Callot

April 20, 2014

First, a little history.  In 1625 Spanish mercenaries captured the Dutch protestant stronghold of Breda after a long siege during Holland’s war of independence from Spain.  The Spaniards proceeded to lay the already emaciated town to utter waste.  The savage butchery that ensued scarred victims and victors alike.

The engraver Jacques Callot (1592/3 – 1635) memorialized these events in his “Siege of Breda.”  Callot was known for his depictions of festivals, swagger and pageantry, and for his roaming life style.  He was born in the Alsatian town of Nancy but ran away to Rome at age 12 to study art.  He joined a band of gypsies, and later an aristocrat’s coterie.  After getting busted and sent home he apprenticed to a goldsmith.  Callot worked for the Queen of Spain, Ferdinand I of Tuscany and Cosimo II de Medici in Florence.  He did a stint in the Low Countries to gather materials for his “Breda” etchings, then off to Paris and King Louis XIII.  In 1631 Callot returned to Nancy.

Soon thereafter French forces duplicated the Breda carnage by capturing Callot’s home town.  King Louis requested that Callot engrave this “victory.”  Instead Callot created his masterwork series of 18 prints called “The Miseries and Misfortunes of War.”

The “Miseries” chronicled the arc of a typical soldier’s life.  First, an exciting enrollment into the army.  Then troops randomly slash and pillage their way across the countryside.  Enraged peasants eventually fight back.  Military leaders severely punish the more outrageous brigands.  The soldiers began as noble adventurers but surviving veterans end up as crippled beggars in the street.  In the final scene the King doles out rewards to commanders in preparation for the next war.  There is no redemption here.

The Miseries were almost photographic presentations of events forever etched onto Callot’s psyche.  His depictions of war’s brutality remained unequaled until Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” addressed similar depravities by Napoleonic troops in Goya’s beloved Spain 180 years later.

A remarkable thing about Callot’s Miseries is their size.  The extreme inhumanity people were (are) capable of was displayed for all to see on a minuscule scale.  The largest are about 3 x 6 inches.  Callot seemed intent on throwing war’s bloated, oversized significance back into it’s face…

Meanwhile in the European porcelain and faience world, decorators for the next hundred years were inspired by Callot’s pretty etchings of foppish gallants.

Columbine and Pantaloon  Meissen 1741

Reading:
The Indignant Eye, The Artist as Social Critic in Prints and Drawings from the 15th Century to Picasso.  Ralph Shikes.  Beacon Press/Boston.  1969.

 

The Day the World Shrank

April 6, 2014

Before the internet, before the global village, before most people even thought of the planet as a whole, there was Mexican majolica.  The Talavera workshops of Puebla, Mexico produced tin glazed pottery which included the world’s first global imagery.

Potters from Seville, Spain began wheel thrown, glazed pottery in Puebla around 1520.  Everything needed for tin glazing could be found nearby.  This new pottery activity was a ‘men only’ club unlike ‘campesino’ pottery made primarily by women.  Local assistants were trained from scratch.  Most of the extremely talented native potters had been killed (as part of the Aztec literati, they were doomed to extinction).

Mexico was a transit hub for colonial riches flowing from the Pacific to metropolitan Spain.  As such, large shipments of Chinese export porcelain passed through Mexico.  Mexicans were crazy for blue and white.  Talavera’s “refined” ware intentionally imitated the Chinese.

The influence of three continents and four cultures could be seen on Puebla majolica.  Islamic aesthetics encouraged filling the whole space with designs.  European “Istorio” designs focused on narrative stories.  Decorative frills defined the Chinese influence.  And local flora and fauna, such as cacti and jaguars, provided ready inspiration to Mexican potters.  All this on one blue and white surface.  And all this a hundred years before Chinese potteries began slavishly reproducing European designs, or European potteries began slavishly copying Chinese designs.

Things progressed so well that Puebla’s potters formed a guild in 1653.  The Potters Guild regulated production, quality control, sales and (curiously) penalties for counterfeiting.  The Guild folded 100 years later but it’s rules influenced production up to the early 19th century.

Mexicans loved their blue and white majolica.  They especially loved drinking chocolate from majolica mugs.  Well-to-do 18th century Mexican women obsessively drank chocolate from these colorful mugs everywhere and at all times.  But there were limits.  A decree had to be passed banning chocolate drinks in church during masses.

Those ladies’ world must have shrunk a little on that sad day.

Chocolatera, Puebla, early 18th CenturyChocolatero, Puebla, early 18th century.

Readings:

Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

The Emily Johnston De Forest Collection of Mexican Maiolica.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Hispanic Society of America/New York.  1911.

 

Lemnian Earth

March 23, 2014

“The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain” can be a fun read if you don’t mind digging a bit (and if you have no life outside the study of historical pottery).  This dated compendium of minutia concerning all things European includes some pretty odd entries.  But other entries present interesting perspectives on early pottery.  The following description of Lemnian Earth is one such entry:

“A medicinal clay found in the Greek islands of Lemnos and Samos, of great repute for its alleged curative properties.  The clay was prepared and worked into small cakes or tablets, and impressed with a seal by the guardian priestesses of Diana, hence the name given to it; ‘Terra Sigilata,’ or ‘sealed earth.’”

People have used clays for medicinal purposes since before there were even ‘people.’  Archeologists indicate Homo Habilis probably ate calcium rich white clays.  Eating clay, “geophagy” to be precise, has been practiced throughout the ages and on every continent.  Geophagy claims many medicinal benefits beyond being a source of calcium.  Clay absorbs toxins.  It soothes spleen and kidney complaints. Some even say eating certain clays increases sexual behavior.  But there are probably more efficient ways of achieving that last goal in this enlightened age.

Getting back to Lemnian Earth, Bernard Palissy offered a charming little footnote.  He said it was “nothing else than a kind of marl or clayey soil, which is dug deeply… They say that the aforesaid is very astringent.  And since they draw benefit from the aforesaid clay, they open their clay pits every year with great pomp accompanied by ceremonies.”

“Great pomp accompanied by ceremonies.”  My own clay comes from nearby Sheffield Pottery Supply, Inc.  It is dug and processed right there on site.  When I get a new batch, I simply open a bag and get to work.

Yes we live in an enlightened age.  I’m not sure what purpose would be served by eating Sheffield clay.  But I admit a touch of nostalgia for the magic surrounding the old Lemnian clay pits. 

Readings:

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

Clay: The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with Earth’s Most Primal Element.  Suzanne Staubach.  Berkley Hardcover/New York.  2005.

 

The Old Soft Shoe

March 9, 2014

Andrew Duché of Savannah, GA was one of many 18th century devotees of the quest for a true ‘Western’ porcelain formula.  In a May 27, 1738 trustee report by Georgia’s colonial secretary Colonel William Stevens, Duché proclaimed “something very curious, which may turn to good account for transporting, and he is making some tryal of the kinds of clay; a small tea-cup of which he showed me, when held against the light was very near transparent.”

Duché next announced he “had found out the true manner of making porcelain.”  This would make him the first English-speaking person to achieve the quest.  Duché more likely had simply stumbled upon Cherokee “unaker” clay, an American kaolin.  He asked Georgia’s board of trustees for money, a 15 year patent, and more money. 

A board member asked Duché to replicate the porcelain feat.  Duché said he couldn’t until someone gave him money to build a kiln.  An interesting conversation would have ensued had a potter been present.  As it was, the obvious follow-up question was left hanging…

But Duche’s song and dance convinced Georgia’s founder James Oglethorpe.  In 1743, Oglethorpe gave Duché a trip to England to lobby potential backers there.  Duché failed on that count.  But his visit helped spark a chain of events which led to the successful replication of porcelain by other quest devotees. 

Duché’s visit inspired William Cookworthy, a London apothecary, to begin his own search.  Cookworthy ultimately discovered Cornwall stoneBow Pottery, near London, agreed to use unaker in their experiments.  Bow made England’s first true porcelain the next year with Cherokee clay.  And of course Josiah Wedgwood had his ear low enough to the ground to hear of Duché’s curious unaker clay.  Soon Wedgwood agents would be trawling Georgia and the Carolina’s for this white gold’s source. 

Back home, Duché convinced Isaac Parker to hire him.  Isaac and his soon to be widowed wife Grace were attempting New England’s first stoneware production.  Duché went to Cambridge, MA and did whatever it was that he sort of did.  But his tenure there soon ended.  He then faded to obscurity.

These were heady years when the scientific method was still not quite the fully defined, quantifiable process it is today.  Anything was still possible.  You could almost make a living at it.

Readings:

The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

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

 

Adam Smith Wasn’t Always Right

February 23, 2014

In economics, success and growth walk hand in hand.  Except when they don’t.  George Henderson’s Dorchester Pottery Works in Dorchester, MA started as a large industrial stoneware factory but ended up flourishing as a small family run pottery.

George started the business in 1885.  His factory employed 28 workers who turned out “industrial” salt fired stoneware crocks, acid jars, etc.  George built a gigantic newfangled gas fired downdraft kiln in 1914.  It cost a whopping $250,000 and was one of only two of it’s kind in the nation at the time.

This situation presented George with a choice: continue with salt firing (and what salt would do to his phenomenally expensive kiln) or switch to glazed work.  Glazing meant either an Albany slip or a feldspathic Bristol glaze.  George opted for the Bristol glaze.

The British invented the Bristol glaze as an alternative to both lead and salt.  The off-white Bristol glaze used zinc oxide, calcium, feldspar, and china clay to create the world’s first eutectic “trick.”  That is, by mixing zinc and calcium (both requiring very high temperatures to melt), their combined melting point becomes dramatically lower.  Thus, Bristol glazes matured at low temperatures, speeding up firing time and lowering fuel usage.

America imported Bristol glazes since their creation in the early 19th century.  But potters at the New Orleans Exposition of 1884 were especially impressed.  Before 1920 Bristol was generally used in combination with the black Albany slip glaze.  After 1920, it was pretty much Bristol all the way.

When George Henderson died in 1928, his son Charles struggled with the albatross his dad left him. Demand for industrial wares plummeted during the Great Depression.  In 1940, Charles’ wife Ethel took charge.  Ethel scaled everything way back and switched to just tableware.  In the process, Dorchester became the first American pottery to fully develop the Bristol glaze’s potential for precise detail and extreme control of painted decoration.

For the next 40 years Dorchester turned out decorative tableware.  Many of their most popular designs came from customer suggestions.  Ethel and George were even able to retain a few of the Italian potters George’s dad had imported to work in the factory, including their principle thrower Nando Ricci.

Fire destroyed the building and the business in 1979.  But the Dorchester Pottery Works left behind a reassuring legacy; It’s ok to be small.

Readings:

American Stonewares.  Georgeanna Greer.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

Raised in Clay, The Southern Pottery Tradition.  Nancy Sweezy.  Smithsonian Institution Press/Washington DC.  1984.

 

Erin Go Bragh!

February 9, 2014

Ireland might not be the first stop on most people’s tour of historic tin-glazed pottery centers.  But surprises await even on the byways of pottery history…

Irish delftware production began in Belfast around 1697.  Coincidentally, a large deposit of particularly well suited high lime content clay was easily accessible at nearby Carrick Fergus.  This Carrick Fergus clay was so well suited to the job that most English delftware potteries imported it for their own work.  Delft potters (in Holland, that is) imported clay from Norwich, England and mixed it half and half with their own deposits.  But Delft prohibited exportation of it’s own clay to other places. 

Delftware potters of Lambeth, England saw an opportunity in the early 1700’s to cut into Belfast’s market.  They hired John Bird to set up a delftware shop in Dublin.  His first kiln load failed, by all accounts, in a particularly “spectacular” fashion.  Given the history of kiln failures, this must have been quite a failure.  John was immediately fired. 

John Bird had developed a special firebox design for his kilns, using coal as fuel.   John promised to freely share his coal firing technology as part of his original deal with his backers.  John’s patent is the first recorded use of a coal fired kiln.  The technology rapidly spread throughout England and beyond.

Irish delftware sales agents travelled with England’s mercenary armies, virtual mobile towns, operating in the North American colonies during the French and Indian War (aka the Seven Years War).  A large number of Scottish and Irish mercenaries were drafted for the war effort.  Once on American soil, these mercenaries were told to stay (England wanted them out of the way back home).  The ex-pats turned to Ireland for their pottery needs when they settled into villages after the Treaties of Paris and Hubertusburg ended the war in 1763.  What marketing! 

The Scotch Irish mercenaries hated England as a result of their abandonment by the crown.  Their presence in the colonies added considerable fuel to the growing revolutionary fervor.  But that, as they say, is another story altogether…

Erin Go Bragh!

Reading:
English & Irish Delftware.  1570 – 1840.  Aileen Dawson.  British Museum Press/London.  2010.

 

Fist Fights

January 26, 2014

A question arises when pondering the utter chaos currently unfolding in war torn areas across the globe: Where did they get all those guns?  The modern world is flooded with weaponry.  Narrowly defined Second Amendment arguments notwithstanding, a gigantic (and barely regulated) weapons industry makes a damned good profit off of death and destruction.  It wasn’t always like this… 

Anyway, once upon a time an intense rivalry existed between potters in the port city of Vila Nova, Portugal.  Vila Nova was home to a booming tin glazed pottery export industry about 100 years before northern European ‘delftware’ swept all before it.

Not much is written in English about Portuguese pottery.  Lisbon was the first and biggest production center.  As Lisbon’s reputation grew, potters in other areas got in on the trade.  Just before Portuguese independence from Spain in 1635 a huge spike in popularity occurred.  Suddenly all Portuguese, rich and poor, used tin glazed ware.  Most of it was plain, and much of that was intended for convents (Portugal had lots of convents).  But the blue and white stuff was the best in the world at the time.

Vila Nova was well suited for shipping pottery to other places, so potters there wanted in.  The trouble was, they had no clay.  They imported clay from Lisbon.  Vila Nova potters seem to have had no mutually accepted way of dividing up the shipments, except one.  It was not uncommon for fist fights to break out at the docks.  The biggest fists got first in line.

Quality tanked once tin glazing spread to the rest of Europe.  From then on Portugal’s potters basically copied whatever was popular at the time.  And after the rise of Delft, Portuguese wares were mostly directed to their own rural market.

Back on the Vila Nova docks, the potters could have resorted to the courts to settle their differences had they thought to draw up legal contracts for purchasing clay.  But lawyers often get short shrift for hawking their peculiar ‘wares.’ Still, I’d prefer a lawyer’s method of conflict resolution over fist fights.  Even more so over today’s facile method of simply blowing someone’s head off.

Reading:

Portuguese Faience in England and Ireland (British Archaeological Reports International Series).  Tania Manuel Casimiro.   British Archaeological Reports/London.  2011.

 

Fate

January 13, 2014

Instead of ranting on the travails of redware mugs, and by extension all pottery,we offer the musings of a guest contributor.  Benjamin Franklin’sA Meditation on a Quart Mugg” was originally posted on July 19, 1733.  (Presented here in redacted form because Ben could go on once he got up to speed.  For the brave of heart, see this entry’s Comments for the full Meditation.)

Wretched, miserable, and unhappy Mug! I pity thy luckless Lot, I commiserate thy Misfortunes, thy Griefs fill me with Compassion, and because of thee are Tears made frequently to burst from my Eyes.

How often have I seen him compell’d to hold up his Handle at the Bar, for no other Crime than that of being empty; then snatch’d away by a surly Officer, and plung’d suddenly into a Tub of cold Water: Sad Spectacle, and Emblem of human Penury, oppress’d by arbitrary Power!

How often is he hurry’d down into a dismal Vault, sent up fully laden in a cold Sweat, and by a rude Hand thrust into the Fire!

How often have I seen it obliged to undergo the Indignities of a dirty Wench; to have melting Candles dropt on its naked Sides, and sometimes in its Mouth, to risque being broken into a thousand Pieces, for Actions which itself was not guilty of!

How often is he forced into the Company of boisterous Sots, who say all their Nonsence, Noise, profane Swearing, Cursing, and Quarreling, on the harmless Mug, which speaks not a Word!

…And yet, O Mug! if these Dangers thou escapest, with little Injury, thou must at last untimely fall, be broken to Pieces, and cast away, never more to be recollected and form’d into a Quart Mug. Whether by the Fire, or in a Battle, or choak’d with a Dishclout, or by a Stroke against a Stone, thy Dissolution happens; ’tis all alike to thy avaritious Owner; he grieves not for thee, but for the Shilling with which he purchased thee!

If thy Bottom-Part should chance to survive, it may be preserv’d to hold Bits of Candles, or Blacking for Shoes, or Salve for kibed Heels; but all thy other Members will be for ever buried in some miry Hole; or less carefully disposed of, so that little Children, who have not yet arrived to Acts of Cruelty, may gather them up to furnish out their Baby-Houses: Or, being cast upon the Dunghill, they will therewith be carted into Meadow Grounds; where, being spread abroad and discovered, they must be thrown to the Heap of Stones, Bones, and Rubbish; or being left until the Mower finds them with his Scythe, they will with bitter Curses be tossed over the Hedge; and so serve for unlucky Boys to throw at Birds and Dogs; until by Length of Time and numerous Casualties, they shall be press’d into their Mother Earth, and be converted to their original Principles.

Reading

http://www.historycarper.com/1733/07/19/a-meditation-on-a-quart-mugg/

Never Do This

December 29, 2013

Porcelain’s unique allure through the ages has elicited reactions from rapture to duplicity.  William Tucker of Philadelphia, for example, was very proud of his “China Factory.”  It was America’s first successfully sustained porcelain effort

Tucker began in 1825, as Barber recounts, “with no previous knowledge of the composition of the ware…[he] set to work, wholly unaided by the practical experience of others.  He succeeded in a few years in perfecting from new and untried materials a porcelain equal in all respects to the best which England had produced after 80 years of continual experiment.”

Not bad.  The China Factory was a “must see” stop on visitors’  itinerary for Philadelphia.  Tucker even won medals in 1827 from the Franklin Institute and in 1831 from the American Institute.

William Tucker lobbied President Andrew Jackson for tariffs on rival European porcelain makers.  Henry Clay argued William’s bill in the senate.  The bill failed.  But that turned out to be the least of William’s woes.

There was a particularly nasty stretch where nothing went right.  Glazes shivered.  Bodies bloated.   Pots melted onto shelves.  Handles fell off.  Entire kiln loads wasted.  Any potter who has experienced this peculiar form of hell (or is living it right now) knows the desperation heard in William’s “Why me?” 

A deaf and dumb employee supplied the answer.  As William’s brother Thomas related: 

We discovered that we had a man who placed the ware in the kiln who was employed by some interested parties in England to impede our success.  Most of the handles were found in the bottom of the saggars after the kiln was burned. [The] deaf-dumb man in our employment detected him running his knife around each handle as he placed them in the kiln.  At another time, every piece of china had to be broken before it could be taken out of a saggar. We always washed the round O’s, the article in which the china was placed in the kiln, with silex; but this man had washed them with feldspar, which of course, melted, and fastened every article to the bottom.  But William discharged him and we got over that difficulty.”

Porcelain’s allure eventually scaled back to that of a more personal aesthetic appeal.  It should today be unthinkable to consider sabotaging any poor potter’s business – porcelain or not.  After all, we’re just potters.  Why pick on us?

Peace on Earth.  Happy New Year.

Readings:

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States.   Edwin Atlee Barber.   G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

American Potters and Pottery.  John Ramsey.  1939.  Colonial Press/Clinton, MA.

A Treatise on Superfluous Things

December 15, 2013

We owe it all to Wen Zhenheng.  Everything we were taught in college about old Chinese porcelain being the pinnacle of the ceramic art.  Maybe it’s even true.

But Wen didn’t direct his lesson to modern European and American art students.  Wen sought to enlighten his own late Ming Dynasty’s growing ‘middle class.’  His task was tricky.  Wealth from trade with European devils had trickled down to mid-level functionaries.  It was an era of uncomfortable accommodation between the newly well off and the long-time well bred.

Of course the newcomers had no idea what they were doing.  Like their European trading partners, they desired the cultured trappings associated with porcelain.  Unlike Europeans, they knew enough not to settle for gaudy export stuff.  But without access Imperial wares, what were they to do?

Wen’s early 17th century “Treatise on Superfluous Things” showed them the way.  This “Do’s and Don’ts” compilation claimed to be the definitive arbiter of taste for the gentlemanly art of porcelain collecting (amongst other gentlemanly artistic pursuits).

True gentlemen only collected the finest porcelain, according to Wen – ie; porcelain made no later than 200 years before his time (early Ming or before).  The ideal piece should be “as blue as the sky, as lustrous as a mirror, as thin as paper, and as resonant as a chime.”   Wen and his peers emphatically believed in China’s past cultural superiority.  Anyone who owned old porcelain could feel connected to those days of yore.

But just owning fine porcelain wasn’t enough.  One had to show it off in the right way at the right time.  Certain vases could only be shown on tables “in the Japanese style.”  Nothing else would do.   One must “avoid vases with rings, and never arrange them in pairs.”  If flowers were included, “any more than 2 stems and your room will end up looking like a tavern.”

Wen’s dictums were strict.  They had to be.  Then as now, ostentatious wealth bred, more often than it suppressed, vulgarity.  Wen sought to protect cultural ‘insiders’ – that is, anyone who bought his book.

Centuries later Dale Carnegie, Martha Stewart, and even Bernard Leach bought in, each in their own unique way.  Yes, we owe it all to Wen Zenheng.

Early Ming

Readings:

Vermeers Hat. The 17th Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  Timothy Brook.  Bloomsbury Press/New York.  2008.

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 84 other followers