Archive for November, 2011

The Age of Innocence

November 27, 2011

Potters aren’t generally considered to be among the great film critics.  There’s probably a reason for that – something to keep in mind while reading what follows…

I don’t know if there is a cinematic sub-genre called “expository drama,” but there should be.  Films like “Amadeus,” “Dead Poet’s Society,” or “Round Midnight” aren’t documentaries.  But watching them teaches us something about classical music, poetry, and jazz.

So what about pottery films?  As luck would have it, there is one.  No, not “Ghost.”  It’s a 1993 film called “The Age of Innocence.”

“The Age of Innocence” is an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel set in New York City circa 1875.  The book landed Wharton the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a woman.  The film is a maudlin, sappy, sleeper that tries to make the viewer feel sorry for the travails of the super wealthy.  Well, I suppose even they can have a hard time now and then.  (I’ve not read the book which I’m sure is wonderful for its realistic portrayal of a time and place Wharton lived through.)

Still, if you like Martin Scorsese, the film’s director, or Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, the film’s lead actors, you might enjoy this movie.  But there is another character that isn’t in the credits.  Actually, it’s an ensemble cast and it drives the entire film.  This “cast” is better known as the Decorative Arts.

Late 19th century Victorian porcelain was never one of my favorite styles.  That’s partly because I’d only previously experienced it in glass cases and pictures.  The Age of Innocence is saturated with this body of work (the porcelain, as well as the furniture, silver, crystal, etc.).  The actors sometimes seem to exist merely to adorn the decor.

Period films often get rave reviews (and Academy Awards) for costumes and sweeping scenery.  This one deserves a nod for it’s decorative arts.

So, here’s your homework.  See “The Age of Innocence” some night after all your work is done.  The next day go any Museum with a decent collection of late Victorian porcelain.  Ask yourself afterward if the experience changed your perspective on these items.

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

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

Early American Pottery and China.  John Spargo.  The Century Co./NY.  1926.


A Bad Ending

November 14, 2011

One cent reward – runaway from the service of the subscriber on the 7th ult. An indented apprentice to the Potting Business by the name of Jason Merrills, about 17 years of age.  Rather large of his age, stocky built, has a large head, large blue eyes, and lightish hair.  Had on when he went away a blue surtout coat, a blue undercoat, blue mixt satinett pantaloons, and is supposed to have had some other clothes with him.  Whoever will return said apprentice shall be entitled to the above reward and no charges.  All persons are forbid harboring or trusting said apprentice on penalty of the law.
Absalom Day
Norwalk March 10, 1824.

“Apprenticeship” is a vague term.  Some believe swapping a few lessons in exchange for studio space counts.  Others consider an in-depth immersion into the daily grunt work of a shop for an extended time to be closer to the mark.  Today, of course, if you pay someone it’s called “employment” (withholding taxes, insurance, overtime, workman’s comp, etc.).

Two centuries ago being an apprentice meant more than just working for someone.  An apprentice became part of the family.  They slept with the kids – usually in the same bed.  They ate at the table.  They worked the farm.  They ‘kept the family secrets.’  They shared the entire life.

Such proximity resulted in all sorts of outcomes.  Some people hit it off.  Some tolerated the situation.  And some hated it.  A fair few of these later sorts, Jason Merrills evidently included, performed some variation of a ‘disappearing act.’

Reading the above Norwalk (CT) Gazette ad one can almost feel the anger Absalom Day felt toward the ‘large headed’ Merrills.  “All persons are forbid harboring or trusting said apprentice…”  This kid was rotten.  He was a lump.  He’ll probably turn out no good.  You’ll see.  As like as not spend all his time in ale houses and watching plays.  A sure sign of a bad character.

Despite Day’s threats, potters had few legal options when a badly needed apprentice disappeared, or disappeared at a badly needed time.  The ad was intended as much to malign Jason Merrills publically as anything.

So if Merrills was that bad, why would Day want him back?

Of course, Absalom Day gives us his answer in the first line of the ad.  Bounty hunters, think about it.


Norwalk Potteries.  Andrew and Kate Winton.  Phoenix Publishing/Canaan, NH.  1981.