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Live like a Rockefeller — Two Chelsea porcelain plaice tureens

Jody Wilkie, Decorative Arts Co-Chairman at Christie’s, reveals the romantic backstory to two wonderfully lifelike 18th-century sauce dishes sculpted to resemble plaice, of which fewer than ten examples are known to survive

In 1963, Peggy Rockefeller spotted two fish-shaped tureens in the New York showroom of the Antique Porcelain Company, and immediately fell in love with them. ‘She felt that they were truly outstanding,’ David Rockefeller would later recall. ‘As a result, I bought them for her as a surprise Christmas present.’

‘This is exactly the sort of thing you do in a relationship where you pay attention to each other,’ comments Jody Wilkie, Christie’s Co-Chairman of Decorative Arts. ‘These tureens, like everything else in David and Peggy Rockefeller’s collection, reflected their love for the beautiful, the rare and the unusual.’

Made around 1755 by London’s Chelsea Porcelain Factory, these shallow dishes would originally have been used to serve sauces as part of an elaborate dinner. The body of each is shaped like a flat plaice fish; the cover knob as a piece of seaweed; and the serving spoon as a wriggling eel with a scallop shell in its mouth.

Jody Wilkie holding one of the Chelsea plaice tureens, with highlights from the porcelain collection behind her

Jody Wilkie holding one of the Chelsea plaice tureens, with highlights from the porcelain collection behind her

Two Chelsea porcelain plaice tureens, covers and spoons, circa 1755. 10¼ in (26 cm) long, the tureens. Estimate $80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller in Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Two Chelsea porcelain plaice tureens, covers and spoons, circa 1755. 10¼ in (26 cm) long, the tureens. Estimate: $80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller in Spring 2018 at Christie’s in New York

‘The dishes reflect an 18th-century passion for science and nature,’ Wilkie explains, ‘as well as representing exquisite trompe l’oeil  table decorations. Their appearance will have been inspired by scientific illustrations, as the painter seems aware of the fact that plaice change colour for camouflage but always retain small orange spots.’

‘We have never regretted purchasing them, as we feel they are among the finest pieces of porcelain we own’ — David Rockefeller

The rare dishes are two of fewer than ten examples known to survive. The collections of The National Trust, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum all include Chelsea plaice tureens, in some cases with their original seaweed stands. However, all lack the original eel-and-shell spoon.

‘The Chelsea factory had its own soft-paste porcelain recipe and was known for its lustrous, waterproof, fragile, sugar-like glaze,’ the specialist explains. 

The tureens were displayed in Peggy and David’s Manhattan home, on the first-floor landing

The tureens were displayed in Peggy and David’s Manhattan home, on the first-floor landing

‘To find a complete example, with lid, stand and ladle sadly seems impossible,’ Wilkie adds, explaining that the subtle differences in colour between these two tureens may be the result of their having been painted by different hands or placed in the kiln at different heights.

‘We have never regretted purchasing them, as we feel they are among the finest pieces of porcelain we own,’ wrote David Rockefeller. Many of the superb pieces of porcelain in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller were used regularly, doubtless serving to provoke conversation during meals with friends.

Wilkie remembers seeing the tureens in David and Peggy’s New York home, sitting on a commode on the first-floor landing. ‘David's deep interest in porcelain was inspired in part by his mother,’ she adds, ‘but you don’t need to know anything about porcelain to be completely captivated by these charming fish.’