Archive for July, 2009

Liberty, December 23, 1801.

July 24, 2009

Once upon a time there was a sailing ship – a two masted bark to be exact – named the U.S.S. Liberty.  An image of this ship was indelibly affixed to the side of a creamware pitcher made shortly after December 23, 1801.

The ship was there because of the technique of transfer printing (ceramic decals), mastered in the early 1760’s by John Sandler and Guy Green of Liverpool, England.  Transfer print creamware from Liverpool was all the rage in the United States from independence till after the War of 1812.  That war’s embargo and its economic havoc ultimately destroyed Liverpool’s potters, and helped Staffordshire become “Pottery to the World.”  But that’s another story…

So there, on December 23, 1801, was the U.S.S. Liberty.  It’s flag proudly flying.  Then came December 24, 1801.  The Liberty was ravaged, dismasted in bloody battle.  This can be surmised because, turning the pitcher around, that scene is revealed on the other side.

My question is, Who ordered this pitcher to be made?  The captain’s widowed wife?  The captain of the other ship involved?  Who, or what, did this ship encounter?  Does the pitcher commemorate a defeat?  Or a victory?  Was it even a real event, or simply an allegory?

In any event, the thing I like about this pitcher is that by asking such questions, I feel I am brought closer to the lives of the people who made and used these items.  I believe that contemplating pottery down through the ages makes this a particularly enjoyable exercise.

Liberty 23 December Pitcher Liberty 24 December

Anglo-American Ceramics, Part 1.  Transfer Printed Creamware and Pearlware for the American Market, 1760-1860. David and Linda Arman.  Oakland Press/Portsmouth, RI.  1998.


July 10, 2009

The tulip has been around for a long time.  It’s been called the holiest of flowers, the herald of spring, an aphrodisiac.  The tulip inevitably pops up during any investigation of early American  pottery, an entire branch of which is often called “Tulip Ware.”  Of all the floral motifs available to the potter, the tulip is one of my favorites.  Particularly the more stylized versions.  Some are hardly recognizable, almost cosmic.  But there’s another reason why I appreciate the tulip motif.

In 1570 tulips were introduced into Holland after a long journey from the northern Himalayas via Persia and Ottoman Turkey.  These were not the tulips of today.  They carried a certain virus that caused radical deformation and discoloration, resulting in blooms of singularly fascinating qualities.  The Dutch had never seen anything like it.  They began trading bulbs with genealogies of particularly spectacular blooms.  Higher and higher prices were paid.  Rather than wait for a bloom to evolve, speculators began trading on the bulb’s expected merits.

A futures market evolved.  What was traded was not the bulb, or even the note certifying that a bloom to be was of a particular genus, but on the value attached to the note.  Then on the value attached to the value of the note.  The bulb itself had long since bloomed and died off, if it ever existed at all.  Fortunes were amassed and spent.  All on credit.  The market for bulb futures notes grew into a Tulip Craze of mammoth proportions.

Is this story beginning to sound familiar?  Would any Dutch trader of the time have difficulty jumping into the Derivatives Market of 2008?  There was easy money to be made.  Just wrap a seductive image around a potent lure such as greed, and it is easy to see how far things can go.  It was the world’s first stock market bubble.

The end came on February 1, 1637.  At a market in Haarlem (tulip “markets” were conducted in taverns) a note was put on the block.  Nobody bid.  An awkward silence followed.  In minutes, everyone in the room was frantically trying to sell.  By the end of the week, the Dutch Tulip Market evaporated.  The economy crashed, leaving a wake of devastation…

I love the tulip motif.  I appreciate it’s formal qualities, and it’s iconography.  But most of all, I keep it at the forefront of motifs I employ as a sort of reminder.  Even if only to myself.

Try not to get too carried away.

tulip 12

TulipoMania.  Mike Dash.  Crown Publishers/New York. 1999.

Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.