Archive for December, 2009

It May Be Remembered

December 20, 2009

It may be remembered that I have made a kiln of ware this summer, consisting of milkpans, some pots, pudding pans & wash bowls, but mostly of stove tubes and flowerpots, and have this day finished burning the same, Hervey Brooks”.  September 23rd, 1864.

Hervey Brooks was a rare breed.  He had been making redware pottery in Goshen CT for almost 60 years.   Others gave up long before, either in favor of stoneware, to work in the mills, or to seek better fortunes elsewhere.

Like most potters then, Hervey wore many hats; selling rags, working the roads, making fence poles, trading everything from clocks to oysters, even publishing music for the Sacred Harp.  In his heyday, Hervey could throw 14 dozen milk pans a day.  All this during the time a farmer had between seasons.  Hervey wasn’t a full time potter.  Nor was he particularly gifted.  But he’s a blessing to posterity because an almost complete record of his output still exists in the ledgers he kept throughout his life.

For those who care to see, Hervey’s notes offer a precious glimpse into his world.  “It may be remembered…”  He was writing to us, today.   “…that I have made a kiln of ware this summer…”  Stove tubes and flower pots were the last hold-out items of the redware trade.  They generally turned the notion of “potter” into a factory worker.  But Hervey wanted us to know he still made the old stuff.  “…and have this day finished burning the same.”

He was then 85 years old.  Hervey had fired only one kiln a year for some time.  This was his last.  Included in the journal entry was an account of his wife’s burial.  They had been married for over half a century.

It is easy to assume, given the wide range of activities that people like Hervey Brooks were involved in, that redware wasn’t considered terribly special – even to its makers.  But ask any potter.  Nobody would write such a note if they didn’t deeply care about what they were doing.

Reading:
Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860. Paul Lynn,  Oneonta State University/New York.  1969.

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The Bloody Duke of Alva

December 7, 2009

Bernard Leach…

…I suppose it was only a matter of time before his name popped up…

…Well, I first heard about Leach, and his famous book on pottery, in college.  Some say Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” almost singlehandedly reformed craft ceramics.  In it he certainly sought to establish a standard that would be eternal.  When I finally saw the tome – it was just a little red book – my first thought was of another little red book.  This one by Chairman Mao.  “That’s it?”

I mention Leach because his book created an impression (at least in my eager mind) of a ‘golden age’ of English pottery during the Middle Ages.  We’d certainly be less today if Leach hadn’t expounded his ideas, and I do enjoy Medieval English pottery.  But by and large, English pottery from 600 to 1400AD was still in a pretty crude state.  True, a few monastic potters late in the period tried to keep up with continental trends.  But in general, the forms were limited to the “potts and panns” (pots simply being more tall than wide, and pans the opposite) of the dairy economy.  Households ate off treen ware (wooden items).  Food storage was crude.  Food preparation was cruder – unless you could afford glass, silver, and a household staff…

Between 1566 and 1648, many things changed.  A group of Spanish provinces, known today as “The Netherlands,” revolted.  The Calvinist Reformation was involved, but harsh foreign rule, as is usually the case, propelled the Dutch Republicans to fight.  Spain sought to snuff out this peasant uprising.  The man hired to do the dirty work was the Duke of Alva.  With his “Blood Court” behind him, the Duke encouraged his troops to a level of depravity not seen again for several centuries.  And that’s saying something!  (ie: Issuing, and trying to carry out, a death warrant against every living soul in the provinces.)  Eventually the Dutch cause won out.  But not before waves of refugees poured into increasingly Puritan (thanks again to Calvin) England.

Those Dutch refugees brought with them their food ways.  They drank from individual cups instead of one big bowl passed from hand to hand, they ate off of ceramic plates, etc.  Dutch potters brought their skill and knowledge.  In a few short years, whole villages of “cuppers” would form.  English potters would be copying Delftware.  And English pottery would blossom…

It is said that great beauty can arise from adversity.  English pottery was certainly enriched by refugees from the wanton devastation of Dutch society.  But if Spain had left the Dutch in peace, the English would have eventually figured it all out by themselves.  That would have been much better.

Readings:
English Delftware. GF Garner.  Van Nostrand Co., Inc./New York.  1948.

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques. Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

A Potter’s Book. Bernard Leach.  Transatlantic Arts, Inc./New York.  1976 (reprinted).

If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noel Hume.  Chipstone Press/Williamsburg.  2006.