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DOWNSTAIRS at Stockspring Antiques, a felt-covered table is covered with row after row of ceramic-handled knives and forks.

Antonia Agnew and Felicity Marno are in the middle of cataloguing the items, but are happy to discuss the objects, one part of a large, impressive collection that came to the gallery last year.

Agnew says: “Few selections are so comprehensive. It is the result of collectors who are interested in specific things, which is rare to find today.

“There used to be a lot of collectors like this but there are only a few young collectors who focus on specific objects nowadays.”

So extensive is the collection, in fact, that it serves as the meat of two separate exhibitions: one an ongoing online show of key groups of 18th century pieces, and the second an even larger show of ceramic-handled cutlery accompanied by the printed catalogue being compiled now.

Online delights

The current online exhibition includes ceramic spoon trays, tasters, pickle dishes, butter boats, tea canisters, jelly moulds and a couple of wine funnels, all also on display on the ground floor of the Kensington Church Street gallery.

“It’s a very wide-ranging collection,” says Agnew, who adds that there are still more, unseen elements that will not feature at Stockspring, such as a group of wine labels. Rather than collect the complete dinner set, these collectors went instead for some of these more unusual 18th century objects which tell part of the story of how porcelain was used in Europe.

The tea canisters and spoon trays, for example, are pieces which took their shape from European silver canisters and trays of ladies’ toilet services of the preceding decades since there were no comparable pieces in Oriental porcelain.

The online exhibition is catalogued on the gallery’s website and pieces have been selling rapidly since the show was announced in early February. “There’s a lot of interest in what is already on display and we’ve got buyers from all over the world. Online is one way of getting these pieces seen by a wide number of people,” Agnew says.

Cutlery display

However, there is even more planned for the upcoming ceramichandled cutlery exhibition opening at the dealership on March 27.

It comprises cutlery from the aforementioned collection plus knives and forks from two other collections, adding up to a total of more than 100 pieces featuring French, English and Chinese porcelain and faience handles.

“The condition is very good and there are not a lot of repeats. The collectors were targeted and kept a catalogue,” says Agnew of the main consignment.

She refers to it as comparable to top collections including the Bill Brown British cutlery group at Sheffield Museum.

The particular attraction of this group, however, is its focus on ceramic handles setting it apart from other leading cutlery groups which often focus on the metal ends of the pieces and incorporate a range of handle materials such as ivory.

The use of porcelain handles marks each piece in this collection out as a product of the 18th century, a once-fashionable material for cutlery which ceased production at the turn of the century due to its fragility. Agnew hazards that this might be one of the most comprehensive collections of this type.

Agnew and Marno know a good cutlery collection when they see one. With more than 25 years on the premises specialising in 18th and 19th century ceramics and a raft of publications to their names, the two also have first-hand experience with similar pieces.

They have held dinners in the gallery, where they invite guests to dine with 18th century knives and forks, feeling for themselves the balance and the craftsmanship that goes into these pieces.

While a similar event may not be on the cards in the near future, sometimes these pieces are best left to be admired.

After all, as Agnew says, with her eye on a wide-tined fork, it makes it difficult to eat your peas.