Archive for June, 2009


June 27, 2009

In the summer of 2001, I was in Denver, Colorado for a board meeting of Potters for Peace.  During this time a group of us visited the Denver Art Museum’s permanent exhibition of Pre Columbian Ceramics.  It is a truly awe inspiring collection, perhaps the best in the country.

Quite a few pieces there were decorated with a thick, pasty, orange colored engobe known in the Central American Nahuatl language as “Tague” (prononced “taug-weh”).  But on others, the tague seemed thin, almost like a stain.  As I was contemplating these pieces, a thought struck me. I had to go back and check the labels.  Sure enough, all of the pieces with the thin tague were tomb relics (as was almost everything else in the exhibit, admittedly).

Reflecting on the Meso American cultures that produced these works, one trait seemed to stand out: their particularly violent relationship to things religious.  I have never seen any mention of the possibility, but of one thing I was sure:  That wasn’t tague I was looking at.  It was blood.


June 18, 2009

One of the early settlers of the village of Tarrytown, New York, was a  French potter named Claude Requa.  He settled there in 1729 after fleeing from his native France.  He was a Huguenot, a French Calvinist.  At the time, Huguenots were being rounded up by French authorities and given a choice: convert to Catholicism, or life in prison.  Over a century before, King Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing religious tolerance.  But Henry was now gone, and so was the edict.  Huguenot potters like Requa, and his more famous predecessor Bernard Pallisy, were fair game.  Pallisy ended up dying in the Bastille of Lyons in 1589.

But Requa got away.  He and his family gave up everything to spend the rest of their life in a foreign country.  An excavation of the Requa pottery site in Tarrytown revealed many earthenware shards with geometric patterns slip trailed on them.  There was only one exception:  An almost complete platter with the word “Peace” trailed on it.

I have often thought of this platter.  Today, if one sees “Peace” trailed onto a plate, they might think “Yeah, like, peace-out dude.”  But what was Requa trying to say?  Had he finally found peace?  Was he still looking for it?  Was it his testament and warning to the world?  Was it his cherished wish for his fellow humans?

Whatever his motives, I am sure that this must have been a very powerful word to him.  I find that thought very moving.

Peace Plate

Peace Plate by Stephen Earp

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850. Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh ed. Academic Press/New York.  1985.

The Battle of Trafalgar

June 12, 2009

On October 21st, 1805, the English Navy squared off against the combined fleets of France and Spain near the Cape of Trafalgar in southern Spain.  Most historians would probably agree that this pivotal Napoleonic Era sea battle had little, if anything, to do with pottery history.  Those historians may be right, even though ceramic “hand grenades” – jars filled with burning oil – were used in the battle.  And, of course, gaining complete mastery of the seas could only help British dominance of the global pottery trade throughout the 19th century.

Nevertheless, to get an idea of what it must have been like for those hapless sailors, press-ganged into naval service in the early 1800’s – some of whom, surely, must have been from coastal pottery centers like Barnstable and Bidford in Devonshire – follow the video link below.  The entire sequence lasts about 4 minutes.  Be prepared for an initial minute long plot synopsis.  The film itself, though, is quite smashing!

The Arcanum

June 3, 2009

The most arresting image I’ve heard of relating to pottery occurred about 300 years ago in the dungeon of a pleasure palace just outside Dresden, Germany.  On hand was Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and Emperor of Poland.  During a party upstairs, he and a companion had come to see a nervous young alchemist (actually, Augustus’ prisoner) named Johann Böttger.

Years earlier, Augustus “hired” another man, Ehrenfried Von Tschirnhaus, to unlock the secrets of Chinese Porcelain, a trick nobody in Europe had as yet accomplished.  Von Tschirnhaus was a true proto-chemist, employing what would later be known as empirical laboratory practices.  But his efforts failed until Augustus was visited by (ie: kidnapped) a traveling alchemist named Böttger, who claimed to have discovered the Arcanum, the method of turning base metals to gold.  After repeated failures to replicate this feat, Böttger’s life hung in the balance.  He was paired with Von Tschirnhaus, who thought him somewhat of a gifted quack.  The combined efforts of these reluctant lab mates yielded not gold, but the first true European porcelain.  For Augustus, this would come to mean a very real form of white gold.

Anyway, on that fateful day, Augustus had descended to the dungeon where Böttger’s workshop and kilns were.  He wanted to see in person the miraculous process by which all those powders could be turned into porcelaneous gold.  At the very peak of the firing he demanded that the kiln door be removed so he could see the pots inside.  The Elector’s party friend tried to leave for fear of his life, but was held back by Augustus.  Böttger ordered his assistants to remove the bricks…


The Arcanum.  Janet Gleeson.  Warner Books/New York.  1998.