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A Personal Tour of the Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection

A Personal Tour of the Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection

  • By Martha Stewart
  • Photos by Marcus Nilsson

I first met the late David Rockefeller, a son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., when I purchased my home Skylands, in Seal Harbor, Maine, in 1997. He was the first of my new neighbors to pay me a visit. I remember how warm and friendly and full of stories he was. He soon invited me to dinner at his home, where I was introduced to the “Rockefeller” style of entertaining.

Amid towering fir and spruce trees, in a contemporary home overlooking the sea, David would host dinners for 10 to 12 guests in an intimate dining room with walls lined in paper panels painted by the French impressionist Édouard Vuillard. Locally grown vegetables, wild things foraged from the sea and the woods, and meat from his nearby farm were all beautifully prepared. The food was always delicious, but what I remember most is the extraordinary dishes and platters it was served on. Very few people take as much pleasure in setting a table as David did. One night, as we devoured chanterelles picked from a secret place in his woods, I remarked on the beauty of the plates in front of us. He admitted that if the conversation at a party ever stalled, he could always bring it back to life by talking about the provenance of the dinnerware. But I never found our conversation to lag.

Meals at David’s farm in Pocantico Hills, New York, were even more elaborate. Surrounded by a very fine art collection, antique furniture, and gorgeous urns filled with colorful blooms cut from his gardens, we ate from exquisite dishes of Chinese export, Meissen, English Derby, or very early rare Chelsea porcelain. In his townhouse in New York City, we used gorgeous china painted with images of botanicals, reflecting his late wife Peggy’s love of nature and gardening.

I will never forget those Rockefeller gatherings and the displays of finely chosen tableware. And I will always remember David’s lovely countenance, his friendship, and his keen love for fine food and dining. He was, and remains, a true inspiration.

[Pictured above: Martha holds a platter made by the English porcelain company Derby in the early 1800s. Each flower was expertly painted by William “Quaker” Pegg, regarded as the finest botanical artist on porcelain. Above right, a display in the Rockefeller family’s dining room in New York City.]

Timeless Treasures

The Christie’s auction from May 7 to 11 will benefit 10 charities important to David and Peggy Rockefeller. Here are some standout items, including Napoleon’s sugar bowl and quite possibly the world’s fanciest ice cream cooler.

  • Palace Ware
    Palace Ware

    No two pieces of this Chinese export service are the same. The “palace ware” design, known today as the Rockefeller pattern, depicts scenes of court life.​

  • Quaker Pegg Bloom Plates
    Quaker Pegg Bloom Plates

    Passionflowers, irises, and tulips are a few of the blooms Quaker Pegg illustrated with exacting detail for Derby.

  • Warming Dishes
    Warming Dishes

    To keep food warm, these Chinese-export warming dishes from the Jiaqing period were filled with hot water. 

  • Ice Cream Cooler
    Ice Cream Cooler

    A porcelain ice cream cooler by Worcester (Barr, Flight & Barr), c. 1807–13, features a small interior bowl designed to sit on top of an ice-filled basin to keep the dessert cold.

  • Flower Pot
    Flower Pot

    A springtime arrangement bursts out of a two-handled Derby porcelain bough pot with a pierced cover and painted faux-marble base.

  • Sugar Bowl
    Sugar Bowl

    Napoleon I took this Sèvres porcelain sugar bowl from the “Marly Rouge” service, c. 1707–1709, with him when he was exiled.

  • Citrus Basket
    Citrus Basket

    Made in Vienna c. 1812–13, this pierced porcelain basket and stand often held citrus fruits, a rarity at the time. 

  • Fish Tureens
    Fish Tureens

    Two rare tureens, c. 1755 by Chelsea porcelain, replicate plaice, a European flat fish, and were used to hold sauce.

  • Punch Bowl
    Punch Bowl

    This Chinese-export punch bowl from the Qianlong period is more than a foot wide, and has garden scenes painted inside and out.

  • Palace Ware
    Palace Ware

    No two pieces of this Chinese export service are the same. The “palace ware” design, known today as the Rockefeller pattern, depicts scenes of court life.​

  • Sugar Bowl
    Sugar Bowl

    Napoleon I took this Sèvres porcelain sugar bowl from the “Marly Rouge” service, c. 1707–1709, with him when he was exiled.

  • Quaker Pegg Bloom Plates
    Quaker Pegg Bloom Plates

    Passionflowers, irises, and tulips are a few of the blooms Quaker Pegg illustrated with exacting detail for Derby.

  • Citrus Basket
    Citrus Basket

    Made in Vienna c. 1812–13, this pierced porcelain basket and stand often held citrus fruits, a rarity at the time. 

  • Warming Dishes
    Warming Dishes

    To keep food warm, these Chinese-export warming dishes from the Jiaqing period were filled with hot water. 

  • Fish Tureens
    Fish Tureens

    Two rare tureens, c. 1755 by Chelsea porcelain, replicate plaice, a European flat fish, and were used to hold sauce.

  • Ice Cream Cooler
    Ice Cream Cooler

    A porcelain ice cream cooler by Worcester (Barr, Flight & Barr), c. 1807–13, features a small interior bowl designed to sit on top of an ice-filled basin to keep the dessert cold.

  • Punch Bowl
    Punch Bowl

    This Chinese-export punch bowl from the Qianlong period is more than a foot wide, and has garden scenes painted inside and out.

  • Flower Pot
    Flower Pot

    A springtime arrangement bursts out of a two-handled Derby porcelain bough pot with a pierced cover and painted faux-marble base.