The Life and Times of James Egbert

October 19, 2014

Dedicated to my friends Joe Jostes and Sue Skinner of S&J Pottery, with wishes for a safe and successful move.

There are any number of reasons why a potter would move away from a perfectly good pottery shop.  If the shop were in New York City and the year was 1795, the potter would probably be following hoards of panic stricken people fleeing the plague.

Waves of yellow fever swept through New York City almost annually from 1795 to 1805.  Entire neighborhoods were decimated within weeks.  Whoever could leave town would do so.  Many plague refugees traveled up the Hudson River to sleepy little villages like Poughkeepsie – far enough to be safe but close enough to keep up with city events.

Most refugees returned to New York as each plague episode abated.  But some, potters included, saw advantages in establishing a foothold between the metropolis and the growing hinterland.

One enterprising young stoneware potter, William Nichols, went so far as to set up shop in Poughkeepsie in anticipation of a possible plague outbreak in 1823.  He figured he’d be ready to supply pots to refugees as soon as they arrived.  Unfortunately, yellow fever didn’t strike that year and poor William lost his shirt.

Poughkeepsie’s first potters were also plague refugees.  James Egbert and Durell Williams fled New York City’s initial 1795 yellow fever outbreak.  Durell Williams was a stoneware potter and James Egbert had been a carpenter.  Durell had convinced James to try his hand at the stoneware business.  Durell eventually moved back to New York City.

But James seems to have liked both Poughkeepsie and pottery.  He continued the Poughkeepsie pottery for a while before ‘shopping around:’ working in both stoneware and redware potteries throughout the region.

James apparently had a long and healthy life, according to a June 29, 1842 article about him in the Newburgh Gazette.  But that same article told of disaster.  His kiln collapsed while he was preparing for a firing.  James Egbert survived the plague only to be crushed to death by his own kiln.

Readings:

Poughkeepsie Potters and the Plague.  George Lukacs.  Arcadia Publishing/Charleston, SC.  2001.

Champagne

October 6, 2014

I find myself at yet another outdoor show, hoping it won’t rain or get too windy.  (Instead it’s hot, humid and stifling, the customers are wilting.)  How did I end up here?  How did all this begin?

Actually, it all began in the 12th century with the first of the great Medieval Fairs in the fields of Champagne, northern France.  These fairs were a raucous, sprawling combination of trade show, flea market, and circus.  Similar bazaars developed earlier in the more civilized regions of the Middle East, Africa, India, and China – but that’s another story.

For centuries after the fall of Rome, and even during Roman times, Europe had no organized ‘economy’ from which to develop such an event.  At the risk of a sleep-inducing lecture on Medieval economics, two things prevented fairs from developing earlier: Catholic Europe’s antagonism toward usury including (broadly) the concept of commerce, and the manorial fief system that kept artisans tied to one lord’s manor as their sole market base.

Of course a sort of ‘farmer’s market’ existed in towns and villages,  and Jews, Arabs, and other ‘outsiders’ were allowed (barely) to move goods from one place to another to sell at a profit.  But rampaging Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Huns and Vikings were mere memories by the 12th century, and the Black Death was still 100 years in the future.  Cities swelled in this stable environment.  The manor now had competition.

Merchants made the annual trek to the fields of Champagne to stock up and place orders for luxury goods to feed their voracious markets, both old and new.

The great Champagne Fairs eventually faded as competing regional fairs sprouted up.  One surviving craft activity in Champagne was pottery.  A vestige of those far off days could still be seen centuries later in the rustic redware of Troyes.

I’m looking through one end of a telescope at the colorful, exotic beginnings of the modern craft fair.  What would medieval potters from Troyes see if they looked back at me?

Reading:

The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950 – 1350.  Robert Lopez.  Cambridge University Press/Cambridge, England.  1976.

Viva Tonalá

September 21, 2014

Pottery history has it’s share of odd tales.  This is an odd tale. 

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain mentions a Central American “scented clay.”  Pots made from this clay were supposedly popular in 17th century Spain.  I lived a for a few years in Central America.  I regularly interacted with local potters, anthropologists, archeologists, cultural ministry personnel, and other field workers on several ceramics related projects during my time there.  None of us had ever heard of such a clay. 

But that’s not the odd part.  There really was a sort of scented clay – rather a clay that caused flavored effervescence and aroma in water kept in burnished pots made from it.  This pottery was called “Tonalá Bruñida.”  The bright red extremely low fired clay wasn’t from Central America however.  It was mined uniquely in Guadalajara, Mexico.  And  every Central American knows that Mexico is part of North America.  Water in Tonalá pots (until the mine tapped out in the 18th century) fizzed even more when stirred. 

But that’s not the odd part.  Aristocratic Spanish ladies were crazy for Tonalá water jars and mugs.  Drinking from these vessels caused a psychotropic, almost opium-like effect.  The visiting French Countess D’Aulnoy described how after drinking this water the Spanish ladies “went into a trance.  Their stomachs became distended and hard and their skin turned into a yellow color like that of a quince.” 

But that’s not the odd part.  French ladies hated Tonalá.  They thought water kept in these pots tasted like dirt.  They got no psychotropic thrill from drinking the water.  They were disgusted by the smell of it. 

That’s probably not so odd.  Anyway, the very low temperature at which Tonalá was fired made it extremely fragile.  Breakage was common.  That was a good thing, because the Spanish ladies got an extra buzz by eating the broken shards and dust.   This was positively too barbaric for the French ladies.  Even the adventurous Countess D’Aulnoy, who gave it a try, later confided “I would have preferred to eat sandstone…”

The odd part (to me anyway) is how this situation was seemingly looked upon as simply a ladies “vanitas” activity.  Bubbly, intoxicating drinks and chewy, cosmic pottery?  Where were the gentlemen?

Readings:

Cerámica y Cultura.  Gavin, Pierce and Pleguezuelo, eds.  University of New Mexico Press/Albuquerque.  2003.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

 

How I Learned To Hate Everything

August 31, 2014

(an editorial thinly disguised as a book review)

A group of potters went to see a “Blue and White” ceramics exhibit at a major museum in a large city.  During the trip, one of the potters lamented how she was taught nothing in college about America’s pottery heritage. 

Most of the potters in the group, being of more or less the same generation, were taught that Asian porcelain was pottery’s culminating expression.  Anything outside that narrative – excepting modern pottery – was background (ie; easily dismissed).  Gaping educational holes were partially filled as individual interests randomly wandered.

Daniel Rhodes defined the ‘official’ narrative during my own college years.  Rhodes’ Clay and Glazes for the Potter, revised edition 1973, was our class bible.  (Boy, am I dating myself!)  Just as important as the book’s technical information were its pictures.  I poured over them and absorbed their implied lesson – see the rest, end with the best: Song Dynasty Chinese Imperial porcelain.  We were certainly offered a generic overview of the ceramic spectrum, but the ultimate lesson remained.

The Rhodes book had two images of early American pots; A sgraffito plate by Georg Hubener of Bucks County, PA, c.1790, and a mass-produced molded stoneware pitcher in the form of a waterfall or whatever by the American Pottery Company of Trenton, NJ, c.1840.  Without context or hint of other efforts, and compared to those oil spot and celadon glazes, I concluded, “no thanks.”

That “no thanks” attitude wasn’t so much like comparing apples to oranges as it was like believing apples for eating were “better” than apples for making cider, or for baking.  But why compare at all? 

Of course, Daniel Rhodes can’t be all to blame.  There were (are) plenty of books about all sorts of pottery types.  And yes, old Chinese porcelain deserves respect.  But we were poor college students.  The pictures in Rhodes’ book and the resulting chatter around the studio were our gateway (there was no internet back then).  The range of early American (and European) pottery expression hit me only after some intense overseas time induced reflection on my own background.

If we’re never taught that something has value we can easily assume it has no value;  “History is boring!”  “Who cares?”  “Been there, done that.”

When did you first see beyond these ridiculous notions?

Readings:

Clay and Glazes for the Potter, Revised edition.  Daniel Rhodes.  Chilton’s/Radnor, PA.  1973.

The Shiny Little Tile

August 17, 2014

Who could walk away from The Alhambra in Granada, Spain feeling anything but awe?  This vacation palace of the last European Islamic Caliphate was the crown jewel of tin-glazed tile decoration.  All those shiny little Spanish tiles occupy a storied corner of pottery history.

Interior and exterior glazed tiles dominated Iberian architectural styles for centuries.  One wonders why Iberians focused on tiles instead of carved stonework as in so much contemporaneous architecture elsewhere in Europe?  Did Nasrid Moors and later Spaniards not have enough quality stone or qualified masons?   Or did they simply play to their ceramic strength when looking for visually stunning ways to compete with French and Italian stained-glass wonders?

The Iberian tile tradition traveled to the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico and Central America) during Christian Spain’s ‘golden years.’  Tiles were initially imported, as ship’s ballast, until a sufficiently capable tin glazed industry was established in Puebla, Mexico City, and elsewhere.

Particular attention was lavished on the wealthy Viceroyalty’s church buildings.  As a result, Mexico boasts many unique baroque tiled gems, including a convent’s kitchen.  A local bishop commissioned the decoration to honor the kitchen nuns of Puebla’s Santa Rosa Convent in recognition of their spicy new chocolate sauce called mole poblano.

Then there’s Puebla’s “Casa de Muňecos,” or “Figurine House.”  A cursory description might not place this edifice on the short list of “Mexican baroque tiled gems.”  It wasn’t even a church building.  It was built in 1792 as the home of Augustín de Ovando y Villavicencio, a local grandee.

One curious feature made the Casa stand out – it’s height.  In a move intended to make a not so subtle point, the Casa was taller than the nearby Alcaldía, or local municipal building.  This situation was either the cause or result of a spat between Ovando and his former cohorts on the local governing council.

A series of large tiled images along the length of the Casa’s facade didn’t help matters.  Each image depicted a grotesquely distorted human figure – thus the building’s name.  Legend has it these figures were intentionally designed to represent Ovando’s impression of each individual member of the town council.  For all to see.  Forever.

Ouch!

Readings:

Cerámica y Cultura.  Gavin, Pierce, and Pleguezuelo, eds.  University of New Mexico Press/Albuquerque, NM.  2003.

The Alhambra.  Robert Irwin.  Harvard University Press/MA.  2004.

Rose Windows.  Painton Cowen.  Thames and Hudson Press/London.  1984.

The Noble Art of Pottery

July 20, 2014

(I’m trying to take a summer break from this stuff in order to get caught up on other work.  Here’s something to pass the time.)

Poets across time have recognized pottery as a metaphor for the great cycle of life.  It’s easy to see why.  Our pots spring from the same earth that they, and ultimately we, return. 

Unfortunately, the cycle of life can look very different to potters facing upcoming bill cycles, yet another pulled muscle in the lower back, or endlessly cyclical glaze problems.  Metaphors aren’t much help in these cases. 

Still, we can take some pride in what our efforts have inspired in others.  The Persian mathematician Omar Kayyám (1048 – 1123) penned a particularly timeless musing.  His collection of Sufi mystic poetry known as “The Rubaiyat” includes the “Kúza-náma,” or “Book of Pots.”  The Kúza-náma was written – and translated – with agendas far beyond a simple pot shop visit.  And wonderfully so.  But even at face value it’s a nice little mis-en-scene:

Listen again one evening at the close
Of Ramazán ere the better moon arose,
In that old Potters Shop I stood alone
With the clay population round in rows.

And, strange to tell, among that earthen lot
Some could articulate, while others not
And suddenly one more impatient cried –
"Who is the potter, pray, and Who the pot?"

Then said another – "Surely not in vain
My substance from the common earth was ta’en
That he who subtly wrought me into shape
Should stamp me back into common Earth again."

Another said – "Why, ne’er a peevish Boy,
Would break the bowl from which he drank in Joy.
Shall He that made the vessel in pure Love
And fancy, in an after rage destroy?"

None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly make
"They sneer at me for learning all awry
What! did the hand then of the Potter shake?"

Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
to grasp this sorry scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

Reading:

The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam.  Edward Fitzgerald.  Dover Thrift Editions/NY.  2011.

Mayan Lily Problems

July 4, 2014

Specialists are like librarians.  They know everything.  At least they handle information well.  The rest of us can only keep our eyes open and hope for the best.  Mayan Drinking Cup

Example: a visit to the Library of Congress in Washington DC.  The LOC’s small collection of pottery in their  “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibit included an 8” straight sided vessel from the Guatemalan lowland Maya circa 600 ad.  This slab-made earthenware pot has a base coat of burnished white slip.  A black swath runs at an angle up the side, encompassing two lilies daubed in red.  The swath ends near the top below an encircling inscription, or “primary standard sequence glyph band.”  The rim is also banded in black.

European fleur-de-lis, symbol of royal prerogative, closely echo the ancient flowers depicted on this pot.  Did Mayan lilies also imply noble aspirations?  Lilies regularly appeared on lowland Mayan pottery.  And much surviving Mayan pottery suggests commemorative usage, particularly suitable for the high-born who could afford such niceties.  But nobody knows what – if anything – lilies represented.

The ‘glyph band’ inscription says the pot was a drinking cup.  While the inscription is also a dedication, it oddly names no specific individual or event.  Maybe the cup was just something a typical Mayan ‘chicha bar’ kept on hand for whatever toast a drunken patron might shout out.  Or perhaps was it a generic ‘gift’ mug, somewhat like a blank greeting card.  Or a tourist-trade item for folks visiting the big city.

Several other Mayan pots in the exhibit had clear but totally meaningless glyphs.  They seemed to offer just the ‘idea’ of writing.  Why?  So illiterate customers could feel a little more highbrow?  Could the potter then charge more, explaining a deeper meaning?  Did the potter also not understand what glyphs meant?

In this context the lily cup  reminds me of certain modern marketing practices.  I’m not sure how to feel about that notion.  Is it a comforting example of how the more things change the more they stay the same?  Is it ironic?  Or is it somehow just disappointing?

Bastard China

June 29, 2014

OK, that title might get some attention.  Perhaps a little context is in order.

Its ironic how many American foods are named after other countries – French toast, English muffins, German chocolate, Spanish rice, Irish stew, Mexican food, Chinese food, etc – yet most nationals of those countries have no idea what these strange American foods are.

A similar phenomenon exists in pottery.  We call many things we make by either their form: plate, bowl, cup, or by their use: colander, teapot, luminary.  But some of our most common glazes carry names of far away people and places: rockingham, bristol, albany (in the 18th/19th centuries), and tenmuku, celadon, shino, oribe, etc (today).

Then there’s tin-glazed white earthenware.  Italians originally called it ‘majolica‘ after the Spanish island of Majorca through which 14th century Italy imported Hispano-Moresque pottery – and Iberian potters.  The French called it ‘faience‘ after Faenza, Italy from which 15th/16th century France imported much early majolica – and Italian potters.  Skipping Holland for the moment, where 15th/16th century faience traveled next – along with French (and Italian) potters – the English called it ‘delft‘ after the eponymous Dutch town – and still more 16th/17th century immigrant Dutch potters.

So what did Dutch potters call this ware?  Trade with China via the Dutch East India Company was hitting its stride just when Delft, Holland became a major pottery center.  Keeping in mind Holland’s fabled marketing sensibilities, the Dutch called tin-glazed earthenware majolica they learned from Italian faience potters ‘porcelain,’ of course.

Customers seeking the cultural trappings associated with high-fired, translucent Chinese porcelain (the real stuff) but who wouldn’t/couldn’t pay it’s high price, soon learned the difference.  Early Dutch ‘porcelain’ was certainly cheap.  It also had a tendency to crack from thermal shock when contacted with boiling hot water for tea.  And why own porcelain if not for drinking tea?  Another name for this peculiar Dutch ‘porcelain’ soon became common: ‘bastard China.’

Reading:

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain. W. Pitcairn Knowles. Scribner’s/New York.

Hervey to Some

June 15, 2014

What’s in a name?  Everything, obviously.  Especially when it’s your own name.

This was particularly true for Goshen, CT redware potter Hervey Brooks (1779-1873).  As a child, his parents referred to him as ‘Harvey.’  When his sister Clarissa moved to Missouri Territory in the 1830’s, she addressed her letters to ‘Harvey.’  When he tried to go west like Clarissa and so many others, his mom wrote to him as ‘Harvey.’  (He only got as far as Granville, NY before eventually returning to Goshen.)  Back home his brother John called him ‘Harvey.’  Surviving letters in Old Sturbridge Village’s research library indicate pretty much his whole family called him ‘Harvey’ his entire life.

Of course, spelling was an iffy art form in the early 19th century.  Standardization came later, thanks in great part to Noah Webster.  But its a fair bet to assume intention with spelling that consistent.  And ‘Harvey’ isn’t such an odd name after all – if a bit rare for the time. 

Yet he wrote ‘Hervey’ on every document he ever signed.  He presented himself to the world as "Hervey" his entire adult life.  Again, consistency.

Why ‘Hervey?’  One theory (supported only by the above mentioned observations) imagines him as an adolescent.  Young and rearing to go.  This was the era between the Revolution and the War of 1812 when the entire country was redefining itself.  Creating the new out of the known.  Maybe youth culture expressed itself then, as it so often does, with slang vocabulary and nick-names unique to that atmosphere.  Maybe ‘Hervey’ was one such nick-name.  Maybe he proudly wore it the rest of his life like an old hippy’s long hair.

But none of his relatives seemed to buy into the ‘Hervey’ thing.  Ever. 

So imagine this scenario.  He died.  His family had to arrange his funeral.  They had to pick out a head stone.  They had to instruct the mason what name to carve onto the stone. 

This was their chance.

What would it be?  ‘Hervey’ or ‘Harvey?’

Hervey Brooks Headstone

Readings:

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860. Paul Lynn.  State University of New York College at Oneonta, New York.  1969. 

 

Lunar Man

June 1, 2014

All the Lunar Men were crazy.  They even called themselves “Lunartiks.”  How else to explain some of their activities?

  • Item: intentionally self-inflicted suffocation (while developing a vacuum sealing apparatus).
  • Item: static electricity parties (while studying effects of electricity).
  • Item: condensed urine injections (while exploring the uses of microscopes in medicine).

Some might counter the Lunar Society of Birmingham, England was simply one of many 18th century philosophical clubs dedicated to expanding the general knowledge base.  The Lunar Society convened between 1765 and 1813.  Their roster included some of the era’s most brilliant movers and shakers including Matthew Bolton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin.  The Lunar Society typified the animating spirit of the Industrial Revolution, a.k.a. the “Age of Reason.” 

They met on the Sunday before each month’s full moon so there would be light to travel home by.  Lunar meetings featured forays into the world of the possible.  Experimentation was the game of the day.  The world was their oyster to study, test, exploit, devour and profit from.

But the urine thing?

Well, maybe they all didn’t do that.  Still, to be a Lunar Man (yes, they were all men) meant being into that sort of thing.  Each Lunar Man brought his own interests and perspectives on scientific topics of the day.  Everyone was equally excited about the others’ revelations.  So if they didn’t all inject condensed urine, they heartily embraced its premise of scientific exploration. 

One thing they didn’t agree on was politics.  The polemics of the French Revolution ultimately broke them apart.

Lunar Men’s inventions included some of the most critical innovations of the time: steam engines, standardized coin minting, geologic, chemical and biological discoveries, improvements in transportation, advances in educational methodology, etc.  And of course Lunar Man Josiah Wedgwood’s thermocouple revolutionized precision firing in the pottery industry.

Potters remember Wedgwood for his thermocouple, his organizing genius and his long list of pottery achievements.  But we should also remember his penchant for experimenting solely for experimentation’s sake.  In other words, for howling at the moon.

Readings:

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World.  Jenny Uglow.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux/New York.  2003.

Ingenious Pursuits, Building the Scientific Revolution.  Lisa Jardine.  Doubleday/New York.  1999.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

 


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