Archive for the ‘Christopher Webber Fenton’ Category

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.

 

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Pie in the Sky

September 25, 2011

The police came for Julius Norton in New York City.  It didn’t matter that Julius was wealthy.  Intelligent.  Well read.  A gifted musician.  It certainly wasn’t in his nature to commit acts of vice or violence.  As owner of the famous Norton Pottery in Bennington, VT., Julius was in New York on business.  So being clapped in irons must have infuriated him.  Regardless of the charge against him, he surely knew by then the real reason he was stewing in that cell.  He had violated a fundamental principle of good business practice –

Never team up with in-laws.

In those days, a person could be jailed for a business partner’s personal debts.  Julius’ erstwhile partner, and brother in law, Christopher Webber Fenton owed money to lots of people.

Julius inherited a successful stoneware business from his father Luman Norton in 1840.  Julius was slowly growing the business when Christopher  married his sister and burst on the scene in 1845.  Christopher was a scion of another talented pottery family.  His father, Jonathan Fenton, had even written a poem to him as a child about their “pedigree,” prodding him to aim high.

Grow the business you say?  Why not take over the world!  Porcelain!  Agate wareParian sculpturesRockinghamYellow ware!  Anything Staffordshire does we can do better!

For a time, Christopher’s fertile imagination paid off.  Bennington became “the Staffordshire of America.”  The frantic pace during their brief three year collaboration (1845-47) must have been something to witness.  But ideas – and bills – piled up.  To keep it rolling, Julius put in overtime on marketing.  Like his ill fated New York City trip.

In the end, Julius was still a Norton.  Respectability and stability mattered.  The arrest was the last straw.  But others came before.  For example, Julius’ employees were solid neighborhood fellows.  Christopher brought in all sorts of characters to realize his dreams.  Some, like the Englishman Daniel Greatbatch, were amazing.  But many were rabble rousers, often prone to drunken reverie.  One, Alexander Stephens, ended up as Vice President of the Confederate States of America.

After the partnership ended Julius kept some ideas and abandoned others.  He died in 1861.  Christopher continued hatching schemes across the country.  He died in 1865.

But whatever their differences while alive, they’re both equal now.

Julius Norton                  Christopher Webber Fenton

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.

American Stonewares.  Georgeanna Greer.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

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

The Potters and Potteries of Bennington.  John Spargo.  Cracker Barrel Press/Southampton NY.  1926.