Archive for the ‘decorative arts’ Category

The Pineapple

December 14, 2014

What’s up with the pineapple? 

Pineapple imagery appears on many types of early decorative arts, from grave stones, to hymnals, to quilts, to furniture, to pottery.  Today the pineapple is considered a symbol of hospitality.  Why?  One school of thought explains that serving such a rare, expensive, and highly perishable imported fruit to guests during 18th century social gatherings in England or North America was quite a treat. “Oh my, how hospitable you are!”

The 18th century intelligentsia would have quickly read the intended meaning behind the pineapple image.  They were  well versed both in the language of classical symbolism and the art of social gatherings.  Federalist and Georgian decorative arts, and Neoclassicism in general, was positively replete with  arcane symbolically coded messages.  These messages were mixed and matched to create a variety of commentary to fit whatever occasion presented itself. 

The pineapple was rarely if ever seen on English or North American dinner tables until refrigeration and steam powered transportation made access to it practical.  Pineapples were so rare, in fact, that nobody at the time associated them with anything other than the expensive quirks of the host.  The first recorded reference to the pineapple as a hospitality symbol was in a 1935 promotional booklet about traveling to Hawaii.

What is described today, and reproduced by many in the traditional arts scene, as a pineapple was in fact a pinecone.  18th century socialites well understood the pinecone as a classical symbol of fertility and regeneration. 

In classical Greek mythology, Dionysus the God of Wine held a pinecone topped staff – classical wine making required pine resin.  The famous Dionysian rites were a frolicking romp of fertility and regeneration.  It’s one reason why holiday wreaths often include pinecones instead of pineapples.

Some allowance can be made for mistaking the 18th century pinecone for a pineapple.  When the English first encountered the fruit they visually associated it with the pinecone by calling it a “pine-apple.”  But only a little allowance can be made.  When the classical cannon of symbolism was established nobody in Europe had any idea what a pineapple was.

 Floral Pattern w pineapples c1700

Readings:

Colonial Williamsburg Journal.  Stuff and Nonsense.  Winter 2008.

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The Shiny Little Tile

August 17, 2014

Who could walk away from The Alhambra in Granada, Spain feeling anything but awe?  This vacation palace of the last European Islamic Caliphate was the crown jewel of tin-glazed tile decoration.  All those shiny little Spanish tiles occupy a storied corner of pottery history.

Interior and exterior glazed tiles dominated Iberian architectural styles for centuries.  One wonders why Iberians focused on tiles instead of carved stonework as in so much contemporaneous architecture elsewhere in Europe?  Did Nasrid Moors and later Spaniards not have enough quality stone or qualified masons?   Or did they simply play to their ceramic strength when looking for visually stunning ways to compete with French and Italian stained-glass wonders?

The Iberian tile tradition traveled to the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico and Central America) during Christian Spain’s ‘golden years.’  Tiles were initially imported, as ship’s ballast, until a sufficiently capable tin glazed industry was established in Puebla, Mexico City, and elsewhere.

Particular attention was lavished on the wealthy Viceroyalty’s church buildings.  As a result, Mexico boasts many unique baroque tiled gems, including a convent’s kitchen.  A local bishop commissioned the decoration to honor the kitchen nuns of Puebla’s Santa Rosa Convent in recognition of their spicy new chocolate sauce called mole poblano.

Then there’s Puebla’s “Casa de Muňecos,” or “Figurine House.”  A cursory description might not place this edifice on the short list of “Mexican baroque tiled gems.”  It wasn’t even a church building.  It was built in 1792 as the home of Augustín de Ovando y Villavicencio, a local grandee.

One curious feature made the Casa stand out – it’s height.  In a move intended to make a not so subtle point, the Casa was taller than the nearby Alcaldía, or local municipal building.  This situation was either the cause or result of a spat between Ovando and his former cohorts on the local governing council.

A series of large tiled images along the length of the Casa’s facade didn’t help matters.  Each image depicted a grotesquely distorted human figure – thus the building’s name.  Legend has it these figures were intentionally designed to represent Ovando’s impression of each individual member of the town council.  For all to see.  Forever.

Ouch!

Readings:

Cerámica y Cultura.  Gavin, Pierce, and Pleguezuelo, eds.  University of New Mexico Press/Albuquerque, NM.  2003.

The Alhambra.  Robert Irwin.  Harvard University Press/MA.  2004.

Rose Windows.  Painton Cowen.  Thames and Hudson Press/London.  1984.

Progress

September 30, 2012

Post-holiday winter means plunging income and skyrocketing expenses.  Short cold days.  Long cold nights.  Not good for difficult or depressing stories.  Those are best left for warmer days…

And so (before it gets too cold) the tale of Jabez Vodrey.  His biography runs as follows; 1797, born in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent; Worked lathes in the Stoke potteries and in Derbyshire; 1827, emigrated to the US; Worked in several places; Produced America’s first Mocha ware; 1860, died.  Sons carried on the trade. 

So far so good.  But the devil is in the details.  Imagine leaving everything you’ve known, knowing you’ll never see it again.  Leaping into the unknown.  This was Jabez Vodrey’s lot.  Many English potters had emigrated to the US with varying success.  The clay was rumored to be fine.  The market certainly was.  Why not move closer to the action, bypass those who drove you from your job?

Jabez and his wife Sarah (a decorator) first went to Pittsburgh.  But finding the right materials to make “fineware” (anything resembling English imports) proved impossible.  Besides, imports ruled.  Serious local competition was quickly squashed.  Start over again. 

An offer came from Jacob Lewis in Louisville, KY in 1829.  Shipping imports up past the Ohio Falls and into town was difficult and expensive.  And Louisville had tantalizingly good raw materials.  This could be the place to finally produce American fineware, safely away from cheap, soul-crushing imports. 

Still, without internet or consistent supply systems it was no easy task to produce even the little that Jabez’s group did.  But all evidence indicates they successfully produced American’s first  fineware Mocha.

A canal opened in 1834, allowing large freighters to bypass the falls.  A marvel of modern progress!  So where was Jabez when he read the headlines?  Coming soon, Stoke’s finest!  At the lowest prices ever!

Jabez probably saw it coming.  But how many times can a person pack up and move on?  He had been chased to the edge.  Imports always won.  Why bother anymore?  Jabez eventually landed in the next great pottery boom town, East Liverpool, OH.  There he and his family, like many others, would make their last stand.

But on that day in 1834 he surely felt he had lost everything he knew.  Again.  All in the name of pottery. 

Readings
Ceramics in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.  University Press of New England/Hanover NH.  2001.

Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939.  Jonathan Rickard.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2006.

 

Youth Culture

September 16, 2012

Many equate the 1960’s with a “youth culture” revolution.  The reality was much more complex, tie-dye notwithstanding.  But few regard the early 19th century in similar terms.  Perhaps things were more complex then too, at least in some ways.

That earlier period saw another decorative ‘revolution.’  Potters, starting in Stoke-on-Trent England, used engobes in bewildering and previously unheard of ways.  Acidic stains dripped onto wet slip created dendritic patterns.  Multi-chambered slip dispensers made  “cat’s eye” and “cable” patterns.  Wet pots rolled in crumbles of colored slip, then left as is or smoothed out, created agate-like effects.  There was also polychrome sponging.  “Fan” patterns.  “Scroddle” (marbled clay) inlay.  Machine lathe notching.  Sprigging.  Feathering.  Marbling.  And more.  Individually or in combination.  Contemporary accounts described this work as “Dipped Ware” or “Mocha Ware.”  Regardless of the name, one would be hard pressed to find a time period that used slips as creatively or as daringly.

Two curious trends get passing mention in Dipped Ware accounts.  Skilled potters emigrated away (were fired) from Stoke, destined for the US and elsewhere.  Due mainly to increasingly mechanized shop work.  At the same time, and for the same reason, young men and women, many just teenagers, increasingly took their place.

Adult designers (probably) worked out (many of) the techniques before turning the kids loose.  Adults still made the molds and worked (many of) the lathes.  But increasing numbers of youth worked in several areas of production, particularly decoration.

What was the social fall out of this sea change?  How must skilled tradesmen have felt to suddenly find themselves redundant?  And replaced by who?  Neighborhood kids!  And what about those kids?  It was borderline slavery to be sure.  Grueling physical labor, interminable hours.

But ample diary entries (from young laborers on these shores, at least) also attest to the factory lure.  Kids got off the farm, away from the house.  They could work in a building full of their peers and earn their own money.  And the product they churned out swept all before it with its flamboyance, its price (pennies), and its massive scale of production.  Mocha became a gold standard in pottery for years.

And it was done by kids.  Difficult?  Yes.  But also empowering?  Liberating?  Awkward in any case.  Then again, we’re talking about youth culture…

Mocha-CreamJug

Readings:
Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939.  Jonathan Rickard.  University Press of New England/Lebanon, NH.  2006.

The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840.  Jack Larkin.  Harper & Row/NY.  1988.

Flow Blue

August 19, 2012

History never repeats itself.  It just rhymes.  Example, the trajectory of blue and white pottery.  Arab attempts to duplicate Chinese porcelain resulted in tin glazed enamel earthenware.  When Arabs added cobalt blue decoration, Chinese porcelain was forever changed – all this thanks to Kublai Khan’s globalization zeal.  Enter the Europeans, hooked from the first anchor dropped in Macao harbor.  Their quest for easily reproducible porcelain (or white clay, anyway) eventually led to Wedgwood’s “Creamware.”  Then to whiter “Pearlware.”  Then to even whiter “Ironstone.”  (An abridged history, but there it is.)

Blue was the spice that fed this circular feeding frenzy.  What emerged was the ultimate in English blue and white transfer printed ironstone.  At it’s best the cobalt saturated transfer print ink made the designs barely distinguishable.  Intensity incarnate.  “Flow Blue.”

Was this just a happy accident?  Cobalt easily “bleeds” in the glaze melt if you’re not careful.  But the subject of blue and white’s addictive appeal fills entire libraries.  That appeal was in full swing long before Flow Blue appeared.  Additional ammonia and calcium in the ink made the blue really flow.  There was nothing accidental about it.  But Stoke-on-Trent potters who began this madness were happy that Flow Blue hid faults in decoration, glazing and firing.

Some Flow Blue was indistinguishable from regular transfer print ware, blue but hardly ‘flown’ at all.  Such variations merely exemplified how the period’s myriad decorative styles were driven by economics; mass production begat mass marketing which begat mass consumerism.  The result?  A fundamental change in how we approached the dinner table, how we took our tea.

Flow Blue has been called a “poor man’s china.”  But price lists of the time belie this notion.  Flow Blue was the most expensive transfer print pottery up to the 1850’s.  Flow Blue stood out from the crowd.  It spanned the arc of Queen Victoria’s rule, if not (entirely) epitomizing Victorian decorative values.  (Flow Blue: 1825 – 1910, Queen Victoria 1837 – 1901.)

Post script:

The other day I added to my meager “poor man’s” collection of early pottery with a set of cracked, chipped Flow Blue plates (Joseph Heath, “Tonquin” pattern, 1840-1850).  Super cheap because of the cracks.  But they are addictive.  I feel their presence without even looking at them.  They sit on my shelf, a throbbing reminder of a time when pottery defined an era.

Flow Blue Plate

Readings:
Flow Blue.  A Collector’s Guide to Patterns, History, and Values.  Jeffery Snyder.  Schiffer/Atglen PA.  2004.

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

 

Rock Will Cover It

June 10, 2012

It wasn’t as if some government agency had written a position paper on post Revolution cultural development – although many individuals did.  Americans believed their arts would flourish once freed from English tyranny.  People were thus urged to favor fancy over purely utilitarian goods.  (“Fancy” meaning an intelligent stimulus toward creative thinking.)

But there’s a funny thing about mercantile capitalism.  Phrases like  “fancy goods” are quickly co-opted by bald-faced mass marketing.  The disappointment of such people as Charles Wilson Peale and Noah Webster was visceral when events turned out differently than expected.

There was probably no clearer, nor more ironic, example of this situation than the trajectory of the Rockingham glaze.

“Rockingham” originally described a rich chocolate brown glaze made on the Marquis of Rockingham’s Swinton estate in Yorkshire, England beginning in 1757.  When the Swinton pottery failed in 1842 the glaze went (quite successfully) to potteries in Derbyshire.  It also went with hordes of emigrating potters to America.

American potters – mostly English émigrés freed from the conventions of their homeland – lost no time in transforming Rockingham into a dripped, splattered, sponged, polychrome marvel.  Pottery from Bennington VT to East Liverpool OH was slathered with it.  Within three years of it’s introduction to these shores, Rockingham by James Bennett of Pittsburg PA won the 1845 Franklin Institute pottery diploma.  Trenton NJ was an epicenter of production, with (émigré) Daniel Greatbatch as perhaps Rockingham’s best practitioner.

Christopher Webber Fenton hoped to mimic Josiah Wedgwood’s nomenclature genius by calling Rockingham he made at the Norton Pottery “Flint Enamel.”  Local potters called Fenton’s nomenclature “humbug.”  Others called Rockingham “Variegated Ware,” “Fancy Ware,” or simply “Rock.”

A discerning eye looking at Rockingham’s finest examples becomes lost in the depths of flowing, layered colors.  At the risk of hyperbole (a common 19th century trait), one could almost see it as a genuine American T’ang glaze.

But most of the tonnage of 19th century Rockingham was quite gaudy.  Therein lay Rockingham’s down side.  The glaze’s overpowering nature could make anything look “fancy.”  So much so that in 1901, years after Rockingham’s craze had run it’s course, James Carr sighed while recounting what might have been a common exchange between pottery owner and shop worker:

“…roughness was the order of the day, and if I made a complaint the answer was: ‘Well boss, Rock will cover it.’”

brown glazed bowl

Readings

Fancy Rockingham Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth Century America.  Diana Stradling.  University of Richmond Museum/Richmond, VA.  2004.

After The Revolution.  Joseph Ellis.  W.W. Norton/New York.  1979.

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 Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

 

The Age of Innocence

November 27, 2011

Potters aren’t generally considered to be among the great film critics.  There’s probably a reason for that – something to keep in mind while reading what follows…

I don’t know if there is a cinematic sub-genre called “expository drama,” but there should be.  Films like “Amadeus,” “Dead Poet’s Society,” or “Round Midnight” aren’t documentaries.  But watching them teaches us something about classical music, poetry, and jazz.

So what about pottery films?  As luck would have it, there is one.  No, not “Ghost.”  It’s a 1993 film called “The Age of Innocence.”

“The Age of Innocence” is an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel set in New York City circa 1875.  The book landed Wharton the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a woman.  The film is a maudlin, sappy, sleeper that tries to make the viewer feel sorry for the travails of the super wealthy.  Well, I suppose even they can have a hard time now and then.  (I’ve not read the book which I’m sure is wonderful for its realistic portrayal of a time and place Wharton lived through.)

Still, if you like Martin Scorsese, the film’s director, or Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, the film’s lead actors, you might enjoy this movie.  But there is another character that isn’t in the credits.  Actually, it’s an ensemble cast and it drives the entire film.  This “cast” is better known as the Decorative Arts.

Late 19th century Victorian porcelain was never one of my favorite styles.  That’s partly because I’d only previously experienced it in glass cases and pictures.  The Age of Innocence is saturated with this body of work (the porcelain, as well as the furniture, silver, crystal, etc.).  The actors sometimes seem to exist merely to adorn the decor.

Period films often get rave reviews (and Academy Awards) for costumes and sweeping scenery.  This one deserves a nod for it’s decorative arts.

So, here’s your homework.  See “The Age of Innocence” some night after all your work is done.  The next day go any Museum with a decent collection of late Victorian porcelain.  Ask yourself afterward if the experience changed your perspective on these items.

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

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

Early American Pottery and China.  John Spargo.  The Century Co./NY.  1926.

 

First Prize

April 24, 2011

Describing pottery as “playing with mud” indicates an obliviousness to the amount of work and worry a small business owner puts in daily.  Almost everything we make is far more cheaply available through virtual slave labor in far away places like China, Bangladesh and El Salvador.  Who, besides those with an uncomfortable inkling that we’re really just adrift on a sea of plunder, cares?

Likewise, a common characterization of early pottery emphasizes secondary or seasonal work.  Hardly worth mentioning, even by those who did it.  “Playing with mud.”  But seasonal occupations were diversification.  If the crops failed, then what?  More to the point, the dismissive notion doesn’t jibe with the numerous awards, medals and “diplomas” dispensed to entrants of regional and national competitions throughout the 19th century.

Many of these events were essentially County Fairs – a popular ‘mania’ of the age.  Potters like James Holmes who won the 1852 Yates County, NY Agricultural Fair diploma for “Best Stoneware” eagerly participated.  But even entering one’s ‘seasonal handiwork’ indicates a level of pride in making that anyone today should recognize.

Other competitions were considerably more prestigious.  The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the  American Institute of New York City issued diplomas for outstanding efforts in the arts and sciences (and continue to do so).  Several states had similar Institutes.  Other organizations, like the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic’s Association functioned as sort of self-help groups.

Some potters tried to leverage their successes for broader aims.  Philadelphia’s William Tucker won the Franklin Institute’s 1827 gold medal and the American Institute’s 1831silver medal for his hard-paste porcelain. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to convince President Jackson to establish favorable tariff terms on French porcelain.

While these competitions spurred artisans to their best efforts, the results weren’t always clear.  The 1826 Franklin Institute gold medal went to Jersey City Porcelain for “best china made from American materials.”  Jersey City Porcelain was the only entrant.  In 1841 Barnabas Edmands and Charles Collier were the sole entrants for the Franklin Institute’s stoneware diploma.

In presenting the diploma, the Institute added “…the covers to the articles were not made with that care and fitness which they deem highly necessary; and they felt surprised that the articles showing such a high state of improvement in the art, should not have met with a greater share of attention in this respect.”

In short, they won the prize but the lids didn’t fit.

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.  Colonial Press/Clinton, MA.  1939.

American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

Early Potters and Potteries of New York State.  William Ketchum.  Funk & Wagnalls/New York.  1970.

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

Southern Folk Art.  Cynthia E. Rubin (ed.).  Oxmoor House/Birmingham AL.  1985.

For Those Who Hated Benjamin Franklin

March 13, 2011

Everybody loves Ben Franklin.  Big, sassy, jovial, quick witted.  In England, many loved and admired his inquisitive mind.  In France he was the friendly face of the American Revolution who, along with dour John Adams, convinced the French to join the cause.  Today, well, everybody just loves him.

English pottery firms scrambled to reclaim the American market after the War of 1812.  They favored American independence – as independent customers, not competitors.   And what better way to regain lost ground than by hyping all the wonderful things about the US on cheap transfer print whitewares?  Popular generals, victorious battles, famous places – it was all grist for the mill.  And of course, a sure fire top seller would be old Ben himself.  Because everybody loved Ben Franklin.

Small whiteware drinking cups and plates with Ben’s sayings plastered all over them were everywhere.  These items seem to have been intended primarily for children.  Much like the “collectible” Star Wars junk that appeared in fast food kids meals from the 1990’s onward.

These dishes sported such Franklinesque pearls as “If you would know the value of money try and borrow some,” “What maintains one vice brings up two children,” “Lost time is never found again,” and “It is easier to suppress the first desire than to gratify all that follow.”

A generation of children grew up staring down at these moralistic lectures.  Seeing them day in and day out must have been a visual equivalent to being told to eat your spinach.  Remember children, Ben knows best.  And besides, everybody loves Ben Franklin…

Readings:
American Patriotic and Political China.  Marian Klamkin.  Scribner’s and Sons/New York.  1973.

…100 Years from Now

October 10, 2010

Eras usually end because nobody cares.  The latest “thing” gets all the attention.  For example, when American hand-made utilitarian pottery died out in the mid 19th century, nobody ran into the street gnashing teeth and pulling hair.

Only with the passage of time can we really understand what happened, our self-absorbed modern penchant for naming current “eras” notwithstanding (ie; The Information Age, The Digital Age, Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, etc. etc. etc.). Who really understands what is happening today?  What will they say of us 100 years from now? Am1876UniStaCen-52009-O-6

But in 1876 something amazing happened.  We looked back.  We  realized the value of something we once had.  And we acted on that realization.

The catalyst was the first World’s Fair to be held in the US, the “International Exposition of 1876” commonly known as the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.  The Civil War was over.  People wanted to move on, to show the world our best.  And we invited the world to stand beside us, show us their best.  The result?  America flopped.

We had lost sight of our heritage.  Our past.  Gone were the uniquely American cobalt slipped stoneware crocks.  Gone were the playful sgraffito worksRedware was a memory.  The daring porcelains, rockinghams, agates, and parians of our pioneering pottery firms had morphed into a soul-less, mass-produced product.

American artisans flocking to the Exhibition saw in the international exhibits a world that knew where it was coming from and where it wanted to go.  Our exhibits confronted our artisans with questions.  “What had we become?”  “What could we become?”  They came away changed.

This was no bunch of hippie luddites.  They were men and women inspired to preserve the past but also to advance American ceramics.  American women were especially motivated by this watershed event.  For many it began with china painting, the first true ‘ceramic-art’ movement in the US.  Two presidential wives and many future leaders in the movement began as china painters.  But any list of Art Pottery leaders must begin with Mary Louise McLaughlin and Maria Longworth Nichols.

Mary Louise McLaughlin’s Centennial experience motivated her to spearhead in 1879 the Queen City OH Pottery Club, America’s first all-women’s pottery organization.  Her efforts set the stage for Rookwood and the blossoming of Art Pottery in Cincinnati.  Rookwood Pottery was founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols, another Centennial convert.  No other pottery matched Rookwood’s uniquely American style.

But there were many others; Newcomb Pottery in New Orleans founded specifically to instruct young women; Mary Chase Stratton’s Pewabic Pottery in Detroit; Linna Irelan’s Art Pottery in San Francisco, CA, which exclusively used native Californian clays.  These and many more set the stage for Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s porcelain work beginning in 1904 and culminating in her magisterial Scarab Vase.  The stage was set for America’s Arts and Crafts revolution.

As Edwin Atlee Barber said: “The existence of a true ceramic art in this country may be said to have commenced with the Fair of 1876.”  Sometimes its nice to recognize on whose shoulders we stand.

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

The Art of the Potter. Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

The Index of American Design. Erwin O. Christensen.  The Macmillan Company/New York.  1950.