‘Tis the season for poppies! I love to see the varied shades of fragile blooms and watch them unfurl from their wayward-growing stems. They always seem so spontaneous to me. Poppies remind me of my Limoges porcelain. I have three pieces; all separate purchases and all covered with poppies. It got me thinking about the symbolism of the flower and its importance to people in the early twentieth century.
The Wizard of Oz has made us all familiar (though maybe not accurately so) with the magical sleep-inducing powers of poppies. True, some poppies have been used as opiates throughout history. The Minoans and Sumerians used them. Then, in the nineteenth century, poppies were a big deal during the Opium Wars. But why else are these flowers significant?
My three examples of Limoges are somewhat telling. Because the pieces were made in France, one could generalize that poppies were important in Western Europe. But, it’s more than that. You see, the backstamps reveal that while each piece was made in France, each was not decorated in the country. Two out of the three pieces were exported as blanks, probably to America. This is evidence that poppies possessed meaning in America at the same time that they did overseas. What’s the connection? Let’s investigate.
The poppies on this cup and saucer were applied in an Art Nouveau design by means of a transfer process. With the exception of the gold edging, the decoration was not hand-painted. Take a peek at the handle of the cup. Even it bears a tiny blooming flower!
The cup and saucer were produced by the company Bawo & Dotter, also known as Elite Works. The saucer has a green underglaze manufacturer’s mark that dates it between 1896 and 1920. The red overglaze decorator’s mark dates between 1896 and 1932. You can see St. Martial of Limoges in the center of the shield. It’s also interesting to note that Bawo & Dotter began as an American firm in New York City. For a brief synopsis of the company history, check out e-limoges.com.
This charger is hand-painted with garish poppies that appear to have bloomed past their prime. A thin gold border frames the large flowers in the foreground. I love the shadowy leaf detail and variation of color in the background.
The green underglaze mark shows that the charger was made by the P.M. de Mavaleix Company from 1908 to around 1914. As far as I can tell, this piece has no decorator’s signature.
This plate features poppies of various shades gathered in a nosegay. I love how the crinkled bud stems loom above the rest of the bouquet. Meanwhile, the bold orange background looks as though it has melted right off of the nearby flower.
This Jean Pouyat underglaze backstamp was used between 1891 and 1932. The plate is signed in gold by the decorator, “Taq.”
Having looked at my three examples of Limoges poppies and the joint efforts of Europe and America to make them, what can we deduce? One answer seems to stand out: World War I. All of the pieces were made sometime in that date range; and it just so happens that World War I sparked a major poppy movement. In late 1914, battles in Flanders and elsewhere began to desecrate the landscape. As a result, vegetation stopped growing…with the exception of poppies. They were the only plant to thrive among the casualties and disturbed soil. For more information, check out the BBC Remembrance page on the Great War.
In closing, take a look at Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem about the poppies in Flanders Field. McCrae died in the war in 1918.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
–Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. May, 1915.