Archive for the ‘Agate Ware’ Category

A Funny Thing About Agateware

February 24, 2013

Everything about 18th century English Agateware was odd.  Maybe curious is a better word.  Production, sales, and public interest rose and fell in tandem with lulls between other ideas and fashions.  That is, agateware was so bizarre that people took note.  Until something else came along…

Of course, “agateware” (sometimes called “scroddled” ware in the US) refers to swirled layers of colored clays mimicking agate-like surfaces.  There were, are, two kinds.  Thrown (on a wheel) and laid (molded). 

John Dwight made the first recorded thrown agateware in the 1670’s.  Dwight’s Fulham shop was an innovation hotspot but he didn’t make much agate.  When Thomas Whieldon began, in the 1740’s, staining white clays instead of combining different clays of different color breakage dropped and production rose.  By the 1750’s Stoke-on-Trent potters were laying pre-mixed agate strips into molds giving more finely striated surfaces.  Production and sales jumped further, but continued to fluctuate until mass produced English porcelain nailed the coffin lid in the 1780’s.

Current opinion regarding this temperamental pottery’s inspiration points to T’ang Dynasty China; European excavators (robbers) of T’ang funeral sites brought (smuggled) examples of T’ang agateware back to the curiosity cabinets of European gentlemen collectors (fences). 

Potters by then could (and did) copy anything these gentlemen might show them.  Laid agate from 1750 onwards certainly looked technically similar to T’ang work.  This was the era of cheap European knock-offs of up-scale Chinese products.  But China was weakening.  European missionaries and other no-account foreign devils freely roamed the countryside, digging up whatever they chose.

Dwight’s thrown agate happened much earlier, however, when controls were not so porous.  Even if T’ang relics were smuggled out then, Dwight was still “just” a potter – industrial pottery magnates were a couple generations away.  Could he have been that close to the Gentleman collector strata of society?  Or did Dwight rather see humble marbled pilgrim costrels from France or Italy and, in pondering those, he stumbled upon agate layered clays?

Or maybe he thought it up all by himself.  Of course, the idea that an old potter could think something up all by himself, when someone on the other side of the planet did it 900 years earlier, is ridiculous.  Where would be the fun in that?

Readings:
Ceramics in America, 2003.  Robert Hunter, Ed.   University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2003.

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

China-Trade Porcelain.  John Phillips Goldsmith.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

 

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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.

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.