For Lydia Blackmore, assembling The Historic New Orleans Collection’s exhibit “It’s Only Natural” was an ideal opportunity to introduce herself in her new role as decorative arts curator.
“I started working at the collection about a year ago, so having this theme for my first exhibit was a wonderful opportunity to get to know our holdings,” Blackmore said. “I got to spend time in storage exploring the drawers and shelves to find things that had nature in their design or decoration.”
In total, Blackmore selected more than 100 objects that one way or another feature fauna or flora in their designs.
All objects are from the collection’s holdings and include pieces that were collected by THNOC founders Kemper and Leila Williams, as well as gifts from founding curator and director Boyd Cruise, new acquisitions, and everything in between.
Works include silver, china, textiles, furniture, glass and architectural elements. The goal of including the varied media, according to Blackmore, is to demonstrate that motifs drawn from nature can be found in many genres of decorative arts.
One of the most common motifs, she learned, is the acanthus leaf.
“This motif was first used by the Greeks in Corinthian columns and you can see it, full and curvy, on architectural elements such as crown molding and ceiling medallions in New Orleans houses. You can also find acanthus leaves carved on furniture, painted on porcelain, and on shiny silver,” Blackmore said.
Sometimes, she noted, consumer interest in decorating objects with animals and flowers was fueled by a desire to flaunt wealth.
“Everyone needs a chair. But if you have a little extra money (and want to show it off), you can have a chair with leaves on it or animal feet,” she explained. “Craftsmen did not have to look far for inspiration, just go outside. As styles changed, different ideas of flora and fauna were copied on household objects.”
One notable object on display is a piece of a carved cypress column capital in the acanthus leaf pattern, from the old St. Louis Hotel (c. 1843). Silver candlesticks in an Egyptian Revival style once belonged to Pierre de La Ronde (1803 – 1819). A fanciful porcelain dinner plate made by the Louisiana Porcelain Works (c. 1887) depicts a young girl on a swing made of flowers.
“My personal favorites are the pieces of New Orleans silver. There is one silver pitcher made by German silversmiths in New Orleans, Kuchler and Himmel. It has a cast handle in the form of a tree branch and roses and other flowers around the body,” Blackmore said. “The branch handle adds a rustic aspect to the sophisticated silver pitcher.”
Although some of the objects on display were made in New Orleans or Louisiana, many others were made elsewhere including in France, England, New York and Pennsylvania, then were brought to New Orleans.
“What that says is that the decorative arts of Louisiana and New Orleans are interconnected with designs from around the world and across the centuries,” Blackmore said.