By Tom McGehee, Museum Director of the Bellingrath Home
The Boehm Porcelain Collection at Bellingrath Gardens and Home, housed in the Bellingraths’ former six-car garage and guest house, features 137 rare and early porcelain sculptures by Edward Marshall Boehm.
The Boehm collection (pronounced “beam”), the largest display of its kind in the United States, was donated to the Gardens and Home in 1967 by members of the Delchamps family of Mobile – a name synonymous with a chain of local supermarkets since the 1920s. Oliver Delchamps was a longtime trustee of the Bellingrath Morse Foundation, which Walter Bellingrath established to continue the mission of the Gardens and Home after his death.
To house the collection, the former Bellingrath guest house and garage was remodeled and enclosed. On March 9, 1967, the building was renamed the Delchamps Gallery of Boehm Porcelain during a formal ceremony. At that time, Boehm porcelain was a staple in the best department and jewelry stores across the country.
Mr. Boehm and his wife, Helen, were among the distinguished guests at the gala, along with the donors, Oliver and Alfred Delchamps and their sister, Mrs. Annie Delchamps Moore. The master of ceremonies was former New Jersey Governor Robert Meyner. Mrs. Moore presented the initial collection of 86 pieces on behalf of the Delchamps families.
The audience included members of the Bellingrath family as well. Mr. Bellingrath’s nieces, Elsie Stebbins of Little Rock, and Montgomery residents Jean Lane and Elmore Bartlett were in attendance, as was current board member Elmore Bartlett Inscoe.
For the dedication, in tribute to the generosity of the Delchamps families and for their warm friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Delchamps, Mr. and Mrs. Boehm donated a special sculpture, “Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers.”
The piece, 7 feet tall on its plinth, had been originally created for a special exhibition of the artist’s work held in London in July 1964. Only three examples of the large ivory-billed woodpeckers were created, and the piece on display at the center of the Delchamps gallery took Mr. Boehm five months to build.
It was also at the party that Mr. Boehm told George Downing, Bellingrath’s Executive Director at the time and an executive with Mobile’s Coca-Cola Bottling Co., that his late mother had been an early model for the beverage. He added that he had lost his mother as a toddler and had never seen a picture of her.
Mr. Downing later contacted the Coca-Cola archives in Atlanta and found the poster featuring Mrs. Boehm and had copies produced. According to Mr. Boehm’s wife, Helen, that poster became one of her husband’s most prized possessions.
Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Delchamps also donated large collections of Boehm porcelain to the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, N.J., and to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (made jointly with Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Lombardo of Jacksonville, Fla.).
Mr. Boehm, who had grown up in an orphanage, trained to be a veterinarian’s assistant. He had a love and knowledge of animals that he was able to transfer over to his sculpting.
He first tried his hand at sculpting in the late 1940s. His wife was convinced of his talents and worked tirelessly getting the word out. While selling dental equipment in Manhattan, she spent her lunch breaks showing her husband’s work to the city’s retailers.
By 1951, many of his first subjects were dogs and a collection of his work was displayed in the Fifth Avenue show windows of Black, Starr and Gorham. This elegant jewelry store placed his sculptures among the gleaming silver trophies to be awarded to the winners of that year’s Westminster Dog Show.
As can be seen within the Delchamps Collection, these dogs were glazed. It was not until 1953 that Mr. Boehm perfected his matte finished pieces. A year later, his first sculpture of birds among flowers was unveiled: The Kinglets.
It was in 1954 that a tradition began: Boehm porcelain in the White House. It was that year that Mr. Boehm presented Dwight Eisenhower with his Hereford Bull. Within four years, the President was presenting Boehm pieces as state gifts, a practice that would carry on with Richard Nixon’s arrival in China with a pair of Boehm’s Mute Swans in 1972.
Helen Boehm carried on her husband’s work for nearly 30 more years before she retired. She died in 2010 at age 89.
In 2015, the assets of the Boehm Porcelain Company, based in Trenton, N.J., were purchased by the Museum of American Porcelain Art in Cleveland, Ohio. The company was reopened as The Boehm Showroom, and still manufactures porcelain figurines. The Showroom also provides repair and restoration services for all types of porcelain art. The company website is theboehmshowroom.com.
In August 2015, Ceci Arthur of Spartanburg, S.C., donated 50 pieces of Boehm porcelain to the Bellingrath collection. The pieces, which had once belonged to her mother, Helen, were added to the display cases in the Boehm Gallery. A limited number of Boehm porcelain figures are also available for purchase in the Bellingrath Gift Shop.
Boehm porcelain has been admired for more than 60 years, and guests at Bellingrath Gardens and Home have a unique opportunity to see some of the finest works ever produced by Mr. Boehm, as well as the firm in the years after his death. These range from his early glazed pieces through the numerous birds and flowers he created. There are later camellias and roses, as well as a series of American and English plates featuring his designs. All of the rare, early Boehm porcelain works are represented in the collection.
The collection at Bellingrath Gardens and Home is a welcome extension of the gardens around it. We are indebted to the Delchamps family for their generous donation to Bellingrath Gardens.