The Common Goat

Thomas Bewick’s riveting 1790 publication “A General History of Quadropeds” includes a chapter titled “The Common Goat.” Prints inserted at every chapter end in Bewick’s tome exemplified, for the reader’s edification, ideal versions of each animal in question. In this case we see a boy, let’s call him Billy, playing with his favorite pet goat.

Why is this relevant? For one thing, Bewick’s book was a goldmine for English potters of the time who needed readily available imagery of warm, fuzzy animals to slap onto cheap transfer print wares for domestic and export markets, including the insatiable American market. A plate featuring Billy’s favorite goat fit right in, given the sentimentalized nature of much of that era’s transfer decoration.

The potters who lifted Billy and his goat asked no permission from Bewick, nor offered any royalties. But even before England’s more stringent 1840’s copyright laws, these potters might touch up the bucolic scenes – a frilly border here, a bit of hand painting there – to make their finished products ever more appealing. They adapted the prints to fit their surfaces and their needs.

I first heard of Billy’s goat plate and Bewick’s source prints in Judie Siddall’s “Dishy News.” Her article led me to consider the roles of adaptation and innovation in ceramics.

Cheap 19th century transferwares will probably not interest today’s ceramic artists (or others) who favor expressions of innovation, rather than adaptation, in their craft. After all, innovation brings something new to the table, a more individual touch, instead of merely rehashing old ground.

But isn’t innovation essentially a yardstick by which we measure the relative impact of a potter’s efforts? Transferwares, for example, were a major innovation of the late 18th century. In turn, adaptation is a manifestation of style; a lens through which we may understand the selection and arrangement of cultural, technical, and decorative resources available to a potter.

Overly emphasizing the endless quest for something new under the sun risks simplified “either/or” judgements: is it or is it not innovative? Clearly acknowledging the value and provenance of our resources, and not just how far we bend these to our wills, can offer insights within a communally engaged environment. Isn’t this a more humane way to appreciate pottery efforts through time – and to make pots today?

If it takes a meditation on maudlin transferwares to realize this point, so be it.

Readings:

Dishy News, A Transferware Blog. “Serendipity, Source Prints, Thomas Bewick, and Transferware.” April 5, 2015. Judie Siddall. Blogspot. Accessed June 15, 2018.

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One Response to “The Common Goat”

  1. Evelyn Snyder Says:

    Interestingly, I have noticed a fair amount of modern potters lifting images from the hallowed virtual walls of the internet and with very little alteration to the original (and almost never credit to the photographer), slapping a decal of said image on a piece of handmade work, and selling it (assumingly without permission from or royalties to the person who made the original image). I feel like an old fuddy duddy for looking ascance(I must admit I DO consider it “maudlin”) at the practice. However, my husband is a photographer, and it’s not much easier to make a living that way vs. being a potter. What I do appreciate from this post is realizing that things aren’t that different even in our modern world. Thanks for this interesting comment.

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