The young agriculture department budget analyst would take her brown-bagged sandwiches to the museum across the street and nibble surreptitiously as she studied the displays at the Freer Gallery of Art.
That was just a little more than a decade ago, and tonight, at 8.30 p.m., Ellen S. Smart will return to the Freer. This time she will be the scholar delivering an illustrated public lecture on Fourteenth Century Chinese Porcelain Excarated in Delhi," summarining her findings as reported in Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, Volume 41.
It will be a scholar's adventure tale. Smart, the former budget analyst and sixth-grade teacher, is the only Western scholar to see and photograph the 72 pieces of blue-and-white porcelain excavated on the founds of a 14th-century palace in Delhi, India.
Her find - and a scholar can feel the excitement of an explorer when making a discovery of knowledge - was to identify the blue-and-whites as 14th-century porcelain from China rather than from India. This filled a gap on the ancient trade maps of the rowld.
"It's important because we knew they should be there but no one had found them," Smart says.
The Delhi porcelains were dug up in 1960. That was the year that Smart, a stubborn 14-year-old teen-ager, made her first declaration on India - she didn't want to go there with her family while her father - a child development specialist - was doing research on a Fulbright.
"I kicked and screamed that I didn't want to go to India, where it was hot and ther were snakes," Smart recalls. "At the end of the year, I didn't want to come back to the United States. I immersed myself in Indian culture and did no school work at all. I just took in the culture and didn't recognize it as exotic or strange or oriental."
But she did come back to the United States to earn a degree in agriculture.
"I was going to solve the problems of India through agriculture," Smart remembers ruefully. "It was just after Sputnik and everyone my age was pushed into science. We felt America could solve every problem."
As an agrivulture department budget analyst, Smart found that she was doing a job that "a computer could do 50 times more accurately in one-fiftieth the time." Within six months she was back in India to work with the University of Wisconsin college-year-in-India program in Banaris.
After a year as a sixth-grade teacher, Smart took a master's degree in South Asian studies at Berkeley, where Prof. Joanna Williams "turned on all the lights for me." That led to her career switch to art history.
At the University of London, where she earned her doctorate, Smart made a specialty of Mughal and Indian painting. This, in the roundabout way of chance, led her to Chinese porcelains and the Delhi "find."
"I was told by my guide and mentor, Robert Skelton, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, that if I ever understood Mughal painting, I would have to understand everything in the painting. So I started to learn about textiles, porcelains, and the other objects," Smart points out.
So she attended a 1972 lecture by the Indian scholar who had been in charge of the excavations at the Delhi palace and later obtained permission to view the find.
The 72 porcelains in the Delhi cache rank with the great collections in the Topkapu-Serai (Topkapi) Museum in Istanbul and the Iranian archeological museum.
The Chinese started turning out the precious blue-and-whites in about 1330. They imported the cobalt for the blue underglaze from the Middle East, where the porcelains had appeared earlier. Then the Chinese exported the porcelain wares back to the Middle East.
One early 14th Century traveler, who journeyed from Morocco to Peking, noted in his diary that he had seen Chinese blue-and-whites in Delhi. But none had been identified until Smart visited India and examined the porcelains unearthed in 1960.