A New Look for Decorative Arts

In July guests to Newfields were treated with a completely reinstalled gallery dedicated to highlights from the decorative arts collection. The works that can be viewed in the Patrick O’Riley and Elizabeth Gilbert Fortune Gallery, located on the second floor, are exemplary works from one of the museum’s largest collections. The goal of this installation is to highlight the diversity of form, craft, and material one can experience in this broad and diverse collection. The gallery is organized with this mission in mind, and guests can find groupings of objects based on these tenants. Themes such as Art Nouveau, animal forms, and modern silver, include influential works by renown artisans and companies spanning a period of 300 years. 

This installation approach provides the opportunity to feature a collection of works by the Overbeck sisters, Hoosier artist who lived and worked in Cambridge City in the first half of the twentieth century. Established in 1911, Overbeck Pottery was helmed by sisters Margaret, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary Frances. Known for their unique forms, ranging from vases to figures, the sisters were at the center of the Arts and Crafts movement in America and were recognized for their mastery of glaze formulas, which remain a secret to this day. To maintain superior quality and artistic individuality, production remained in their Cambridge City home, which included a salesfloor. In addition to their home studio, one could purchase an Overbeck piece at the L.S. Ayers flagship store, formerly on Washington and Meridian Street in downtown Indianapolis. The Overbecks were highly respected as artists and won numerous awards throughout their career. In the gallery, the case featuring their works exemplifies their skills and diverse output. The whimsical figures are recognizable Overbeck creations, featuring a pale blue glaze for which they are well-known and a seemingly rudimentary humanistic modeling. The four vases diverge in their shape but are united in their graphic nature and skillful application of glaze—a hallmark of Overbeck production. Today, works by these artists are highly desirable and founded in many notable institutions. 

While the Overbecks were working in Indiana, another woman artist receiving recognition in the Decorative Arts gallery was simultaneously creating her signature ceramic style in England. Daisy Makeig-Jones worked for the Wedgewood company from 1909-1931, during which time she honed her considerable glazing skills and developed her notable design—Fairyland Lusterware. Marrying her interest in fairytales with the unique iridescent glazes she developed through experimentation with design and production techniques, Makeig-Jones created a style all her own. Three of her works are on view in the new gallery, alongside American, French, and Austro-Hungarian examples of this period typified by the fables, myths, and legends that so interested Makeig-Jones. 

The gallery is also graced with the return of several exceptional recent acquisitions. One such example is highlighted in a stand-alone case—the epergne. Created in the 18th-century by Thomas Hemming, goldsmith to King George III, this exuberant example of English Rococo silver is realized in a twisting and undulating vine motif with whimsical touches. Look closely at the piece’s foot and you might spot a lizard hiding among the well-articulated, knotty, roots of the vine. Epergnes (pronounced eh-pern), bedecked with small bowls radiating around a central column, were designed to hold side dishes, sweetmeats, and fruit on a dining table. Deriving its name from the French word of the same name, meaning “saving” or “economy”, the epergne’s verticality helped to clear valuable table space during dinner parties and saved the guests from the need to pass dishes among diners. A creative solution manifested in an intricate and decorative form. 

Another magnificent acquisition from 2019 that is on view is the Tea and Coffee Service, crafted by the world-famous artisans at Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory. Directly inspired by Chinese double-walled pierced porcelain in technique and motif, three separate craftsmen were required to complete these complex pieces for the French company. First, the turner was employed to create the foundational interior wall. They were followed by a modeler that would create handles, spouts, and most importantly the exterior wall while preserving space between it and the interior wall. Lastly, a specialized craftsman was deployed to cut the intricate pierced design. The time and talent required to create tea sets such as this made these items enormously expensive. Today, Sèvres double-walled pierced porcelain sets like Newfields’—in excellent condition and completeness—are a rarity. In early February the tea and coffee service will move to the Golden Gallery for display in Sugar: Commodity and Confection in Art, opening February 18, 2022.  

As the new installation emphasizes, decorative arts come in many shapes and styles for various uses. However, nearly as diverse, are the deft skill the creators and craftspeople exhibit across a wide variety of materials. The result is a burst of color, form, and artistic expression, unique to this collection. 

Overbeck Pottery (manufacturer), Elizabeth Gray Overbeck (modeler), and Mary Frances Overbeck (designer), vase, about 1930. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Robertine Daniels Art Fund in memory of her late husband, Richard Monroe Fairbanks, Sr., and her late son, Michael Fairbanks, 1995.75.

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