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.

 

Arson, Politics and Pottery for the Masses

May 18, 2014

Talk long enough to most potters today and the topic of pyromania will eventually arise.  But talk is cheap.  18th and 19th century redware potters were among the best at torching their shops.  Urban potters could take down large neighborhood swathes as well.  Especially in ports and towns along major waterways.

Of course all that damage was unintentional.  Every spark from barely controllable bottle kilns was a disaster waiting to happen – not to mention the health hazards of lead glazed fumes spewing across densely populated areas.  And the waterfront was prime real estate for potters.  Water was the cheapest way to transport heavy raw materials and bulky, fragile wares.

Town fathers tolerated this situation because many potters did a fair bit of trade.  And many potters were town fathers.

But there were limits.  Pottery was eventually zoned away from the docks and toward less populated areas.  An 1838 provision in the Laws and Ordinances of the Common Council of Albany, NY, an important Hudson River transport hub, stipulated that potteries “upon any lane or street which might be deemed noxious or unwholesome shall be removed upon notice given by the Police Justice or any Alderman.”  Offending potters were also fined $25.

Interestingly, the last major pottery related conflagration in Charleston, MA wasn’t due to pottery making at all.  Not directly, anyway.  Bombardment from British warships in 1775 drove the inhabitants, particularly the dock-side potters, away.  Nobody was around to put out the fires.  Charleston burned to the ground.

Pottery had been a major occupation in Charleston.  But the potters didn’t return.  The British action scattered redware production across New England.  The Redcoats effectively brought pottery to the masses.

The Royal Navy wasn’t aiming at potters per se.  Their operation was against the Sons of Liberty.  The fiery appeal of that raucous, self-ordained band of revolutionary self-determination zealots drew in many Bay area artisans, including Charleston’s potters.

Much later, a similar group with similar motives burst on the scene.  This new group named themselves after the Sons’ signature act on Boston’s Long Wharf during the night of December 16th, 1773.

Both groups became famous for their passionate stand against entrenched oligarchs.  But while one group (obliquely) disseminated pottery and democracy, the other was (quickly and quite concretely) co-opted by the highest bidder.

Readings:
Bunker Hill, A City, A Siege, A Revolution.  Nathaniel Philbrick.  Viking Press/New York.  2013.

Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware.  Brian Cullity.  Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA.  1991.

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.

 

World Class Connoisseurs of Salt-Fired German Stoneware

May 4, 2014

They say Germany’s two greatest contributions to Western Civilization were the Reformation and hops in beer.  And both happened at about the same time.

As condensed history, so it goes.  But hops also radically impacted pottery history.  Everybody wanted beer once early 16th century brewers, village housewives mostly, began producing it.  Kids even got their diluted “little beer” for breakfast.  And the best beer containers, before mass produced glass, were stoneware bottles.  Demand skyrocketed.  Germans had been tinkering with stoneware since the 10th century.  But 16th to 18th century salt-fired German stoneware became world renowned because of beer.

Unfortunately Germany’s Rhineland district, where the best work was made, was a playground of war for centuries.  Whole communities were continually uprooted by chronic warfare.  Rhennish potters from Raeren, Freshcen and Siegburg ultimately ended up in the somewhat calmer Westerwald region.

Along the way they picked up improvements in clays, sprig decorations, and brilliant manganese and cobalt highlights.  Their work spawned off-shoots, reproductions, fakes and revivals long after their dominance had passed.

German stoneware was so popular, English potters couldn’t prevent caveats from diluting their July 22, 1672 Parliamentary Order in Council meant to insulate local markets.  The final bill prohibited imports of “any kind or sort of Painted Earthen Wares whatsoever except those of China, and Stone bottles and Juggs.”

Tons of German stoneware, literally, were shipped to England’s North American colonies during the 18th century.  Ironically beer bottles and beer mugs, “krugen” and “cannen,” were not the top imports.  Chamber pots were.  But drinking vessels were close behind.  And they were scattered almost as far.

Colonists weren’t the only admirers of salt-fired German stoneware, however.  Many Native American burial sites included Westerwald jugs.  When pottery is done well, there are no boundaries to how far it will be collected.

a_westerwald_stoneware_pewter-mounted_armorial_jug_17th_century

Readings:
Stoneware in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.

Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body.  Gérard Gusset.  National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.  1980.

 

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.

 


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