The Hit Parade #9: The Portland Vase

March 1, 2015

428px-Portland_Vase_V&A I don’t particularly like this vase. I find the style tight and constricted.  But it belongs on any ceramic greatest hits list.

Volumes have been written about Josiah Wedgwood’s Portland Vase, c. 1790.  Essentially, it’s 9½” tall with white sprigging on a black “basalt” body (one of Wedgwood’s many nomenclature shenanigans).  It’s a replica, in ceramic, of a Roman cameo glass vase made around 1AD.  Many have hailed it as a defining Masterpiece for both Wedgwood and  England’s Industrial Revolution.

Josiah Wedgwood made his name with the Portland Vase.  But he made his fortunes with his ensuing “Queen’s Ware” line.  That was only possible because of the technical know-how he amassed previous to making the Vase. 

Wedgwood made the Portland Vase knowing nothing about ceramic chemistry beyond personal observations. (Geology wasn’t even a recognized science for another 20 years.)  And some of his materials came from across an ocean, and in areas owned by people at war with Europeans.  And there were practically no maps or roads in those regions.   And the Vase’s imagery (as on the original cameo glass) was one long continuous sprig.  And that one long continuous sprig didn’t smudged upon application (look at it close up).  And the sprig didn’t deform or crack.  And it stayed on during drying and firing.  And the entire process was made to be repeated.  And these processes coalesced a nascent ceramics supply business into being (where would we be without that?).  And his efforts helped coin an entirely new meaning for the word “industry.”

Many potters see Wedgwood’s industrializing efforts, with their logical conclusion being today’s cheap imported stuff available at any WalMart or shopping mall, as the bane of hand made pottery. 

Perhaps.  But there’s a flip side.  Almost overnight, a wide swath of the working class could now afford refined ceramics.  It was purely a marketing ploy, for sure.  But before this moment, anything terribly fancy was out of reach for most people.  Now the masses could aspire to have fine art in their own homes.

Very few objects carry the wallop that this vase does.

If you doubt that last statement, try doing something like the Portland Vase yourself some time – preferably before you make your own list of ceramic greatest hits…

Reading:

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

The Map That Changed The World.  Simon Winchester.  Harper Perennial/London.  2009.

The Hit Parade #10: The Venus of Doln Věstonice

February 22, 2015

“Where to begin?  Ah yes, at the beginning.” – Bilbo Baggins.

Vénus-de-Dolní-VěstoniceBetween roughly 30-40,000  years ago (+/- a few millennia) somebody got the idea to create art.  Thus began human beings.

Who knows what sorts of wood carving, bark weaving, or natural dye paintings have decayed into nothingness over the centuries.  About all that remains are cave paintings, bone etchings and, of course, clay figurines.

Imagine being the very first person to pull a ceramic object from a fire pit.  You just transmuted one material into an entirely different one – on purpose.

People had used clay to line fire pits, make adobe bricks, and even to model animals (they still sit, unfired, in some of those ancient caves) for a few thousand years before this moment.  But in what is now eastern Europe, something new happened.  Thousands of clay pebbles were made specifically to toss into the hottest parts of an open hearth fire.  Some exploded, others didn’t.  Divination, perhaps?  Or just entertainment – the thrill of pre-historic fireworks?

These same forgotten people also made little clay figures and tossed them into the fire.  The figurine shown here is a survivor of that pit, and of the ensuing 25,000 years.  It was uncovered near the Czech village of Doln Věstonice in 1925.  It’s small, like the many other ceramic objects found at the site.  About 4.4. inches tall by about 1.7 inches at its widest.

This figurine has been dubbed the “Venus of Doln Věstonice.”  It is the most evocative Paleolithic sculpture yet unearthed.  To a modern eye it represents a sophisticated reduction of elements to the utmost essentials.  When looking at this object, the overwhelming impulse is to ask “why?”  And “why” is the most powerful word ever devised.

People will wonder into the unimaginable future why the Venus was made.  There will never be an answer.  I’m content just looking at this awe inspiring figurine as if I’m looking directly into the eyes of the first real humans.  Shivers.

Reading:

The Emergence of Pottery.  Barnett and Hoopes, eds.  Smithsonian Press/Washington DC.  1995.

The Hit Parade

February 15, 2015

The next few rounds of this journal come with a very big tip of the hat to Robert Hunter and his 2014 edition of Ceramics in America.  Rob asked this edition’s contributors to each compile a ‘top ten’ list of ceramic items using whatever criteria was relevant to their perspective situations. 

The resulting lists offer an inspired and surprising overview of ceramic history and beyond – and they motivated me to come up with my own list.  So now I look across centuries and continents, following pottery’s intimate role in the long parade of human development.

Many of my selections are indicative of a certain time, place, or topic.  Other items could have been substituted.  And of course some selections are, inescapably, personal favorites or items that have particularly impacted my life. 

I highly encourage anyone interested in this topic to get a copy of Ceramics in America 2014, and to put some time into configuring your own list.  The results will be impressive. 

My ‘greatest hits’ aren’t necessarily chronological or geographical.  And ranking them for overall importance would be an impossibly arbitrary effort.  They are presented, mainly, in no particular order – except the first one…

Reading:

Ceramics in America, 2014.  Robert Hunter, ed.  Chipstone Press/UNH.  2014.

Art History

January 4, 2015

Professor Christopher Roy of the University of Iowa opened my eyes to the place of African efforts in the art world pantheon.  His lesson began with a look at H.W. Janson’s quintessential art history text book “The History of Art.”

The historical overview in Janson’s sweeping tome went like this: Chapter One: Magic and Ritual, the Art of Prehistoric Man, Chapter Two: The Art of Egypt, Three: the The Art of the Near East, then the Aegean, the Classical Greeks, the Romans, Mediaeval art, the Renaissance, the Mannerists, etc. on up to today.  Here was humanity’s aesthetic progress rising from primordial beginning to sophisticated present.

Janson’s opening “prehistoric” chapter included several images of African wood carved sculptures alongside images of Paleolithic cave paintings.  Professor Roy pointed out that all the African sculptures had been made within 50 years of the book’s publication.  Hmmm.

Here was a bad attitude hiding in plain sight.

Later, when studying redware, I found that old sources of information can offer more than stale, ossified opinions.  For example, there is something fresh in reading about “current trends in American pottery,” including an “up and coming” woman named Adelaide Alsop Robineau.

Of course, it doesn’t always come out roses.  Charles Fergus Binns holds a respected position as the founder of Alfred University’s vaunted ceramics program in 1900.  Might a pottery book in his words offer interesting kernels of insight?  His opening chapter on pottery’s historical overview mirrored Hanson’s ‘primordial to sophisticated’ trope.  Binns began with a discussion of American Indian pottery:

“It must always be an open question how much credit for artistic feeling can be given to primitive races…  Crude and unprepared clays were used for the most part but the makers could scarcely have been conscious of the charming color-play produced by the burning of a red clay in a smokey fire.  The pottery of the Indians is artistic in the sense of being an expression of an indigenous art and much of it is beautiful, though whether the makers possessed any real appreciation of beauty is open to doubt.”

He then proceeded from this ‘primordial’ beginning to Classical Greek pottery, then the Romans, etc. etc. etc…

Old knowledge is a valuable resource, not to be ignored lightly.  Just never confuse old knowledge with bankrupt ideas.

Readings:

The History of Art, Second Edition.  H.W. Janson.  Prentis Hall/New York.  1977.

The Potter’s Craft.  Charles F. Binns.  Van Nostrand Co./NY.  1910.

The Pineapple

December 14, 2014

What’s up with the pineapple? 

Pineapple imagery appears on many types of early decorative arts, from grave stones, to hymnals, to quilts, to furniture, to pottery.  Today the pineapple is considered a symbol of hospitality.  Why?  One school of thought explains that serving such a rare, expensive, and highly perishable imported fruit to guests during 18th century social gatherings in England or North America was quite a treat. “Oh my, how hospitable you are!”

The 18th century intelligentsia would have quickly read the intended meaning behind the pineapple image.  They were  well versed both in the language of classical symbolism and the art of social gatherings.  Federalist and Georgian decorative arts, and Neoclassicism in general, was positively replete with  arcane symbolically coded messages.  These messages were mixed and matched to create a variety of commentary to fit whatever occasion presented itself. 

The pineapple was rarely if ever seen on English or North American dinner tables until refrigeration and steam powered transportation made access to it practical.  Pineapples were so rare, in fact, that nobody at the time associated them with anything other than the expensive quirks of the host.  The first recorded reference to the pineapple as a hospitality symbol was in a 1935 promotional booklet about traveling to Hawaii.

What is described today, and reproduced by many in the traditional arts scene, as a pineapple was in fact a pinecone.  18th century socialites well understood the pinecone as a classical symbol of fertility and regeneration. 

In classical Greek mythology, Dionysus the God of Wine held a pinecone topped staff – classical wine making required pine resin.  The famous Dionysian rites were a frolicking romp of fertility and regeneration.  It’s one reason why holiday wreaths often include pinecones instead of pineapples.

Some allowance can be made for mistaking the 18th century pinecone for a pineapple.  When the English first encountered the fruit they visually associated it with the pinecone by calling it a “pine-apple.”  But only a little allowance can be made.  When the classical cannon of symbolism was established nobody in Europe had any idea what a pineapple was.

 Floral Pattern w pineapples c1700

Readings:

Colonial Williamsburg Journal.  Stuff and Nonsense.  Winter 2008.

River Gods

November 16, 2014

A discussion about collecting delftware in 18th century Deerfield, MA titled “River Gods” might seem flirty given that religion and politics are ‘safe’ conversation topics only while lolling about on a sunny beach with close friends.  But who wants to talk religion and politics on a sunny beach?

“River Gods” (the Deerfield River being a major artery of travel and commerce) along with “Mansion People” was a nick-name for Deerfield’s most powerful citizens.  The upper crust.  The one percent. Knowing if these appellations were their idea or everybody else’s might offer telling insight into the personalities of this small group.

The River Gods certainly acted the part of virtual deities.  They rose to prominence during the French And Indian War when necessities of military patronage resulted in consolidated economic clout.  The River Gods came to project an aura of civic righteousness.

Except when it came to delftware.  Delftware was a major status symbol in New England from the beginning of the French And Indian War until the Revolutionary War – precisely when the River Gods held sway.  Delft chargers were popular, but delft punch bowls ruled.  No 18th century social gathering, regardless of social rank, was complete without a round or two of punch, egg pop, sullibub, or other such alcoholic concoction.

The River Gods favored Dutch delftware over English delftware.  Maybe this was because Dutch delftware painting, being directly inspired by Italian faience, was more refined.  Or maybe the Dutch allure stemmed from its unique method of dusting additional layers of glaze over the painted pots, giving an extra glossy veneer.  English delftware by comparison was quirky, less refined, more playful.  This was ironic because the English delftware industry was largely begun by immigrant Dutch potters.

Various parliamentary Navigation Acts dictated that transactions between England’s colonies and the outside world be done via the East India Company.  This assured that non-English goods (Dutch delftware) were either impossible or prohibitively expensive to acquire.  But the River Gods used their own ships for business transactions in the Caribbean.  They simply bypassed the East India Company and purchased Dutch pottery directly in the West Indies.  In legal terms this is called customs fraud, ie: smuggling.

To be a River God was to be the law.  But the adage that nobody is perfect must be applied universally.  Even, or perhaps especially, to River Gods.

Readings:

Delftware at Historic Deerfield 1600 – 1800.  Amanda Lange.  Historic Deerfield/Deerfield MA.  2001.

What They Were Thinking

November 2, 2014

“Where does your clay come from?” is a common question asked at historical pottery demonstrations. Answer: “The ground.”  Another common inquiry, relating to the widespread use of lead glazes by early potters, is “Didn’t they know lead is toxic?  What were they thinking?”

Lead glazes give people the creeps.  But lead was fairly easy to obtain, it was cheap, it had a wide firing range, and it offered a wonderful variety of glaze colors.  Lead is actually one of the world’s greatest glaze materials – except, of course, exposure to it destroys your central nervous system.

So lead glazes require further comment.  Most early American potters didn’t have access to higher firing stoneware clays, which don’t use lead glazes.  It wasn’t until the early 19th century spread of canals and toll roads that shipping prices lowered enough for stoneware to blossom.

A common glaze recipe in the early US had about 10 parts lead to 3 parts loam or sand.  The best lead source came from sheets used to seal tea – tea chest lead – reduced to a white powder by soaking in vinegar.  But most potters went to dry goods merchants who sold imported lead as a paint ingredient.

People knew of lead’s toxicity by the 18th century.  It was called “potter’s rot.”  But end users weren’t immune.  In 1783, a Connecticut doctor blamed a recent “bilius colic”epidemic on all the local lead glazed redware flooding the market during the English embargoes of the time.

Philadelphia and New York newspapers issued challenges to develop alternative glazes.  Federal and State agencies issued periodic warnings against lead use.  But lead glazing persisted well into the 19th century.

Why were people so obstinate?

Insight to that question can be gained by posing a similar set of questions.  Imagine a visitor from 200 years into the future asking people on the street today:  “Didn’t you known nuclear waste takes hundreds of thousands of years to decay?”  “Why did you dump all that garbage into the ocean and rivers?”   “Didn’t you know about global warming?”  “What on Earth were you thinking?”

Readings:

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

The Jug and Related Stoneware of Bennington.  Cornelius Osgood.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

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.

 


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