Archive for June, 2012

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

June 24, 2012

“We make your children’s antiques.”
-Joe Jostes

When does something become antique?  What’s the difference between “antique” and “collectible?”   Does the status of a pot change when its maker retires?  When they die?  A hundred years later?  Where on the continuum would the item lay if it was in a “traditional” style, an extension of what went on before?

I ask because of the number of great craftspeople today who do historically based work.  Some  were brought up that way, some love the challenge of reproductions, and some are just into history and don’t know what else to do with their time.  What they make is an amazing collection of work solidly rooted in respect for the past.

A definitive  list of “traditional” potters is impossible.  But everyone has their favorites.  Here is a brief sampling, a sort of “greatest hits,” of potters I admire.  If I had more time the list would be longer.

Lester Breininger bridged the gap between old and new.  The grand master passed away a few years ago.
Ned Foltz is another who led the way for us youngsters.  I had the great pleasure of actually meeting him once.
Don Carpentier is the undisputed modern master of mocha.
Greg and Mary Shooner are a powerhouse team of lead glazed redware potters.
Michelle Erickson does exacting reproduction work – when she’s not veering off into the blurry world between “traditional” and  “idiosyncratic.”
Julia Smith, semi-retired, had an incredible command of a wide range of period types and styles.
Ken Henderson makes the best Rockingham, hands down.
Sue Skinner and Joe Jostes of S&J Pottery are my favorite, and perhaps the best all around potters.  Walking into their booth at a show is a trip across the spectrum of early pottery.
The “Devonshire Potter,” Doug Fitch must be included here.  He lives in Devonshire, England (duh).  I hardly know of many modern English potters.  But if you’ve seen his work you’ll understand why some of us here are glad he doesn’t live near us – job security!

John Worrell wrote an engaging essay about early 19th century New England potters titled “These Were the Potters that Dwelt among Plants and Hedges.”  Perhaps that was so.  Although I’m sure the people listed above all live in very nice houses, they are the potters who propel the tradition into the future.


“These Were the Potters that Dwelt among Plants and Hedges.”  John E. Worrel.  Old Sturbridge Village/Sturbridge, MA.  1980.

Rock Will Cover It

June 10, 2012

It wasn’t as if some government agency had written a position paper on post Revolution cultural development – although many individuals did.  Americans believed their arts would flourish once freed from English tyranny.  People were thus urged to favor fancy over purely utilitarian goods.  (“Fancy” meaning an intelligent stimulus toward creative thinking.)

But there’s a funny thing about mercantile capitalism.  Phrases like  “fancy goods” are quickly co-opted by bald-faced mass marketing.  The disappointment of such people as Charles Wilson Peale and Noah Webster was visceral when events turned out differently than expected.

There was probably no clearer, nor more ironic, example of this situation than the trajectory of the Rockingham glaze.

“Rockingham” originally described a rich chocolate brown glaze made on the Marquis of Rockingham’s Swinton estate in Yorkshire, England beginning in 1757.  When the Swinton pottery failed in 1842 the glaze went (quite successfully) to potteries in Derbyshire.  It also went with hordes of emigrating potters to America.

American potters – mostly English émigrés freed from the conventions of their homeland – lost no time in transforming Rockingham into a dripped, splattered, sponged, polychrome marvel.  Pottery from Bennington VT to East Liverpool OH was slathered with it.  Within three years of it’s introduction to these shores, Rockingham by James Bennett of Pittsburg PA won the 1845 Franklin Institute pottery diploma.  Trenton NJ was an epicenter of production, with (émigré) Daniel Greatbatch as perhaps Rockingham’s best practitioner.

Christopher Webber Fenton hoped to mimic Josiah Wedgwood’s nomenclature genius by calling Rockingham he made at the Norton Pottery “Flint Enamel.”  Local potters called Fenton’s nomenclature “humbug.”  Others called Rockingham “Variegated Ware,” “Fancy Ware,” or simply “Rock.”

A discerning eye looking at Rockingham’s finest examples becomes lost in the depths of flowing, layered colors.  At the risk of hyperbole (a common 19th century trait), one could almost see it as a genuine American T’ang glaze.

But most of the tonnage of 19th century Rockingham was quite gaudy.  Therein lay Rockingham’s down side.  The glaze’s overpowering nature could make anything look “fancy.”  So much so that in 1901, years after Rockingham’s craze had run it’s course, James Carr sighed while recounting what might have been a common exchange between pottery owner and shop worker:

“…roughness was the order of the day, and if I made a complaint the answer was: ‘Well boss, Rock will cover it.’”

brown glazed bowl


Fancy Rockingham Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth Century America.  Diana Stradling.  University of Richmond Museum/Richmond, VA.  2004.

After The Revolution.  Joseph Ellis.  W.W. Norton/New York.  1979.

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 Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.