As happens at the start of most collections, Sharon Borthwick’s fascination with a piece of pottery she thought was pretty turned into a lifelong hobby.
Thirty years ago, Borthwick, of Prairie Village, discovered Quimper hand-painted earthenware. It’s pronounced kem-pair, and “It is a cardinal sin to mispronounce it,” Sharon notes.
Quimper is technically the French city in which the pottery called faïence is made, and much like the sparkling wine produced in the town of Champagne, Quimper pottery cannot be called such if it comes from any other town.
Snooty French assertions aside, faïence is worth collecting, and Sharon has amassed approximately 150 pieces.
“In the beginning, I bought everything I could find, then I refined my collection,” she says. “I love it all, but obviously, I can’t keep everything. And I like other stuff, too.”
Sharon’s husband, Jim Borthwick, supports his wife’s collection and even picked out a couple of pieces himself: a violin and a cow.
“I like the colors and the variety of pottery,” he says. “It really surprised me that they could make so many objects, like bag pipes and dragons.”
New pottery is still being made today, but Quimper has a rich history of production dating back to 1685. The process remains the same, too, with clay pulled from the river Odet, formed, hand-painted and glazed.
Faïence was first used by commoners as everyday wares and then increasingly by nobles as their gold and silver dinnerware was confiscated by the king of France to increase the treasury. With a new market seeking finery, faïence became more decorative, transforming it from purely utilitarian to works of art.
“It’s intriguing once you get into the history,” Sharon says.
The most common image on faïence is peasants. “This was before photography — it’s scenes of everyday life,” Sharon explains.
Real estate agent Gary Johnson has a collection of peasant plates, which he hangs decoratively in his Leawood kitchen, but he also has a variety of more unique pieces, from a tulipiere to a tricorne. His favorite pieces are blue-green salad plates featuring a flounder.
“When I saw them, I had to have them because they’re not the traditional color or form, even though they’re actually kind of gross — flounder is not an attractive fish.”
Gary’s intrigue with faïence began 20 years ago after attending a dinner party where the meal was served on Quimper. The wares are functional but not dishwasher-safe because of their delicate paint jobs, so collectors often display rather than use pieces.
Quimper can be difficult to find. Gary acquired most of his pieces through eBay in the 1990s. He bought a piece in Switzerland and has scoured Paris’ flea markets for naught. Locally, estate sales are a good place to bring home someone else’s collection, but you have to know it’s there before the sale and head directly to it. Sharon sometimes lets go of some of her pieces at Mission Road Antique Mall, where she is a vendor.
True Quimper isn’t cheap. Knock-offs abound, but you’ll pay $85 to $125 for a pitcher that’s the real deal.
“You can pick some things up for a bargain at a flea market and overpay for stuff, too, if you want it that bad,” Sharon says.
Passionate collectors gather annually at the Quimper Club convention, held in cities around the world. Members attend these events to tour local sites, see private collections, listen to speakers on pottery-related topics and buy faïence from vendors. This year, it’s being held in Kansas City.
The sole Kansas City member, Sharon has organized a jam-packed weekend of Kansas City’s greatest hits Sept. 21-24, mostly coinciding with the Plaza Art Fair. She also will open her home so collectors can view her personal collection.
In her home’s entry, Sharon has a rare piece of an abbey with miniature villagers in a wedding processional made by artist Sevilloc.
“There are only 10 of these in the world,” she says.
Sharon is most proud of her living room, though, in which flanking bookshelves display the bulk of her faïence collection, from pots to plates, including the convention’s commemorative piece from Malicorne, another French faïencerie, that says, in French, “Everything is up to date in Kansas City.”
New members are welcome to attend. Find details at quimperclub.org or contact Sharon at KC2016@quimperclub.org if you’d like to join. “Even if you don’t collect Quimper, it’s a great travel group,” she says.
Quimper Club Convention
Where: The Intercontinental Hotel at The Plaza
When: Sept. 21-24
To learn more: Visit quimperclub.org or email Sharon at KC2016@quimperclub.org