Archive for the ‘pottery through the ages’ Category

A Thousand Years of Linguistics

May 15, 2016

caveat: the following train of thought happened entirely after the fact.  The plate shown here resulted purely from a confluence of design ideas, time constraints, and physical limitations.  Thus it ever was for the potter…

Charger, fish
If an efficient way to destroy a culture is to destroy it’s language (or simply kill off it’s  population), then a good way to honor a culture is to learn it’s language (and leave the people  be) – likewise for a culture’s artistic heritage.  But a culture’s visual language can take on a curious life of its own while traveling through the ages.

So, let’s talk delft.  Delft is a creole ceramic expression.  What began in the Arabian peninsula as a blue decorated tin-glazed response to white Chinese porcelain traveled back to China and then sprayed out in various forms, blanketing the globe.  Each stop along the way sprouted whole new styles of expression (like delftware), even as local potters freely drew from what came before.

How cool it would be to trace this language by following a single image or decorative device along it’s entire historical arc!  By seeing that image express change and/or constancy in the hands of an Arabian, Chinese, Indian, Yemeni, Persian, East and North African, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, English, Irish, or Mexican potter.  Maybe curators, collectors, or scholars could identify such an image.  I can’t.  The big picture is too sprawling.

I’ll have to do like the old potters did and make my own ‘little picture.’  This one begins with a collision of two motives – to paint a fish (thus joining the ranks of fish-painting potters), and to wrap my head around an ‘Italianate’ delftware border pattern – combined with a diminishing inventory of blank plates as the clock ran out before a show.

Floating in the background were a 12th century Yuan Dynasty export porcelain bowl intended for the Indian Ocean trade, an early Dutch plate possibly made by an immigrant Italian faience potter, an obsession with Southwark floral imagery that creeps into every unguarded corner when I decorate, my brush and stick learning curve, a vague possibility that I may be related to early Delft potters, and a healthy dose of repetitive muscle strain.

Can one respectfully interpret the range, spirit, and boundaries of a historical style while still telling a unique story?  Who knows?  On the other hand nothing the potter makes exists within, or comes from, a vacuum.

The tale I offer goes something like this: “Here’s me wandering along in the language of pottery history.”

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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.

The Hit Parade #1: Lard Pot

April 26, 2015

As mentioned, sequence of appearance here doesn’t imply hierarchy.  But number’s 1 and 10 make nice ‘book-ends.’

Brooks Lard Pot.php Put a group of potters in a room and tell them all to make the same form.  Each will be different.  Each potter puts their own personality into it.  We’ve all been taught to “put yourself into it” – even if we aren’t sure how, or can’t do it very well.

What if the potters in that room were encouraged instead to “put some humanity into it?”  Who can say what that means?

It used to mean pots like the one shown here.  The term “Lard Pot” refers to one use out of many over the course of a millennia.  And along with being a distinct shape during that entire time, within this form lay the seeds of almost all others in the Euro-American potting repertoire; adding a handle makes a ewer; a lid makes a cook pot; holes make a strainer; constricting the opening makes a jug…

When a form spawns so many others, but still distinctly manifests itself over centuries by thousands of potters, across a vast geographic expanse, using different clays, different wheel types, different kilns, in different cultures, even for different final uses, we should take note.

The pot shown here was a truly collaborative effort between makers, materials, markets and time.  It taps into something far deeper than individual taste.  Of course, the old potters were probably too busy just trying to survive to see it that way.  Still, they created the foundation of what we now call “style.” Material culture style is the primary method of describing and understanding entire civilizations, entire eras.

The days when these pots dominated the scene ended fairly recently, just a couple hundred years ago or so.  (That’s something to consider when pondering the trajectory of modern pottery making.)  And it’s fair to say that since then we’ve made quite a few interesting pots by ‘putting ourselves into it.’  The world will always be better off whenever people recognize that everyone has a story that deserves to be told.

But it’s reassuring to know, as we flail about trying to distinguish ourselves from the crowd, that the old ‘lard pots’ existed.  They gave a solid foundation to our own explorations in clay.  More importantly, they were integral to the survival and growth of the world that gave us our existence.

Art History

January 4, 2015

Professor Christopher Roy of the University of Iowa opened my eyes to the place of African efforts in the art world pantheon.  His lesson began with a look at H.W. Janson’s quintessential art history text book “The History of Art.”

The historical overview in Janson’s sweeping tome went like this: Chapter One: Magic and Ritual, the Art of Prehistoric Man, Chapter Two: The Art of Egypt, Three: the The Art of the Near East, then the Aegean, the Classical Greeks, the Romans, Mediaeval art, the Renaissance, the Mannerists, etc. on up to today.  Here was humanity’s aesthetic progress rising from primordial beginning to sophisticated present.

Janson’s opening “prehistoric” chapter included several images of African wood carved sculptures alongside images of Paleolithic cave paintings.  Professor Roy pointed out that all the African sculptures had been made within 50 years of the book’s publication.  Hmmm.

Here was a bad attitude hiding in plain sight.

Later, when studying redware, I found that old sources of information can offer more than stale, ossified opinions.  For example, there is something fresh in reading about “current trends in American pottery,” including an “up and coming” woman named Adelaide Alsop Robineau.

Of course, it doesn’t always come out roses.  Charles Fergus Binns holds a respected position as the founder of Alfred University’s vaunted ceramics program in 1900.  Might a pottery book in his words offer interesting kernels of insight?  His opening chapter on pottery’s historical overview mirrored Hanson’s ‘primordial to sophisticated’ trope.  Binns began with a discussion of American Indian pottery:

“It must always be an open question how much credit for artistic feeling can be given to primitive races…  Crude and unprepared clays were used for the most part but the makers could scarcely have been conscious of the charming color-play produced by the burning of a red clay in a smokey fire.  The pottery of the Indians is artistic in the sense of being an expression of an indigenous art and much of it is beautiful, though whether the makers possessed any real appreciation of beauty is open to doubt.”

He then proceeded from this ‘primordial’ beginning to Classical Greek pottery, then the Romans, etc. etc. etc…

Old knowledge is a valuable resource, not to be ignored lightly.  Just never confuse old knowledge with bankrupt ideas.

Readings:

The History of Art, Second Edition.  H.W. Janson.  Prentis Hall/New York.  1977.

The Potter’s Craft.  Charles F. Binns.  Van Nostrand Co./NY.  1910.

How I Learned To Hate Everything

August 31, 2014

(an editorial thinly disguised as a book review)

A group of potters went to see a “Blue and White” ceramics exhibit at a major museum in a large city.  During the trip, one of the potters lamented how she was taught nothing in college about America’s pottery heritage. 

Most of the potters in the group, being of more or less the same generation, were taught that Asian porcelain was pottery’s culminating expression.  Anything outside that narrative – excepting modern pottery – was background (ie; easily dismissed).  Gaping educational holes were partially filled as individual interests randomly wandered.

Daniel Rhodes defined the ‘official’ narrative during my own college years.  Rhodes’ Clay and Glazes for the Potter, revised edition 1973, was our class bible.  (Boy, am I dating myself!)  Just as important as the book’s technical information were its pictures.  I poured over them and absorbed their implied lesson – see the rest, end with the best: Song Dynasty Chinese Imperial porcelain.  We were certainly offered a generic overview of the ceramic spectrum, but the ultimate lesson remained.

The Rhodes book had two images of early American pots; A sgraffito plate by Georg Hubener of Bucks County, PA, c.1790, and a mass-produced molded stoneware pitcher in the form of a waterfall or whatever by the American Pottery Company of Trenton, NJ, c.1840.  Without context or hint of other efforts, and compared to those oil spot and celadon glazes, I concluded, “no thanks.”

That “no thanks” attitude wasn’t so much like comparing apples to oranges as it was like believing apples for eating were “better” than apples for making cider, or for baking.  But why compare at all? 

Of course, Daniel Rhodes can’t be all to blame.  There were (are) plenty of books about all sorts of pottery types.  And yes, old Chinese porcelain deserves respect.  But we were poor college students.  The pictures in Rhodes’ book and the resulting chatter around the studio were our gateway (there was no internet back then).  The range of early American (and European) pottery expression hit me only after some intense overseas time induced reflection on my own background.

If we’re never taught that something has value we can easily assume it has no value;  “History is boring!”  “Who cares?”  “Been there, done that.”

When did you first see beyond these ridiculous notions?

Readings:

Clay and Glazes for the Potter, Revised edition.  Daniel Rhodes.  Chilton’s/Radnor, PA.  1973.

On The Road Again

October 28, 2012

potter

You arrive after a nine hour drive.  Your spot is half taken over by another vendor, unwittingly moved there by promoters with too much going on to know better.  Your new spot puts you right where the wind hits hardest and the sun blasts down on you all day.  The promoters schedule all sorts of musicians, games and other “family friendly” activities to make the show “more attractive.”  This strategy works: parents flock to the show looking only to cheaply entertain their kids.  The few actual buyers are equally distracted by all the fun…

Anyone who scratches out a living selling pots at craft fairs can tell this story.  Booth fees, hotel expenses, gas, food, several days away from the shop.  And for what?

Selling pots was a different game in the early 18th century.  Peddlers strapped wooden boxes full of pots on their backs and walked from town to town until everything was sold.  Rain or shine.  In England, both makers and buyers had a name for these particular peddlers.  “Potters” of course.  It was an excruciatingly limited career.  English “potters” disappeared with the rise of toll roads, canals and trains.

But those days aren’t really past.  Women potters in rural Central America still do this.  They balance pots atop their heads and set out on foot to the nearest market town, often several hours away.  Once there they walk the streets hoping to sell.  They can’t be out too late or the walk home will be in the dark.  Very dangerous.  They’re exhausted, with many pots often unsold.  Just then “middle men” in trucks appear out of nowhere.  They offer pennies for the unsold pots.  Everybody knows these guys will drive to much better market areas and make far greater profits.  But what choice is there?

The daughters of these potters see how hard the work is.  How dirty it is.  How little pay there is.  Various “free trade” agreements flood market towns (their life blood) with cheap plastic stuff from China.  It’s no surprise that pottery, once a defining aspect of the local culture, is rapidly fading.  The loss is staggering.

…Back at that silly “family friendly” show, one ponders the arc of progress over the course of years and miles.

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

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques.   Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

A Different Tale

September 2, 2012

It’s been said that with enough time a cage full of monkeys randomly pounding on typewriters could produce the entire works of Shakespeare.  Sadly, the internet has been around long enough to disprove that theory.  The moral to this story?  One should always look over one’s shoulder when confronting data.

Case in point: the porringer.

Examples of this small, handled, shallow bowl that date from as late as the 15th century could have knobbed feet and one or two flat eared handles.  Examples from the 17th century might have loop handles.  By the 18th century, they generally dropped down to a single looped handle.  From the early 19th century they got a little deeper in capacity.  Porringers have been made in almost every lead-glazed earthenware production center of Europe and (Europeanized) America.

It’s ironic that early cups without handles (bowls) were commonly used for drinking, while bowls with handles (cups) were commonly used for eating.

As to it’s name, Dictionary.com describes the “porringer” as:

“Late 15c., alteration of potynger from potage (see pottage) by influence of porridge, with intrusive -n- by 1530s (cf. passenger, messenger).  1515–25; variant of earlier poddinger, akin to late Middle English potinger, nasalized variant of potager, Middle French.”

Sounds reasonable, if somewhat jargony.  Other names and definitions are possible.  For example, “The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain,” tells a very different tale.  In the Encyclopedia small, shallow porridge bowls with handles are called Bagyne Cups:

“…with two flat ears or handles level with the edge of the bowl and projecting horizontally, so-named from the bagynen or beguines, Roman Catholic lay sisters whose order was founded by Lambert Bague the Stammerer.”

So, to name an old bowl as a derivative of porridge, or as the namesake of a stuttering 12th century Monastic bureaucrat?

Got Monkeys?

303 Porringers, Norwalk

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

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

 

41°43 55″N 49°56 45″W

October 15, 2011

Chamber pots elicit more interest from historians than almost any other pottery type.  Maybe it’s just that “potty humor” is so hard to resist, even for professionals.  Historians and especially archeologists would counter that chamber pots provide excellent dating of sites.  Entire chronologies of occupation can be built on the progression of chamber pot styles found at any given location.

The general picture (as relating to England’s North American Colonies) goes sort of like this:

  • Early 17th century, Westerwald grey stoneware chambers are common;
  • Around 1660, Westerwald with manganese decoration begins;
  • After 1689, Rhenish salt glazed chambers arrive  thanks to the co-regency of William and Mary (The sheer volume of German stoneware chambers found here conjures up curious images of ships loaded with chamber pots thrashing their way across the Atlantic.);
  • Around 1700, Delft gets into the market;
  • By the 1740’s, English white salt fired chambers take over;
  • By 1770, Scratch blue is all the rage;
  • Very soon thereafter comes transfer print Creamware;
  • Of course, Chinese export porcelain and local production season the mix.

Chamber pots made very practical – and popular – wedding gifts.  This can be borne out by various endearing sayings written on them such as “Each morning I salute you with a loving caress.”  Or, “When it’s time for you to piss, think of one who gave you this.”  For the biblically minded “Lot’s wife looked back.”  And who could resist a political dig once in a while?  Not Josiah Wedgwood.  While he personally agreed with Prime Minister William Pitt on American independence, he nevertheless saw the profit potential from chambers inscribed “We will shit on Mr. Pitt.”  The list goes on.  And on…

…OK, potty humor.

For me, though, the most powerful emotion that chamber pots elicit is sadness.  I think of the most tragic pot I’ve ever come across.  It’s an ironstone chamber pot.  White, plain, no frills or decorations.  Machine molded probably just before 1912.

By itself, there would be nothing remarkable about this chamber pot.  Except it’s location.  It is sitting perfectly upright on the floor of the Atlantic ocean.  It’s last, and quite probably only user was a passenger on the ill fated RMS Titanic.

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

Ceramics in America.  Quimby, Ian, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850.  Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

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

The English Country Pottery, Its History and Techniques.   Peter Brears.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

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

North Devon Pottery and its Export to America in the 17th Century.  C. Malcolm Watkins.  Smithsonian Inst./Wash DC.  1960.

Clay in the Hands of the Potter, An exhibition of pottery manufacture in the Rochester and Genesee Valley Region c. 1793-1900.   Rochester Museum and Science Center.  1974.

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.

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.

Lard Pot

May 1, 2011

The lard pot.  In relation to today’s efforts to explore clay’s vast plastic  potential, a momentary glance at this form says it all.  A somewhat curvy cylinder.  Big deal.  But nothing is a big deal if you only take a moment to consider it.

First, some history.  The “pot” in question is differentiated from it’s primordial sibling the “pan” by being taller than it is wide.  “Lard pot” is simply a reference to a specific function; storing festering, fly-covered animal fat for use in baking and cooking.  The form served a wide variety of uses both in the U.S. and its original home in Europe and the British Isles.  Several branches of the ceramic family trace their lineage to this original shape; handles led to pitchers; constricted rims became jugs; lids led to bean pots and ultimately casseroles…  But the ‘lard pot’ as a distinct form continued throughout.

Actually this is one of the oldest items in the Anglo-American potting tradition.   It was among the first forms to be made in England’s North American Colonies.  It’s production lasted two millennia until it’s extinction a mere hundred years or so ago.  So ubiquitous was this form that it’s difficult, by sight alone, to ascribe surviving examples to a particular period, place or maker.

The staying power of such a shape – passing through so many generations of hands, so many clays, so many wheels, so many kilns, so many decorative fads, across so many war-torn country sides, buffeted by so many economic and technological storms – is something remarkable.

The lard pot could be placed in a pantheon of archetypal pottery forms, along with other ‘long-distance runners’ like the Spanish/Muslim ánfora, the African beer pot, the Central American comal, and the Asian rice bowl.

Unfortunately, the lard pot epitomizes the clumsy, pedestrian nature of popular contemporary conceptions of early Redware.  But when executed in the hands of a master, it was a study in control.  With no handles, spouts, lids – or even glaze – to hide behind, proportions were critical.  The relation between base, belly and rim had to swell out enough for storage and ease of content removal, without being squat or dumpy.

To make a “lard pot” today is to converse with all those potters who laid out the path before us.  Feeling the old potters presence is a rare thing.  But when it happens, you’re in good company.

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

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

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850. Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

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

A Descriptive Dictionary for 500 Years of Spanish-Tradition Ceramics [13th through 18th Centuries].  Florence and Robert Lister.  Special Publication Series, Number 1/The Society for Historical Archeology.  1980.

Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

Movie Night

February 27, 2011

Several thousand years before anyone knew there would be an Oscar Awards Ceremony, or even a film industry, there was animation.  Well, really there was pottery.  More specifically, there was an earthenware goblet discovered in Shahr-e Sūkhté, also known as “The Burnt City,” an archeological site in southern Iran dating back over 7,000 years.  Archeologists who dug up the goblet in 2008 estimate it to be about 5,200 years old.

It seems the people who made and used this goblet were a peaceful group (to date, not a single weapon has been discovered there).  The Burnt City was huge at a time when cities were pretty new.  The locals spent their time weaving and inventing stuff.  Like backgammon, rudimentary brain surgery, and how to insert a glass eye into the eye socket of a very tall woman.  And animation.

The goblet’s slip decorated rim consists of a series of gazelles alternating with idealized trees.  Researchers transcribed the goblet’s imagery along a continuum so all the way around could be seen at once.  This methodology is often done on many types of pottery, from pre-Columbian to modern, to better study iconography.  The results look like an intentionally repeated representation of a single gazelle leaping up to eat something off of a tree.  This imagery was put on an mpeg file so it could be played as an animated “film.”  The results are fascinating.

Obviously, nobody today can know the intentions of the potter.  But it isn’t hard to imagine someone getting the idea for an animated sequence.  Story telling as fodder for imagery has been around as long as there have been pots to decorate.  So a cartoon about a gazelle?  Why not?

Link:

http://www.cais-soas.com/News/2008/March2008/04-03.htm