Mint Museum of Art

Charlotte, NC



As Hollywood created the Indiana Jones myth,

M. Mellanay Delhom became the real thing

"The Director of Vienna's Museum of Applied Arts was personally conducting our tour of his museum's ceramic collection," recalled Dorothy Yoder of her participation in a 1982 "roving classroom", organized by M. Mellany Delhom. "At one point Miss Delhom questioned the location of a Du Paquier piece in regard to its date of manufacture. The Director called an assistant to unlock the case. The piece was moved, without question, to the place where Miss Delhom knew it should go."

M. Mellanay Delhom was among the collectors, curators and scholars in the years when ceramics became a field of study, when museums first began to accept pottery and porcelain as a major art form. Her contributions to the field are legendary, as a collector, scholar and a gifted teacher, spanning seven decades. Acknowledged worldwide as the Dean of Ceramic Scholarship, Delhom approaches her 90th birthday on February 9th still driving her Chevrolet Caprice to work each day at Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art. Presently, she is researching the works of English potter William Littler for an exhibition she is organizing for fall of 1998.

M. Mellanay was born in 1908 in Ft. Worth, Texas, when it was still Cow Town. She was blessed with a brilliant mind, an unquenchable thirst for learning and an uncanny connoisseur's eye for collecting. As a precocious 12 year-old, she approached local evangelists with questions raised in her spiritual quest. After being "patted on the head and dismissed," Mellanay adopted Theosophy, which emphasized a respect for the ideas of others.

By 17 years of age, Delhom had read all that the Ft. Worth public library could provide on Buddhism and Hinduism. The more Mellanay pursued Oriental history and religion, the greater her interest grew in ceramics. "The earliest, unbroken line in how mankind recorded his story and expressed his thoughts are in clay," pointed out Miss Delhom. Her eventual role in the ceramic world would emerge at a later date. Business studies at Texas Christian and DePauw Universities preceeded careers that included operating a dance school, co-founding the Shangri-La - one of Chicago's premiere restaurants in the 1950s and 60s, real estate ventures and investments. She "retired" in 1964 to devote all of her time to teaching, study, travel and collecting.

By this phase of her life, Delhom was well on her way to becoming the reincarnated spirit of the great English potter, Josiah Wedgwood. Both were self-educated, both made it a point to personally meet as many of the great artisans of their day (Miss Delhom enjoyed the distinct advantages of jet travel and the telephone), and both built research libraries considered the most comprehensive of their times.

The Delhom-Gambrell Research Library, housed at the Mint Museum of Art, has over 6,000 publications that document the Delhom Collection. "I bought books according to the culture I was working on," explained Miss Delhom. "There was a purpose behind every purchase."

Many of the publications are one-of-a-kind and took years to track, such as the ten year hunt for Montfaucon's L' Antiquite' Explique'e, the complete story of all forms of classic Creek and Roman art. Her most frustrating search was for two books by Dr. Robert Plott, the first chemistry professor of Oxford University. His The Natural History of Oxfordshire (1676) and The Natural History of Staffordshire (1686) included the history of local pottery manufacture.

"Dr. Plott was quoted or footnoted in nearly every major publication on ceramics for hundreds of years following his monumental work!" exclaimed Delhom. "It took me a lifetime to finally obtain his writings" (she was 86 years-old when the Oxford book surfaced through a New York dealer and 88 years-old when a family friend made the winning bid in her behalf for the Stafford book at a London auction).

It is her collection, spanning 4,000 years and presented through the ten great ceramic cultural periods - Chinese, Middle East, Spanish, Italian, German, Belgium, Holland, French and English - that is her greatest achievement.

"Miss Delhom clearly built a teaching collection from the perspective of an historian," said Margery Adams, a retired Professor of Art History at Queens College (N.C.) and long-time Delhom Service League member. "There are numerous documentary pieces of fabulous quality and rarity. And with each culture, she knows the people, the rulers, the geography, their religion, their way of living and how ceramics were used." "Many museums have ceramic collections as inclusive as hers," noted Adams. "But nowhere can you find it all displayed at once, as in Charlotte."

The 89 year-old Miss Delhom is well aware of what appears on the world ceramic markets from a network of top dealers, museum associates and auction houses. If word gets out she in interested in a piece, the price immediately escalates. Many of these same dealers have unwittingly sold her pieces misattributed as to their true historic importance by artist, factory or time period. Her pursuit of certain pieces now in her collection takes on a lore of its own.

"One of the reasons I moved to Charlotte was to be able to find Dear Eliza," exclaimed Miss Delhom. "And I knew the British Museum was also hot on her trail."

Grief('Dear Eliza '), 1779, is the last dated work from Richard Champion's Bristol Factory in England. It was the great potter's memorial to his eldest daughter, who died on October 12, 1779 at age 14. The figure of Grief was modeled after Angelica Kauffmann's painting Andromache weeping over the ashes of Hector. Champion's factory closed after shipping, personal and legal problems with the outbreak of the Revolutionarv War. Champion moved to Camden, South Carolina, after the war to start life anew. It took the indefatigable Miss Delhom a decade to locate and purchase Eliza much in honor of the victor, restored Champion's magnificent porcelain tribute to his daughter.

"Miss Delhom is truly a caretaker of culture," stated James Jordan, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Mint. "Her only interest is to preserve the story told through ceramics for future generations."

M. Mellanay Delhom's reputation reaches every ceramic comer of the world. Her "roving classroom" was the first group of Americans permitted to visit China following President Nixon's historic 1976 visit. "I went through the mayor's office, then the governor's in beseeching the Chinese Embassy with little hope of receiving permission to enter China," recalled Virginia Burkhead, an international travel specialist. "Seven days later, I received a letter saying that China would be honored to welcome Miss Delhom and her students to watch the making of porcelain and to visit the porcelain museums!"

Chinese officials hosted the study group at the summer palace of Mao Tse-tung, where Burkhead and Delhom shared Mao's personal villa. A Communist official instructed the palace curators that Miss Delhom may select, for purchase, any object on display at the palace. Her choice again demonstrated her connoisseur's eye, much to the dismay of the palace curators.

Miss Delhom selected an enamel-painted, porcelain miniature vase, slightly over three inches tall. The brushstrokes, color, shape and intricate detail (nine dragons are fully depicted for those that can detect them) could come from any of ancient China' s great ceramic periods. The vase is so translucent, that by peering inside while holding it up to light, a green dragon laying around the outer neck is clearly visible from the inside. The miniature vase is only one of five made, on orders of Mao Tse-tung, to demonstrate to the world that China's great artistic secrets were still alive.

The 30th anniversary of the Delhom Gallery and Institute for the Study and Research of Ceramics and the 90th birthday of its founder, M. Mellanay Delhom, will be celebrated with a gala on Saturday, February 7th. Guests will be coming great distances. "The attention should be focused solely on the Gallery," stated Miss Delhom. "The history of the human race is contained within it. It's important to proclaim their stories. As far as a birthday milestone, I still plan to be around awhile," she remarked. "Both of my grandfathers lived to age 95."

Photos by Mark B. Sluder

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1998 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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