Archive for December, 2013

Never Do This

December 29, 2013

Porcelain’s unique allure through the ages has elicited reactions from rapture to duplicity.  William Tucker of Philadelphia, for example, was very proud of his “China Factory.”  It was America’s first successfully sustained porcelain effort

Tucker began in 1825, as Barber recounts, “with no previous knowledge of the composition of the ware…[he] set to work, wholly unaided by the practical experience of others.  He succeeded in a few years in perfecting from new and untried materials a porcelain equal in all respects to the best which England had produced after 80 years of continual experiment.”

Not bad.  The China Factory was a “must see” stop on visitors’  itinerary for Philadelphia.  Tucker even won medals in 1827 from the Franklin Institute and in 1831 from the American Institute.

William Tucker lobbied President Andrew Jackson for tariffs on rival European porcelain makers.  Henry Clay argued William’s bill in the senate.  The bill failed.  But that turned out to be the least of William’s woes.

There was a particularly nasty stretch where nothing went right.  Glazes shivered.  Bodies bloated.   Pots melted onto shelves.  Handles fell off.  Entire kiln loads wasted.  Any potter who has experienced this peculiar form of hell (or is living it right now) knows the desperation heard in William’s “Why me?” 

A deaf and dumb employee supplied the answer.  As William’s brother Thomas related: 

We discovered that we had a man who placed the ware in the kiln who was employed by some interested parties in England to impede our success.  Most of the handles were found in the bottom of the saggars after the kiln was burned. [The] deaf-dumb man in our employment detected him running his knife around each handle as he placed them in the kiln.  At another time, every piece of china had to be broken before it could be taken out of a saggar. We always washed the round O’s, the article in which the china was placed in the kiln, with silex; but this man had washed them with feldspar, which of course, melted, and fastened every article to the bottom.  But William discharged him and we got over that difficulty.”

Porcelain’s allure eventually scaled back to that of a more personal aesthetic appeal.  It should today be unthinkable to consider sabotaging any poor potter’s business – porcelain or not.  After all, we’re just potters.  Why pick on us?

Peace on Earth.  Happy New Year.

Readings:

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

American Potters and Pottery.  John Ramsey.  1939.  Colonial Press/Clinton, MA.

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A Treatise on Superfluous Things

December 15, 2013

We owe it all to Wen Zhenheng.  Everything we were taught in college about old Chinese porcelain being the pinnacle of the ceramic art.  Maybe it’s even true.

But Wen didn’t direct his lesson to modern European and American art students.  Wen sought to enlighten his own late Ming Dynasty’s growing ‘middle class.’  His task was tricky.  Wealth from trade with European devils had trickled down to mid-level functionaries.  It was an era of uncomfortable accommodation between the newly well off and the long-time well bred.

Of course the newcomers had no idea what they were doing.  Like their European trading partners, they desired the cultured trappings associated with porcelain.  Unlike Europeans, they knew enough not to settle for gaudy export stuff.  But without access Imperial wares, what were they to do?

Wen’s early 17th century “Treatise on Superfluous Things” showed them the way.  This “Do’s and Don’ts” compilation claimed to be the definitive arbiter of taste for the gentlemanly art of porcelain collecting (amongst other gentlemanly artistic pursuits).

True gentlemen only collected the finest porcelain, according to Wen – ie; porcelain made no later than 200 years before his time (early Ming or before).  The ideal piece should be “as blue as the sky, as lustrous as a mirror, as thin as paper, and as resonant as a chime.”   Wen and his peers emphatically believed in China’s past cultural superiority.  Anyone who owned old porcelain could feel connected to those days of yore.

But just owning fine porcelain wasn’t enough.  One had to show it off in the right way at the right time.  Certain vases could only be shown on tables “in the Japanese style.”  Nothing else would do.   One must “avoid vases with rings, and never arrange them in pairs.”  If flowers were included, “any more than 2 stems and your room will end up looking like a tavern.”

Wen’s dictums were strict.  They had to be.  Then as now, ostentatious wealth bred, more often than it suppressed, vulgarity.  Wen sought to protect cultural ‘insiders’ – that is, anyone who bought his book.

Centuries later Dale Carnegie, Martha Stewart, and even Bernard Leach bought in, each in their own unique way.  Yes, we owe it all to Wen Zenheng.

Early Ming

Readings:

Vermeers Hat. The 17th Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  Timothy Brook.  Bloomsbury Press/New York.  2008.