From Souvenir Shopper to Savvy Collector

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

MaryLou Boone is not a born collector. Born-again is more like it. "I can't believe how wrong I was all those years," she said of her pre-collecting life. "I'm like a convert to a religion. I think everybody should collect. It makes traveling so much more interesting to have a focus."

During the 15 years since she found the faith that has captivated art acquisitors through the ages, Boone has quietly amassed a major holding of French ceramics--primarily from the 17th and 18th centuries. Her travels have taken her from her San Marino home to dealers and auctions in Paris, London and New York and to ceramic factories all over France. Meanwhile, she has gone back to school, earned a master's degree in art history at USC, published her writings on French ceramics and improved her command of the French language.

Now her private passion is making a public debut in "Terre et Feu: Four Centuries of French Ceramics From the Boone Collection," an 85-piece exhibition of works made from 1600 to the 1980s, at Scripps College's Clark Humanities Museum in Claremont. Continuing to March 27, the show coincides with the "54th Scripps Ceramic Annual," an exhibition of contemporary clay work in the college's Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery (to March 22).

At first glance, objects in the Boone show and illustrated catalog may strike casual observers as nothing more than remnants of a frivolous period when elaborately decorated ceramics were widely used as containers for everything from food and drink to makeup, medicine and ink. Consider, for example, an egg cup decorated with a Japanese-style dragon, perched on the tail of a fish, or an apothecary jar adorned with a French artist's conception of a Chinese landscape.

Among other improbable items is a flowery desk set, topped by a sculptural woodsman eating a piece of fruit while leaning against a candle holder in the shape of a tree stump. In a completely different, trompe l'oeil vein, a small blue-and-white plate appears to be filled with real almonds, but they are actually made of clay.

Most of the objects on display are functional, but the decorative motifs are over the top--and all over the map. Still, the artworks are a telling reflection of the society in which they were created.

"In documenting, decoding and contextualizing these pieces, MaryLou Boone fashions a physiognomy of France seen through the art of ceramics," Eric T. Haskell, a Scripps professor of French and director of the Clark Humanities Museum, wrote in the catalog preface.

While some pieces reveal the strong influence of imported Chinese and Japanese ceramics, others provide insight into domestic social issues. Two wine-glass coolers, a mustard pot and a large plate made around 1740-50 in Moustiers are adorned with satirical scenes of anthropomorphic beasts drinking wine, playing musical instruments or traipsing around the countryside in high style.

A 1735 bowl from Nevers portrays a group of women trying to entice their lovers out of a tree while two particularly frustrated members of their party are sawing through the trunk. In text printed on the plate, the dissidents contend that the men deserve to fall because they are "cowardly and lazy."

Another piece from Nevers, a perforated "puzzle jug," is even more of a curiosity. Made in 1755 and probably used in a tavern, the decorated pitcher tells the story of a man and his unfaithful wife, but it also presents a challenge to anyone attempting to use it. Holes in the neck of the pitcher make it impossible to pour liquid without spilling.

Intrigued by the "puzzle," which she purchased in 1985, Boone filled the pitcher with water and discovered she could drink from the container by holding one finger over a hole in the hollow, curved handle and sucking through a small opening on the rim.

"I got a mouthful of dust along with the water," she said. But such are the perils and rewards of collecting 200-year-old objects.

Boone's adventures began about 15 years ago with faience--the French and German name of tin-glazed earthenware, known as Maiolica in Italy and Delft in the Netherlands and England. A lifelong Francophile, she bought a few pieces of modern faience for souvenir gifts on a trip to Brittany.

"When I got home I couldn't bear to give them away because I knew no one would love them as much as I did," she said. "They reminded me of the little towns where I had bought them." Soon after that fateful purchase she wandered into an antique shop in Paris and emerged with a much older piece of faience, a 17th century apothecary jar.

"What attracted me to faience initially was just the look of the material," she said. In other forms of ceramics, glazes are generally applied to fired objects, so that the decoration lies on the surface. In faience, colored lines and shapes are painted on powdery, unfired glaze, allowing the color to sink into the glaze during firing and appear to have more depth, she said.

"But then, as I started collecting, I loved getting into the history of ceramics," she said. "I would travel around to museums and factories to learn as much as I could. What's most interesting to me now is the historic part."

When she made her first purchases of ceramics, she and her husband, George Boone--a dentist who made a fortune in real estate--were emerging as art and education philanthropists. Now known as pillars of Los Angeles' cultural community, they have served as trustees for a dozen museums, universities and colleges. Among their major gifts is a $3-million donation to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens to transform the historic carriage house into an exhibition space.

But 15 years ago, they had just made their first big donation--to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Looking back to the genesis of her collecting, Boone said she received a crucial push from Leslie Bowman, LACMA's former curator of decorative arts who last year became director of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyo.

"MaryLou gives me far too much credit," Bowman said. "I have great admiration for her. Many collectors are happy to let curators do the legwork while they sit back and decide whether they want what is brought to them. I don't know anyone in her generation who has gone into collecting so wholeheartedly. She has really done her homework. It's a splendid collection."

Bowman admits to encouraging Boone to attend the annual Ceramics Fair in London, however. Attracting dealers and scholars from all over the world, "it's the mother church for anyone interested in ceramics," Boone said. On her first visit, in 1983, she was amazed to see people standing in line before the doors opened, then running and swarming to swoop up the best items. As a veteran in 1990, she bought the most coveted object at the fair, a rare cup and saucer made around 1736 in Vincennes, which she considers the best piece in her collection.

By then, Boone had branched out from faience to soft-paste porcelain, an experimental material used by French artists attempting to emulate Chinese porcelain. Made without kaolin--the clay that's essential to hard, translucent, true porcelain but wasn't found in France until 1769--soft-paste porcelain is a luminous material that resembles faience.

Surrounded by her collection at Scripps, Boone said she has slowed down and buys very selectively now. She even talks of refining her holdings, but that would mean parting with beloved objects.

As for long-range plans, she'll probably give the best pieces to appropriate museums, to help fill out their collections. The rest will likely go back into the market. "I want other people to have as much fun as I have had," Boone said.

The Clark Humanities Museum is open Mondays to Fridays, 8 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. Information: (909) 621-8223.

STILL GROWING: No sooner did the Santa Barbara Museum of Art unveil its long-awaited expansion and renovation than UC Santa Barbara's University Art Museum announced a major face lift. The campus museum will gain a glass-covered entrance and a 20,000-square-foot plaza, based on the spiral cross section of a nautilus shell and designed as a gathering place for students and visitors. The museum's existing interior space and courtyard will be reconfigured into five galleries; in addition, the reception area and museum store will be expanded. Project designer is Los Angeles-based architect Brenda Levin, who has renovated L.A.'s Wiltern Theater, Grand Central Market and the Fine Arts and Bradbury buildings.

The museum will be closed for construction April 6 through August, but exhibitions will continue in other locations throughout Santa Barbara County. Meanwhile, art students and faculty are planning a grand finale for the old building after exhibition spaces have been emptied. From March 17-April 5 they will install several collaborative works in a project called "Site Work I: Construction Site." The public is invited to view the work in progress, Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and Sundays, 1-5 p.m. Information: (805) 893-2951.

LECTURE BUFFS BEWARE: Lectures at the immensely popular Getty Center require reservations. And, yes, those who drive absolutely need parking reservations as well. Given the continuing crowds, hearing an art talk at the Getty demands a bit of planning. But the situation isn't entirely hopeless, a public affairs officer said; parking spaces open up in late afternoons and evenings, after most of the staff leaves. All reservations are handled through one phone number: (310) 440-7300.

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