“Don’t it always go to show…”
While reading Alan Caiger-Smith’s book about luster pottery a little while ago, I came across a comment he made concerning the occasional odd pairing of “cryptic sayings” with seemingly unrelated floral imagery on 13th century luster ware from Kashand, Persia (that’s me on a Friday night – a real party animal!). I was reminded of the unusual sayings scrawled around the rims of many Pennsylvania tulip ware pie plates. Is this just a funny little bit of irony, or is there more to the story?
It shouldn’t be surprising that these two unique pottery types, separated by a continent, an ocean, six centuries, and distinct decorative characteristics, share a bit of irony. They both stem from same root. So much stems from this root.
What began as a 9th century interaction of painted decoration on white glazed pottery between T’ang China and Abbasid Iraq bounced back and forth between potters on every continent – except Antarctica – who both drew inspiration from, and offered inspiration to others. This train of thought spanned the globe – sometimes as porcelain, sometimes as tin-glazed earthenware, sometimes as lusterware, sometimes as sgraffito decorated redware. It defined entire cultures – sometimes in the guise of luxury goods, and sometimes as “folk” pottery. It built and destroyed fortunes. It prompted industrialization. It supplied the needs of those on the fringes of empires.
Anything that pervasive for that long must have had a ‘thumb on the pulse’ of essential human creativity and expression.
The standard narrative says the idea collapsed around the end of the 19th century. Modernism swept all before it. In reality, this family of floral decorated pottery adapted and evolved in isolated pockets of production. Soon enough, people began showing an interest in what happened before. A revival began to brew, stimulated by appreciation of the stories places can tell via an explosion of tourism in the early 20th century. An Arts and Crafts Era atmosphere of interest in the hand-made equally spiced things up enough for later generations to catch on (at least in parts of Europe and America).
Today, a small band of intrepid souls delves back into this venerable train of thought by making work in these earlier styles. Sometimes they start from scratch, sometimes they pick up where others left off. Will they be little seedlings that keep the genus alive and moving forward?
“…You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.”
Luster Pottery. Alan Caiger-Smith. New Amsterdam Books/New York. 1985.
Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters. Edward Atlee Barber. Dover Publications/New York. 1926.