Archive for the ‘Middle Ages’ Category

The Used To Be Highway

November 29, 2015

The modern redware potter drives home from a show pondering crazy thoughts like “why am I doing all this,” and “does everything I do look backward?” (stylistically to earlier eras, financially to better shows, etc.)  The redware potter is traveling the Used To Be Highway.

Such a highway exists, of course, but not necessarily in the depressing way described above.  Interpreting historical styles, like redware, falls solidly along a venerable continuum of reproductions, copies, and revivals (and fakes and forgeries) made since ancient times.

Romans, fascinated by earlier Etruscan pottery, commissioned Etruscan style work for many of their lavish pavilions.  Chinese potters copied older work to honor past masters.  Medieval European artisans made historical reproductions for holy pilgrimage tourists.  Copies of 16th century Siegburg stoneware, often from original 16th century molds, were popular during the late 19th century German Gothic revival.  The nascent 19th century American tourist industry considered historical work a patriotic act.  And maintaining traditional cultural expressions in the face of changing times has motivated artists throughout time.

Blue and white pottery gets complicated.  This idea went back and forth in so many ways across the globe that it almost resembles light.  Is light (for example) a wave or a particle?  Is Delft (for example) a copy or an original style?

Then there’s fakes and forgeries. What appears to be simple malfeasance (and often is) can also be a complex issue.  Was early Delftware a forgery?  Are fakes worse than pilfered archeological sites?  What of desperate families peddling fake artifacts in impoverished but historically significant areas, or the work of Ai Wei?

Copying masterpieces was for centuries a principle method of arts instruction.  Intense observational and technical skills are required, and honed, when studying historical artifacts in this way.  A simple test illustrates this point: make two mugs, one which you thought up in your head, the other as an exact replica of someone else’s mug.  Ask yourself afterwards which effort stretched your skills more?

It’s tempting to draw some meaningful conclusion about why potters today might work within historical styles, given the array of available paths.  (Or are these stylistic options just interpretations of a different sort?).  But regardless of the route they took to get there, or the bumps along the way, many potters (and other artisans) who make historically based work will tell you – it’s just tremendously fun to do.

Readings:

Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America.  Donald Webster.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain.  Pitcairn Knowles.  Scribner’s/New York.  1940.

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

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

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries.   John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body.  Gérard Gusset.  National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.  1980.

Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence.  Exhibition Catalogue.  Museum of Our National Heritage/Lexington, MA.  1984.

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Champagne

October 6, 2014

I find myself at yet another outdoor show, hoping it won’t rain or get too windy.  (Instead it’s hot, humid and stifling, the customers are wilting.)  How did I end up here?  How did all this begin?

Actually, it all began in the 12th century with the first of the great Medieval Fairs in the fields of Champagne, northern France.  These fairs were a raucous, sprawling combination of trade show, flea market, and circus.  Similar bazaars developed earlier in the more civilized regions of the Middle East, Africa, India, and China – but that’s another story.

For centuries after the fall of Rome, and even during Roman times, Europe had no organized ‘economy’ from which to develop such an event.  At the risk of a sleep-inducing lecture on Medieval economics, two things prevented fairs from developing earlier: Catholic Europe’s antagonism toward usury including (broadly) the concept of commerce, and the manorial fief system that kept artisans tied to one lord’s manor as their sole market base.

Of course a sort of ‘farmer’s market’ existed in towns and villages,  and Jews, Arabs, and other ‘outsiders’ were allowed (barely) to move goods from one place to another to sell at a profit.  But rampaging Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Huns and Vikings were mere memories by the 12th century, and the Black Death was still 100 years in the future.  Cities swelled in this stable environment.  The manor now had competition.

Merchants made the annual trek to the fields of Champagne to stock up and place orders for luxury goods to feed their voracious markets, both old and new.

The great Champagne Fairs eventually faded as competing regional fairs sprouted up.  One surviving craft activity in Champagne was pottery.  A vestige of those far off days could still be seen centuries later in the rustic redware of Troyes.

I’m looking through one end of a telescope at the colorful, exotic beginnings of the modern craft fair.  What would medieval potters from Troyes see if they looked back at me?

Reading:

The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950 – 1350.  Robert Lopez.  Cambridge University Press/Cambridge, England.  1976.