Nobody messed with Johannes Neesz and got away with it. Or maybe he just had a peculiar sense of humor. Once upon a time a minister invited Johannes to lunch to discuss an order of dishes the minister wanted, adorned with pious sayings. Johannes arrived promptly but was kept waiting for 2 hours. One of the plates finally delivered read, “I have never been in a place where people eat their dinner so late. Anno in the year 1812.”
Enigmas, or inside jokes, defined late 18th – early 19th century Bucks and Montgomery County PA Germanic “tulip wares.” Flowers, people and animals that no sane person could ever tire of looking at were paired with commentary (maybe or maybe not arcanely reflecting religious sentiments) around the rim. A plate with a beautiful peacock surrounded by vined flowers by Georg Hübener (active 1785 – 1798) read, “Surely no hawk will seize this bird because the tulips bend over it. The kraut is well pickled but badly greased, Master Cook.” Other oddities included “I am very much afraid my naughty daughter will get no man” (Henry Roudebuth, 1813). “Early in the morning I fry a sausage in sour gravy” (Michael Scholl, c.1811). “To consume everything in gluttony and intemperance before my end makes a just testament” (Jacob Scholl).
German emigration beginning in the 1680′s brought a well developed sgraffito style with copper green highlights (unlike English counterparts) to the area. But the late 18th century uniquely American development of the fruit pie caused an explosion in decorated dishes. Dishes by Johannes Neesz (sometimes spelled Nase, or Nesz, as on his 1867 gravestone) stood out. He experimented with black backgrounds for his sgraffito. He combined sgraffito with colored slips.
More importantly, he carried sgraffito beyond just pie plates and onto all sorts of thrown works, from tea sets to pickle jars, shaving basins, and more. Others previously had dallied with this. Others since would go further. But Johannes purposefully pushed the boundaries of what was possible in tulip ware.
That last point is a godsend for modern redware potters. It’s how we justify our ‘interpretive drift’ of splashing sgraffito on just about anything. Because of Johannes, we can substitute “historically accurate” for “this is what I prefer to do.”
Johannes Neesz might respond with another popular sgraffito adage, “Out of earth with understanding the potter makes everything.”
Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters. Edward Atlee Barber. Dover Publications/New York. 1926.
Lead Glazed Pottery. Edwin Atlee Barber. Museum of Philadelphia/Philadelphia. 1907.