Archive for February, 2013

A Funny Thing About Agateware

February 24, 2013

Everything about 18th century English Agateware was odd.  Maybe curious is a better word.  Production, sales, and public interest rose and fell in tandem with lulls between other ideas and fashions.  That is, agateware was so bizarre that people took note.  Until something else came along…

Of course, “agateware” (sometimes called “scroddled” ware in the US) refers to swirled layers of colored clays mimicking agate-like surfaces.  There were, are, two kinds.  Thrown (on a wheel) and laid (molded). 

John Dwight made the first recorded thrown agateware in the 1670’s.  Dwight’s Fulham shop was an innovation hotspot but he didn’t make much agate.  When Thomas Whieldon began, in the 1740’s, staining white clays instead of combining different clays of different color breakage dropped and production rose.  By the 1750’s Stoke-on-Trent potters were laying pre-mixed agate strips into molds giving more finely striated surfaces.  Production and sales jumped further, but continued to fluctuate until mass produced English porcelain nailed the coffin lid in the 1780’s.

Current opinion regarding this temperamental pottery’s inspiration points to T’ang Dynasty China; European excavators (robbers) of T’ang funeral sites brought (smuggled) examples of T’ang agateware back to the curiosity cabinets of European gentlemen collectors (fences). 

Potters by then could (and did) copy anything these gentlemen might show them.  Laid agate from 1750 onwards certainly looked technically similar to T’ang work.  This was the era of cheap European knock-offs of up-scale Chinese products.  But China was weakening.  European missionaries and other no-account foreign devils freely roamed the countryside, digging up whatever they chose.

Dwight’s thrown agate happened much earlier, however, when controls were not so porous.  Even if T’ang relics were smuggled out then, Dwight was still “just” a potter – industrial pottery magnates were a couple generations away.  Could he have been that close to the Gentleman collector strata of society?  Or did Dwight rather see humble marbled pilgrim costrels from France or Italy and, in pondering those, he stumbled upon agate layered clays?

Or maybe he thought it up all by himself.  Of course, the idea that an old potter could think something up all by himself, when someone on the other side of the planet did it 900 years earlier, is ridiculous.  Where would be the fun in that?

Readings:
Ceramics in America, 2003.  Robert Hunter, Ed.   University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2003.

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

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

 

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Nothing Too Good For America

February 2, 2013

Those who say punctuation is everything really mean context is everything.  For example, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”  Or is it “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.”  Hmmm.

This game has been played for centuries.  Josiah Wedgwood once wrote in a letter to his partner Thomas Bentley “we can sell nothing too good to America.”

The American market had grown exponentially since independence.  English pottery firms amassed huge fortunes from the insatiable American cash cow.  And Wedgwood, with his “almost American love for the extension of business” was one of the first to the trough.

Of course when he made that comment he meant the American market was so huge, so demanding, that his firm had to aspire to the heights of quality to stand out from the crowd.  Wedgwood learned how to create a buzz through years of marketing experience at home.  He pandered to American nouveau riche with high-end goods which the middle classes could only drool at.  Furthermore, there was enough money in America to sustain even these inflated price points.  How else could he survive in such a competitive market…

Of course when he made that comment he meant the American market was so huge, so profitable, that his firm could get away with selling anything scraped off the shop floor.  Wedgwood pioneered the concept of unloading merchandise whose sole virtue was a rock bottom price tag (“seconds”) to America.  Even these showed a tidy profit.  So why bother with sending anything better…

Of course.

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

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries.  John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.