Archive for March, 2010

More Acquainted With China

March 28, 2010

18th century Jesuits made great travel writers.  18th century China made great fodder for European imaginations.  Together, they made Voltaire say “We are perhaps more acquainted with China than with many provinces of Europe.”  Sadly, Voltaire’s comment might well have been true (to this day some parts of France are unrecognizable to others).  By the mid 1700’s, Chinese blue and white porcelain was already an intimate part of Europe’s Decorative Arts landscape.  Combined with a major tea craze, a touch of arm-chair exoticism, and the growing power of various East India Companies, you can almost see the logic…

If honesty mattered, Angola in southern Africa could have received top billing.  Angola’s “acquaintance” with Europe and it’s American colonies, in the form of huge numbers of people kidnapped into slavery, was immense.  Generations of forced labor living alongside their slaving masters made Europe’s plantation economy possible.  Voltaire knew this.  He also knew how much his contemporaries valued honesty.

Which brings us back to that porcelain.  Especially those wildly popular “Willow Pattern” plates.  The various elements of this pattern told an oriental tale of love and redemption.  To wit:

A mandarin’s daughter, Koong-se, fell in love with his willow_plateaccountant,  Chang.  A fence was built in the apple orchard near the willow to keep Chang out.  A nobleman came by boat to marry the daughter.  During the wedding party in the temple Koong-se escaped with her beloved Chang.  The mandarin, the noble, and others ran across a bridge chasing them. The couple stayed in various safe houses until they were discovered and killed.  The gods, feeling sorry for them, allowed them to live on as two doves flying around in the sky.

Today, nobody cares (or even knows) about the star crossed lovers.  Still the willow, the boat, the temple, the birds, etc., doggedly remain – even on cheap printed pottery from WalMart.  A garbled tribute to the staying power of a quintessential blue and white pattern that once inspired poetry.

…But any blather about “acquaintance” falls apart.  What could be learned of China by looking at imagery invented by a guy named by Thomas Minton in Shropshire, England, in 1780 to sell his new line of porcelain?  The sorry fact is that the Willow Pattern, like so many ingrained memories of commercials in our own youth, was basically a jingle that never went away.

Readings:
China Trade Porcelain. John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA. 1956.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain. Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

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

If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

The Discovery of France.  A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. Graham Robb.  Norton & Co./New York.  2007.

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Potter to the King

March 14, 2010

No.  This isn’t about Josiah Wedgwood.  Although, if he were around today, he’d probably say it should be.  He was potter to a queen.  Still, Wedgwood might assert that his 1763 marketing coup of labeling himself potter to royalty was a first.  It made him rich.  And famous.  But the assertion would be wrong.  He wasn’t the first.

150 years earlier, German immigrant Christian Wilhelm called himself “Gallipotter to the King.”  A “gallipotter” made delftware.  Or faience.  Or maiolica.  Whatever you want to call it.  He called it, for reasons lost to time, “gallipots.”  The king to whom he was potter would a few years later also lose something.  His head.  He was Charles I.

At the time, the colorfully painted earthenware coming out of Holland was all the rage.  Charles, as any self-loving king would, liked to surround himself with finery.  And as far as European pottery went, Delftware was right up there.

The English were enthralled.  They sought out delftware potters and their knowledge.  In 1567, Antwerp potters Jaspar Andries and Jacob Janson were two of the first to be enticed  (as refugees with no choice?) to England.  They set up shop in Norfolk.  In 1571 they moved to London, near the future lodgings of William Shakespeare in Aldgate.  They probably chose Norfolk first because of it’s clay, the primary source for potters back in Delft throughout the 17th century.  It also didn’t hurt that practically all the tin used in Holland and Italy for this kind of work came from Cornwall.  The locals eagerly learned the trade.  Delftware potteries in London, Bristol and Lambeth would flourish – until Wedgwood came along.

There was an awkward spell during the Commonwealth era.  With ornamentation out of official favor, most delftware decoration was either subdued or non existent.  G.F. Garner, author of English Delftware, felt this to be a particularly delightful period in that the charming forms were allowed to exist on their own merits.  But some highly decorated items were still made.  Even chargers with images of Charles I.

Christian Wilhelm died in 1630, about 20 years before Charles lost his head.  Had Wilhelm lived maybe he, like so many others, would have knuckled under and produced plain Commonwealth delftware for a time.  Maybe he would have made some of those Charles I chargers that still found their way out the shop door.  And just maybe, had he come up with a more pleasant sounding name than “Gallipotter” to the King, he might have been as well known today as Josiah Wedgwood.

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

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain. W. Pitcairn Knowles.  Scribner’s/New York.  1940?

If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.