Archive for the ‘Brown Betty’ Category

The Hit Parade #5: Thomas Crafts Teapot

March 29, 2015

Full disclosure:  Because the Thomas Crafts homestead is only 20 minutes from my house, he’s sort of a ‘home-town favorite.’ Crafts Teapot

When you hold a Thomas Crafts teapot in your hands, you are in the presence of a master.

He operated an earthenware “Teapot Manufactory” in Whately MA from 1806 until switching to stoneware crocks in 1833.  His teapots were paper thin and perfectly thrown.  The spouts were formed, as was customary, with highly valued, personalized molds.  His mirror black “Jackfield” type glaze required an additional firing, unusual for redware of the time.

The Crafts ascribed teapot shown here sits at the pinnacle of pre-industrial American artisan pottery.  That alone is enough to merit inclusion in any list of pottery greats.  But modern students of pottery can draw several lessons here.

This teapot offers a window into the world Thomas Crafts inhabited.  Records show that, along with an assistant (usually his own kin), he could turn out 2,067 dozen teapots a year.  That’s roughly 88 teapots a day, 5 days a week, 56 weeks a year!  And Crafts was just one of countless American potters making teapots.  Furthermore, they were all competing against a Staffordshire behemoth factory system that flooded America with its own “Brown Betty” teapots.  This was a time and place that worshiped tea.

Thomas Crafts employed what we now call a “production potter” mentality.  It would be easy to equate this mentality to that of an automaton, given the quantity of teapots his “Manufactory” created.  But one would be mistaken to view the sparse character of this teapot as simply “form following function.”  Instead, like so much American redware, it offers a unique and focused study of form and volume.  It’s worth noting that the vast majority of historical masterpieces were produced using similar production mentalities.

To quote an old ‘Letter to the Editor’ in Ceramics Monthly on this same topic, “…which of these two qualities seems more synonymous with great pots; a never-ending quest to make something different that looks kinda neat, or consummate skill?   Skill takes practice, grunt work, and yes, repetition.  Don’t be afraid of it.  It will take you places you never dreamed of.”

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High Tea

July 22, 2012

Modern potters interested in the Japanese tea ceremony know that the truly great early tea wares came from Japanese (and Korean) farmer potters working with materials at hand for a rice economy.

North American farmer potters worked with materials at hand for a dairy economy.  A Tea Master critique of American redware would be interesting. Of course, Sen no Rikyu and the early Masters’ mining efforts ultimately turned their farmer potters into National Living Treasures.  American farmer potters ended up making drain pipe.

But the West did develop its own ‘tea ceremony.’  Time, place and conversation were prescribed – as in Japan – albeit with differences.  Sculpted Asian tea rites derived from ancient meditative disciplines.  Western tea rites derived from parlor etiquette.

The 17th century introduction of tea and its sibling coffee enormously impacted Western society.  Men huddled in coffee houses, debating reality and plotting revolution.  Women sipped tea in parlors, discovering strength in numbers and life beyond their husbands’ dictates.  Cafes and parlors eventually morphed into the salon culture.

This may seem frivolous compared to the solemn atmosphere of chanoyu.  But it managed to loosen the shackles imposed by hyper conservative Christian Orthodoxy just enough for later historians to call that brief time period “The Age of Reason.”  The Western ‘tea ceremony’ even developed its own sculpted discipline of balancing a dish on one’s knee while politely holding an annoyingly teeny handled cup between thumb and forefinger.

Tea propelled pottery to the forefront of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, modifying pottery along the way.  Westerners liked their tea hot (to dissolve sugar in) and served individually.  Thus, by 1760, necessitating that teeny handled cup.  A full tea set eventually consisted of 41 ceramic items: 12 teacups with saucers, 6 coffee cups with saucers, a teapot with stand, a slop “bason,” a sugar “bason,” and a cream ewer.  A two person “tete-a-tete” could be as few as 8 items.  Distinct foods, like crumpets and scones, accompanied the tea.

And it all centered on the tea pot.  Before radio, families gathered around their “brown betty.”  Watch any old English melodrama and notice how much activity occurs near the teapot.  Your tea set’s quality set the tone of your gathering, and helped establish your spot on the afternoon tea circuit hierarchy.

Then again, concern for hierarchy was equally reflected on both sides of the globe.

Readings:

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

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

The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain. CJA Jörg.  Kemper Publishers/Groningen, The Netherlands.  1986.

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

The Book of Cups.  Garth Clark.  Cross River Press/New York, NY.  1980.

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