Archive for March, 2014

Lemnian Earth

March 23, 2014

“The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain” can be a fun read if you don’t mind digging a bit (and if you have no life outside the study of historical pottery).  This dated compendium of minutia concerning all things European includes some pretty odd entries.  But other entries present interesting perspectives on early pottery.  The following description of Lemnian Earth is one such entry:

“A medicinal clay found in the Greek islands of Lemnos and Samos, of great repute for its alleged curative properties.  The clay was prepared and worked into small cakes or tablets, and impressed with a seal by the guardian priestesses of Diana, hence the name given to it; ‘Terra Sigilata,’ or ‘sealed earth.’”

People have used clays for medicinal purposes since before there were even ‘people.’  Archeologists indicate Homo Habilis probably ate calcium rich white clays.  Eating clay, “geophagy” to be precise, has been practiced throughout the ages and on every continent.  Geophagy claims many medicinal benefits beyond being a source of calcium.  Clay absorbs toxins.  It soothes spleen and kidney complaints. Some even say eating certain clays increases sexual behavior.  But there are probably more efficient ways of achieving that last goal in this enlightened age.

Getting back to Lemnian Earth, Bernard Palissy offered a charming little footnote.  He said it was “nothing else than a kind of marl or clayey soil, which is dug deeply… They say that the aforesaid is very astringent.  And since they draw benefit from the aforesaid clay, they open their clay pits every year with great pomp accompanied by ceremonies.”

“Great pomp accompanied by ceremonies.”  My own clay comes from nearby Sheffield Pottery Supply, Inc.  It is dug and processed right there on site.  When I get a new batch, I simply open a bag and get to work.

Yes we live in an enlightened age.  I’m not sure what purpose would be served by eating Sheffield clay.  But I admit a touch of nostalgia for the magic surrounding the old Lemnian clay pits. 

Readings:

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

Clay: The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with Earth’s Most Primal Element.  Suzanne Staubach.  Berkley Hardcover/New York.  2005.

 

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The Old Soft Shoe

March 9, 2014

Andrew Duché of Savannah, GA was one of many 18th century devotees of the quest for a true ‘Western’ porcelain formula.  In a May 27, 1738 trustee report by Georgia’s colonial secretary Colonel William Stevens, Duché proclaimed “something very curious, which may turn to good account for transporting, and he is making some tryal of the kinds of clay; a small tea-cup of which he showed me, when held against the light was very near transparent.”

Duché next announced he “had found out the true manner of making porcelain.”  This would make him the first English-speaking person to achieve the quest.  Duché more likely had simply stumbled upon Cherokee “unaker” clay, an American kaolin.  He asked Georgia’s board of trustees for money, a 15 year patent, and more money. 

A board member asked Duché to replicate the porcelain feat.  Duché said he couldn’t until someone gave him money to build a kiln.  An interesting conversation would have ensued had a potter been present.  As it was, the obvious follow-up question was left hanging…

But Duche’s song and dance convinced Georgia’s founder James Oglethorpe.  In 1743, Oglethorpe gave Duché a trip to England to lobby potential backers there.  Duché failed on that count.  But his visit helped spark a chain of events which led to the successful replication of porcelain by other quest devotees. 

Duché’s visit inspired William Cookworthy, a London apothecary, to begin his own search.  Cookworthy ultimately discovered Cornwall stoneBow Pottery, near London, agreed to use unaker in their experiments.  Bow made England’s first true porcelain the next year with Cherokee clay.  And of course Josiah Wedgwood had his ear low enough to the ground to hear of Duché’s curious unaker clay.  Soon Wedgwood agents would be trawling Georgia and the Carolina’s for this white gold’s source. 

Back home, Duché convinced Isaac Parker to hire him.  Isaac and his soon to be widowed wife Grace were attempting New England’s first stoneware production.  Duché went to Cambridge, MA and did whatever it was that he sort of did.  But his tenure there soon ended.  He then faded to obscurity.

These were heady years when the scientific method was still not quite the fully defined, quantifiable process it is today.  Anything was still possible.  You could almost make a living at it.

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.