Archive for September, 2011

Pie in the Sky

September 25, 2011

The police came for Julius Norton in New York City.  It didn’t matter that Julius was wealthy.  Intelligent.  Well read.  A gifted musician.  It certainly wasn’t in his nature to commit acts of vice or violence.  As owner of the famous Norton Pottery in Bennington, VT., Julius was in New York on business.  So being clapped in irons must have infuriated him.  Regardless of the charge against him, he surely knew by then the real reason he was stewing in that cell.  He had violated a fundamental principle of good business practice –

Never team up with in-laws.

In those days, a person could be jailed for a business partner’s personal debts.  Julius’ erstwhile partner, and brother in law, Christopher Webber Fenton owed money to lots of people.

Julius inherited a successful stoneware business from his father Luman Norton in 1840.  Julius was slowly growing the business when Christopher  married his sister and burst on the scene in 1845.  Christopher was a scion of another talented pottery family.  His father, Jonathan Fenton, had even written a poem to him as a child about their “pedigree,” prodding him to aim high.

Grow the business you say?  Why not take over the world!  Porcelain!  Agate wareParian sculpturesRockinghamYellow ware!  Anything Staffordshire does we can do better!

For a time, Christopher’s fertile imagination paid off.  Bennington became “the Staffordshire of America.”  The frantic pace during their brief three year collaboration (1845-47) must have been something to witness.  But ideas – and bills – piled up.  To keep it rolling, Julius put in overtime on marketing.  Like his ill fated New York City trip.

In the end, Julius was still a Norton.  Respectability and stability mattered.  The arrest was the last straw.  But others came before.  For example, Julius’ employees were solid neighborhood fellows.  Christopher brought in all sorts of characters to realize his dreams.  Some, like the Englishman Daniel Greatbatch, were amazing.  But many were rabble rousers, often prone to drunken reverie.  One, Alexander Stephens, ended up as Vice President of the Confederate States of America.

After the partnership ended Julius kept some ideas and abandoned others.  He died in 1861.  Christopher continued hatching schemes across the country.  He died in 1865.

But whatever their differences while alive, they’re both equal now.

Julius Norton                  Christopher Webber Fenton

Readings:
The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling,.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York. 1977.

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

American Stonewares.  Georgeanna Greer.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

The Potters and Potteries of Bennington.  John Spargo.  Cracker Barrel Press/Southampton NY.  1926.

 

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Make Me Cry

September 11, 2011

Bonin and Morris pickle stand Pickle Dish Stand.  6″ tall.  Soft paste porcelain.  American China Manufactory.  Philadelphia, PA.  1771. 

 

Anyone familiar with this stand wont find anything groundbreaking here.  Anyone who has never seen it before might wonder why they should bother.

These two caveats are critical to understanding what follows.

The most striking thing about the stand is it’s mere existence.  It is a study in extremes; exacting materials never before used here, complex assembly, intended for the finest dining experiences of the wealthiest Philadelphians, a coral theme that only the intelligentsia could fully appreciate.  The sheer audacity of its makers to presume so much!

Gousse Bonnin was a Huguenot dilettante whose only previous potting experience was a brief attempt at crucible making.  George Antony Morris’ forte was asking his dad for financing and connections.  Together, they formed the American China Manufactory in 1770 and immediately aimed for the stars.  The pickle stand was their magnum opus.

It was a perfect plan – a skilled production team (partly lured away from the Bow Porcelain factory in England), local materials Josiah Wedgwood was envious of, boiling secessionist fever, and for good measure a Nonimportation Agreement passed in the 1760’s to placate colonists after the French Indian War.  Local Brahmins Sir Charles Palmer and Benjamin Franklin joined the band wagon.  Customers from as far away as Albany, NY were interested.

Then came the perfect storm.  The Bill lapsed.  Wedgwood, with help from the East India Company, flooded Philadelphia with porcelain five times cheaper than Bonnin and Morris’.  This sort of collusion would soon lead to harbors filled with tea

Bonnin and Morris literally begged for help.  But people who knew their work preferred imports.  People who didn’t just didn’t care.  In 1772 Bonnin and Morris ignobly kicked their master potters out on the street.  Morris moved to South Carolina and promptly died.  Bonnin moped back to England.

Encountering one of their six known remaining pickle stands today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a humbling experience.  It’s in a small case next to a passageway, easy to pass without noticing.  Considering the epic struggle behind the stand’s creation it seems inconsequential, nondescript among the room’s finer artifacts.  But all that work.  All those crushed hopes riding on that fragile little thing.

It’s heartbreaking.  Almost enough to make one cry.

Readings:
Ceramic in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.  Chipstone Press/Williamsburg, VA.  2007.