A rare Meissen octagonal two-handled beaker and saucer, circa 1730

Life in porcelain

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 43

A very rare Meissen teabowl and saucer, circa 1717

Life in porcelain

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 43

A very rare Du Paquier circular dish, circa 1720-25

Life in porcelain

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 43

A rare Frankenthal arbour group, circa 1756-59

Life in porcelain

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 43

Life in porcelain

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 43

Life in porcelain

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 43

Life in porcelain

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 43

Life in porcelain

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 43

Eve Newgas and her family fled the Nazis, taking their European porcelain with them. Rachel Spence recounts the tale of a dynastic collection

When Edmund de Waal's 2010 family memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes became a literary sensation, porcelain collector Eve Newgas must have felt her own life story had come alive on the page. This June, her assembly of early European porcelain is to be auctioned at Bonhams Fine European Ceramics sale in London. Like De Waal's now legendary netsuke, many of Newgas's ceramics have powerful ties with pre-war Vienna.

De Waal recounts the journey of the tiny Japanese sculptures which originally belonged to his great-great grandfather, Charles Ephrussi. Their travels begin at his home in 19th-century Paris and end in London, but their most dramatic sojourn is in the palace of Ephrussi's cousin Viktor, in 1930s Vienna. There, as the Nazis turn the city into hell for its Jewish residents, the Ephrussi family scatter into exile. The netsuke, incredibly, are rescued by the family's faithful Gentile maid, Anna, and restored to Viktor's daughter Elizabeth at the end of the war.

Eve Newgas, who was born in Vienna in 1924 into a Jewish family, shared a dynastic passion for beautiful things. Her parents, Irene and Ernst Blumka, were the second generation to run an antiques business in the city. Photographs and illustrations of their shops show an ability to marry commercial instinct with artistic ambience. With tall windows shielding paintings, sculpture, glass and porcelain and the name M. Blumka emblazoned in gold across the top of the façade, the emporiums seem the very embodiment of early 20th-century Vienna: a city on the cusp of the old world and the avant-garde, still imprinted with Habsburg formality, yet muse to the modernity of Freud, Adolf Loos, Schoenberg and Kokoschka.

Unlike the Ephrussi – who stayed until they were forced to leave with just a suitcase of belongings – the Blumkas managed to escape from Vienna with their possessions.

In September 1938, they received a tip-off that they were on a Nazi list. After obtaining German passports and, crucially, British visas, they set off to join another branch of the family in England. "Eve told me that they just got up after lunch, leaving the dirty plates on the table and fled to the station," her son, John Newgas, recalls.

Unlike so many who tried to flee the Third Reich, the Blumkas reached their destination unharmed, to be followed soon by all their belongings – "even the wrapped dirty plates!" Perhaps their perilous history sharpened Eve's enthusiasm for porcelain. "She took a certain pleasure in handling things," recalls her son. "The very plasticity appealed to her." The size of early European porcelain enabled her to satisfy her taste for the Baroque: "Cups and plates were small and portable. If she had wanted to collect Baroque paintings, she would have needed a long gallery."

Eve Newgas, "a bright, sparky character" who "didn't suffer fools gladly", according to her son, settled in England quickly; not least because she already spoke the language fluently, thanks to her parents who sent her there for several summers in the 1930s.

Already trilingual (she also spoke French), she attended Hove Grammar School and won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, where she studied Chemistry. On leaving university, she went to work for Gestetner, the duplicating machines company at Fawley Mills. It was here she met her future husband Pip Newgas, who was running a business across the road and 'took a liking to her'. It's not hard to see why: photos of the young Eve show that she was an exceptionally good-looking woman.

Once married, she stopped working to raise the couple's two children, yet her interest in antiques, particularly glass and porcelain, never waned. Once the children were grown up, she returned to work, setting up a business with two university friends selling antique silver to Australian clients. The income allowed her to buy her own pieces and refine her taste. In particular, she loved early European pieces made when the house of Meissen had only just discovered the formula for 'white gold'.

A fine example is the diminutive Meissen tea bowl and saucer, c.1717, in the Bonhams sale. Decorated with acanthus leaves and Baroque strap and scrollwork in tones of purple, blue, yellow and green, its delicate, uncluttered surface speaks of an art in its beguiling infancy.

When the tea bowl was made, European porcelain manufacturing was less than ten years old. Under the patronage of Augustus, Elector of Saxony, scientists had finally come up with the ingredients and process to create the glorious ceramic that had whetted the appetites of western traders when they first traveled to its birthplace, 16th-century China.

Another superb Meissen piece from the Newgas collection – formerly in the collection of Edmond de Rothschild – is the octagonal, two-handled beaker and saucer, c. 1730. The center of the saucer displays an exotic bird, its long-feathered tail marking its oriental inspiration. Perched on a rock, surrounded by stylised blossoms and gazing up at a flamboyant butterfly, it is a beguiling pastiche of Chinese imagery, complete with famille-verte-style borders and pseudo-Chinese marks on the back.

For Newgas, part of the appeal of Baroque porcelain lay in its complex, hybrid provenance. "Eve was a genuinely scholarly collector," recalls Sebastian Kuhn, Director of Ceramics at Bonhams. "She was very modest about her own knowledge, but she really knew a lot."

Her son, John, agrees: "She had an academic taste. If she had the chance, she would also acquire the oriental original on which the design was based and sometimes also later versions from other factories."

Meissen's great competitor in those heady early days was Du Paquier. In the early 18th century, Habsburg Vienna was in the throes of a lavish metamorphosis, blossoming out of medieval stasis into imperial glory. Its new, grandiose edifices demanded art and furnishings to match their splendor and Dresden's mysterious new substance greatly appealed. In 1718, Du Paquier seduced one of Meissen's workers to share the secrets of his craft and founded his own ceramics factory in Vienna.

A beautiful plate on sale at Bonhams was part of a dinner service made for a Milanese nobleman. Depicting a hunting dog pouncing, surely misguidedly, on a hedgehog and bordered with a trellis of trailing foliage and flowers embellished with gilding, its fine, shadow-grey lines resemble the design of an etching rather than traditional porcelain. Such subtle whimsy was typical of Du Paquier and set it apart from its Meissen competitor.

It is not surprising that Eve Newgas loved it: "The fact that it originated in Vienna was of interest, but also she was extremely interested in early European porcelain in general, and in particular the rivalry between Du Paquier and Meissen," says John.

The Viennese thread is one that, despite all the trauma her family suffered, Eve nurtured all her life: "She remembered her childhood as a happy time," John says. "We went to Vienna frequently for holidays and she would take us to her favorite places. 'This is where I went ice skating', she would say, or 'This is where I bought ice cream'." Her expert knowledge and exquisite taste are a testament to her Viennese beginnings and her lifelong devotion to porcelain.

Rachel Spence writes about art for the Financial Times.

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