail," an image taken from the mournful sculpture created for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco by James Earle Fraser. These "matching" oval plaques were designed to hang together on a mid-century wall. What the conjunction of those two images was meant to convey was deep sentiment.
J.H.'s lawyer-centric narrative plaque illustrates the American mid-century interior design philosophy suggesting that an office or room tell the story of the dweller. These were the days of the themed room, themed event, and themed restaurant. (Our family's favorite: Kon Tiki, Chicago.) Because our interior design philosophy today is minimalist and functional, we may consider this kind of "placemaking" redundant.
J.H.'s other copper plaque, a delightful pattern of winged birds and fruit, is a reference to the late great 19th century designer William Morris; his philosophy of design initiated the "Aesthetic Movement." In 1887, he wrote, "Any decoration is futile when it does not remind you of something beyond itself."
This philosophy is a far cry from the later 20th century aphorism that "less is more." Morris' designs, often flattened into a picture plane, indicated wallpaper and matching fabrics to tell the story of the room. Morris was a great believer in nature as the narrative voice for interior design. In the more than 50 wallpapers Morris designed in the late 19th century, two very famous patterns include birds in flight, notably, "The Strawberry Thief" and "Birds and Pomegranates."
These birds made it into Copperama's marketable designs in the 1950s, referenced in J.H.'s copper plaque, which brings me to an interesting point about the development of style in general. Morris' 19th century philosophy of the "artistic home" reached its middle-class apex in the narrative genre rooms of the 1950s. Think of "early American" maple furniture and American eagle wall plaques, busts of George and Martha Washington, the objet d'art found in my childhood home in Deerfield, Ill.
Morris may have cringed at his birds in flight pattern being reproduced for the American middle-class masses in the 1950s; his clientele included upper-class Britons of the late 19th century. Morris wallpapers and fabrics, marketed by the prestigious Liberty and Co., were affordable only to the wealthy. He was snobby enough to glorify rustic, rural life, selling his art to the moneyed and privileged. This is often the case in decorative art history — a trend that starts out as highbrow ends up in places like my mom's two-bedroom brick house in Illinois 75 years later as kitsch.
Why would Copperama make designs as different as juries and birds? What both of J.H.'s plaques hold in common is the importance they give to narrative ornamentation; in other words, both plaques chronicle a living space. A lawyer's office told the story of an old-time jury at work, a garden room referenced flying birds in nature. Our decorative style today has turned 180 degrees from narrative interiors toward anonymous spaces and non-representational art.
J.H.'s lawyer's plaque done in affordable economical copper is worth $50 and her bird plaque, referencing the pattern of William Morris, is worth $75.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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