The Faces of Romeo

“If love be rough with you, be rough with love.”
Mercutio

Face jugs are among the most talked about examples of 19th century American pottery.  There is no lack of debate over when, where, and why these oddities were first made.  Since people began making pots, they have put faces on them.  But American salt fired stoneware faces hold a unique fascination due their particularly rough, “grotesque” appearance.

The standard narrative begins with a late 19th century interview between ceramic historian Edwin Atlee Barber and Thomas Davies of the Edgefield pottery district town of Bath, South Carolina.  According to Mr. Davies, the first face jugs were made by his slave potters around 1862.  Both men attribute the faces to some crude ‘African Art’ impulse.  Almost all ensuing discussion has been just added detail.  Some faces may have been made for slave graveyards.  Other potters, slave and free, Southern and beyond, also made them but the South Carolina contingent insists on genesis.

The 1862 date references the 1858 arrival of 137 people kidnapped from Cameroon, West Africa, smuggled into South Carolina via Georgia, and sold as slaves 4 decades after the US banned such importation.  One of these people, called Romeo, was bought by one of the pottery making plantations near Davies’ place.  Barber’s none too delicate “African Art impulse” comment (see Comments below) has narrowed to Romeo making or inspiring the first faces – no one knows if he actually worked in a pottery.  If Romeo came from Cameroons’s Fang tribe this would neatly tie the graveyard thesis with Fang “byeri,” wooden ossuary figurines made to protect ancestral bones.

But everyone from Barber to Picasso, who was floored by the ‘crude animalism’ of African masks he copied for his Demoiselles D’Avignon, was more influenced by their own education than by what was in front of them (see Comments below).  These were not random childish expressions.  Years of specialized training went into creating sculptures like the byeri.  Access to them was highly restricted.  When seen, they were usually so coated in years of libations they would hardly have been recognizable (museum examples are typically cleaned and polished).

American face jugs display a far more generic style, regardless of when or where they were made.  Maybe they look the way they do because their makers were simply never trained in facial modeling.  And being made by Edgefield slaves doesn’t preclude the possibility that others made them for their own reasons, entirely unconnected to Davies and Romeo.

By all appearances it seems that face jugs were one of the few genuinely bi-racial American folk art expressions.  Louis Brown, a traditional North Carolina potter, put it this way: “I don’t think they really meant anything.  The public takes it as a joke.  I’ve seen people get mad.  One would accuse another that he looks like that.  But I guess that’s what sells them.”

South Carolina Face Jugs, circa 1862

South Carolina Face Jugs, circa 1862

Readings:

Carolina Clay, Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave. Leonard Todd.  WW Norton & Co.  New York.  2008.

Turners and Burners, the Folk Potters of North Carolina. Charles Zug.  University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill.  1986.

Art and Society in Africa. Robert Brain.  Longman Group Ltd./New York.  1980.

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

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States. Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

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3 Responses to “The Faces of Romeo”

  1. Steve Earp Says:

    This topic needs a much larger arena to adequately cover it all. The following is from Edwin Atlee Barber’s The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States printed in 1920:

    “Before the great influx of business came to the little pottery which was operated by Col. Thomas Davies, at Bath, SC, about the commencement of the Civil War, the negro workmen had considerable spare time on their hands which they were accustomed to enjoy making homely designs in coarse pottery. Among these were some weird looking water jugs, roughly modeled on the front in the form of a grotesque human face, – evidently intended to portray the African features. These were generally known as “monkey jugs,” not on account of their resemblance to the head of an ape, but because the porous vessels which were made for holding water and cooling it by evaporation were called by that name. Col. Davies informed me a few years ago that numbers of these were made during the year 1862. These curious objects labeled “Native Pottery made in Africa,” possess considerable interest as representing an art of the Southern negroes, uninfluenced by civilization, and we can readily believe that the modeling reveals a trace of aboriginal art as formerly practiced by the ancestors of the makers in the Dark Continent.”

  2. Steve Earp Says:

    The following quote is taken from Robert Brain’s Art and Society in Africa, published in 1980:

    “A lot of nonsense has been written about the meaning of groups of sculpture of which we should admit our almost complete ignorance. Fang statuary, for example, have been studied in minute detail. We know their provenance in so far as they come from the Fang of northern Gabon, southern Cameroon and Rio Muni. We may be able to say that they have a ‘harmonious, and expressive’ style. But after this, apart from structural and stylistic studies, there is little to add. And yet these statues were … among the first negro chefs d’oeuvre to become known in Europe in the twentieth century. The modern Fang themselves have no memory whatsoever of the famous masks which so stir the Western art world and have resulted in the most far fetched hypotheses.”

  3. A Greedy Cup « This Day in Pottery History Says:

    […] do with it.  Such items seemed to proliferate in the 18th -19th centuries; the puzzle jug, the face jug, the toby jug, mugs with a model frog or lump of shit in the bottom, whistles, ring jugs, toy […]

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