Archive for the ‘Earthenware’ Category

The World Wide Web

February 26, 2017

“Don’t it always go to show…”

While reading Alan Caiger-Smith’s book about luster pottery a little while ago, I came across a comment he made concerning the occasional odd pairing of “cryptic sayings” with seemingly unrelated floral imagery on 13th century luster ware from Kashand, Persia (that’s me on a Friday night – a real party animal!).  I was reminded of the unusual sayings scrawled around the rims of many Pennsylvania tulip ware pie plates.  Is this just a funny little bit of irony, or is there more to the story?

It shouldn’t be surprising that these two unique pottery types, separated by a continent, an ocean, six centuries, and distinct decorative characteristics, share a bit of irony.  They both stem from same root.  So much stems from this root.

What began as a 9th century interaction of painted decoration on white glazed pottery between T’ang China and Abbasid Iraq bounced back and forth between potters on every continent – except Antarctica – who both drew inspiration from, and offered inspiration to others.  This train of thought spanned the globe – sometimes as porcelain, sometimes as tin-glazed earthenware, sometimes as lusterware, sometimes as sgraffito decorated redware.  It defined entire cultures – sometimes in the guise of luxury goods, and sometimes as “folk” pottery.  It built and destroyed fortunes.  It prompted industrialization.  It supplied the needs of those on the fringes of empires.

Anything that pervasive for that long must have had a ‘thumb on the pulse’ of essential human creativity and expression.

The standard narrative says the idea collapsed around the end of the 19th century.  Modernism swept all before it.  In reality, this family of floral decorated pottery adapted and evolved in isolated pockets of production.  Soon enough, people began showing an interest in what happened before.  A revival began to brew, stimulated by appreciation of the stories places can tell via an explosion of tourism in the early 20th century.  An Arts and Crafts Era atmosphere of interest in the hand-made equally spiced things up enough for later generations to catch on (at least in parts of Europe and America).

Today, a small band of intrepid souls delves back into this venerable train of thought by making work in these earlier styles.  Sometimes they start from scratch, sometimes they pick up where others left off.  Will they be little seedlings that keep the genus alive and moving forward?

“…You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” 

Readings:

Luster Pottery.  Alan Caiger-Smith.  New Amsterdam Books/New York.  1985.

Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters. Edward Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.

…40 Years Later

September 25, 2016

Everybody knows the story of how Chinese blue and white porcelain thoroughly influenced world ceramic history.  But we look at this story backwards, from its results.  How did it look from the other direction, from it’s beginning?

Mid 9th century Tang Dynasty grandees were repulsed by isolated southern Chinese potters’ gaudy color and decoration experiments.  Anything other than green (replicating jade) or white (replicating silver) belonged in tombs.

Far away Arabs instantly recognized that new work’s value.  Shiploads of southern Chinese stoneware, mostly bowls, were sent to the Abbasid Caliphate in large re-useable ceramic jars.  These jars had auspicious inscriptions, often in Arabic, scrawled along their outside.  Arabic was the ‘official language’ of the entire trade network connecting southern China to the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Arab potters noticed Chinese stoneware encroaching into their home market.  They responded by inventing a smooth white tin glaze for their own earthenware.  A world of color beyond somber Chinese greens and whites was now possible.  Cobalt blue was the first new hue, followed by many others.  Then someone in Basra invented lusterware, truly replicating copper and silver.

The Arabs began signing their work.  They also sent it back to China, along with Mesopotamian cobalt, to try this new look on white Chinese stoneware glazes.  The first Chinese blue and white was probably painted by resident Persians.

The Tang attitude seemed to be “fine, take the foreigners’ money- they actually like that vulgar stuff!”  But so much money was made that people criticized the volume of trees wasted by this work, and all the new ‘art pottery’ for elite tea ceremonies.  Whole mountainsides were deforested to feed the kilns.

The growing impact of ‘aliens’ led to a vicious reaction, with widespread looting and killing of resident foreign traders.  Colorful, decorated ceramics dried up.  The incoming Song Dynasty reverted to safe, comfortable celadons and whites.

The world had to wait another five hundred years for Persian traders to (again) ask Yuan Dynasty potters to put Mesopotamian cobalt on their new porcelain.  ‘Blue and white’ as we now know it exploded onto the world stage, blossoming over the next three hundred years into pottery history’s single most recognized chapter.

Back in the 9th century, Arab potters saw this tidal wave coming.  Their response – tin glazes, cobalt blue, polychrome, and luster ware – set the whole story in motion.  And they did all that in only 40 years.

Reading:

Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.  Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC.  2010.

The Coptic Dot

June 26, 2016

Pretty much everything mentioned below actually happened.  The only question is – did it?

Can a dot be more than just a dot?  Who knows?  Who cares?

Perhaps we should back up a bit.  My first serious encounter with early pottery, and with making pottery in those styles, began with my tenure at the living history museum of Old Sturbridge Village.  Among those old pots which grabbed my attention were curiously dotted 18th century English slipwares.  When I saw a jar replete with a dotted slipware bird attributed to 19th century Connecticut potter Hervey Brooks, whose work is interpreted at OSV, a somewhat snarky thought struck me: to make slipware look old, just stick some dots on it!

Later, while exploring delftware, I noticed dots regularly lining borders and filling spaces on tin-glazed pottery across the spectrum.

Where did all these dots come from?

Years earlier I had come across an illustrated history of the Book of Kells.  Dots galore!  Given the proselytizing nature of 6th century Irish monks throughout the British Isles, maybe their dotted imagery inspired later slipware potters via old illuminated parish bibles.  But why did the Irish dot their imagery in the first place?  And what of those delft dots?

Dipping back into Irish monastic history, these Scholastic monks traveled far and wide to collect the most valued commodity of their time: books.  This is how the Irish “saved Western civilization from the Dark Ages.”  Did roaming Irish monks collect Egyptian Coptic Christian manuscripts during their sojourns in Venice, Alexandria or Sicily?  The Copts decorated their texts with a plethora of dense, sinewy, floral designs – including lots of dots.  Might these dotted Coptic patterns have inspired the illumination masters of Iona, Lindesfarne and Kells?

When Islam washed across Egypt a century later, did the Umayyad imams adopt the Coptic dot for their own illumination purposes?  Were their Korans among the loot pillaged by rampaging Mongols and brought back to China?  If so, this persistent little dot would be present when equally dense cobalt blue designs blossomed on white Chinese porcelain.  The dot certainly re-invaded 16th century Europe by latching onto carrack porcelain, inspiring delftware (among other styles) and forever changing pottery history.

Is the dot a sort of visual virus, attaching onto a host for survival and propagation?  I’ve seen no scholarly opinion supporting this thesis.  I’ve seen none about dots at all.  So I’ll just leave it out there…

Readings:
English Slipware Dishes, 1650 – 1850.  Ronald Cooper.  Transatlantic Arts/New York.  1968

Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860.  Paul Lynn.  State University of New York College at Oneonta/New York.  1969.

English and Irish Delftware, 1570 – 1840.  Aileen Dawson.  British Museum Press/London.  2010.

The Book of Kells.  Edward Sullivan.  Crescent Books/New York.  1986.

How the Irish Saved Civilization.  Thomas Cahill.  Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/New York.  1995.

Everybody’s Day in the Sun

September 27, 2015

Madaka ya nyamba ya zisahani
Sasa walaliye wana wa nyuni
(“Where once the porcelain stood in the wall niches
Now wild birds nestle their fledglings”)
    – a Swahili poet, 1815

Long before 15th century Europeans decided everything was theirs, an intricate trading system flourished across the Indian Ocean.  This trade culminated with seven voyages from China to Yemen and Somalia between 1405 and 1431 of a massive fleet led by Chinese Admiral Zheng He, better known as The Three Jewel Eunuch.

By “massive” I mean 62 ships, each weighing over 3,000 tons with 80,000 sq. ft. of deck space and 9 masts, along with 165 support ships of 5- 6- and 7- masts each.  The combined crews totaled over 30,000 sailors and personnel.  Vasco da Gama, in comparison, entered the Indian Ocean 60 years later with three 3-masted ships weighing about 300 tons each and about 130 sailors.  Zeng He didn’t invade or plunder a single state, though.  The Three Jewel Eunuch went forth to trade.

China had been purchasing East African ivory, iron, tea, and spices since at least 500AD.  Eventually, M’ing Emperors dictated that only Chinese products could be exchanged for foreign goods due to the trade’s depletion of China’s gold supply.  Porcelain quickly became an integral part of that policy.  How different this porcelain must have been from later export stuff, enameled right next to Canton’s docks with whatever decorative whims Europeans fancied at the moment.

What did Europe have to offer for the silks, spices, ivory, teas, and porcelain of the Indian Ocean trade?  In a word, nothing.  A bedraggled da Gama limped empty-handed into Mogadishu’s harbor shortly after China abruptly scrapped it’s ocean-going fleet. The Portuguese plundered East Africa’s exotic goods to trade for East Asia’s even more exotic goods.  Somalia and Yemen never recovered.

Europe then embarked on a centuries-long quest, filled with subterfuge, violence, and drama, for more porcelain.  Somalis and Yemenis also valued porcelain.  But throughout Yemen’s trade with China, Yemeni potters stuck to a ‘folk’ expression more common to rural earthenware across the globe.  M’ing vases might have influenced some Yemeni water jar forms, but even that connection seems tenuous.  Nobody tumbled over anyone’s toes to get more and more and more…

Why the different reactions?  Europe’s outlook was colored by a previous thousand years of vicious invasions, in-fighting, and plague.  During that same period, Somalia, Yemen and China built a network of mutually beneficial trade relations without obsessively amassing goods and ceaselessly pursuing profit.  Some might call this a fool’s paradise.  Others call it sophistication.

Readings:

The Lost Cities of Africa.  Basil Davidson.  Little Brown Book Co./New York.  1970.

Yemeni Pottery.  Sarah Posey.  British Museum Press/London.  1994.

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

Spartacus

July 19, 2015

Militia units from surrounding towns faced the angry crowd.  The militia captain demanded, “Who is your leader?”  The entire crowd shouted, “I’m the leader!”  This confrontation might bring to mind a famous scene from the 1960 film Spartacus.  But it actually took place on March 7, 1799 in Easton, PA., during what is known as the Fries Rebellion.

The Fries Rebellion was one of many, like the Shay’s and the Whiskey Rebellions, that immediately followed the Revolutionary War.  These uprisings rose from tensions between Revolutionary ideals of egalitarian self-determination, and problems of nation building with a centralized power structure.  In post-Revolutionary terms: (egalitarian) Republicanism vs. (centralized) Federalism.

The Fries Rebellion occurred in German communities of Pennsylvania’s Northampton,  Montgomery, and Bucks counties.  German immigrants had been near the bottom of the social ladder since establishing themselves in the area several decades earlier.  They were drawn to the fringes of colonial society by the allure of freedom from impoverished servitude back home.  Pennsylvanian Anglicans and Quakers, however, considered them ignorant, lawless, and alien.

Along came the Revolutionary War and it’s egalitarian promise.   Here was a chance to socially advance by joining the cause, enlisting in the Continental Army, and proving themselves as patriotic – and equal – citizens.

The Fries Rebellion, like Spartacus’ slave revolt, was quickly put down.  Unlike Spartacus, who was nailed to a pole by the Roman army, the Fries Rebellion’s nominal Republican leader John Fries (the whole point was that there should be no ‘leaders’) got a presidential pardon by Federalist John Adams.  Furthermore, the status of German communities continued to grow.

As Germans fought to secure a place in the new order, they began proudly displaying their ‘German-ness’ for all to see through quilting, illuminated manuscripts, furniture, and other decorative arts.

This was the heady environment that witnessed the flowering of Pennsylvania sgraffito redware pottery, or “Tulip Ware” as it has become affectionately known.  Yes, Tulip Ware is flowery, ornate, and pretty.  It also denotes pride and determination in the face of discrimination and disrespect.  There was no need for individual leaders in that effort, either.

2 dove heart

Reading:

Many Identities, One Nation, The Revolution and It’s Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic.  Liam Riordan.  University of Pennsylvania Press/Philadelphia.  2007.

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.

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.

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.”

Viva Tonalá

September 21, 2014

Pottery history has it’s share of odd tales.  This is an odd tale. 

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain mentions a Central American “scented clay.”  Pots made from this clay were supposedly popular in 17th century Spain.  I lived a for a few years in Central America.  I regularly interacted with local potters, anthropologists, archeologists, cultural ministry personnel, and other field workers on several ceramics related projects during my time there.  None of us had ever heard of such a clay. 

But that’s not the odd part.  There really was a sort of scented clay – rather a clay that caused flavored effervescence and aroma in water kept in burnished pots made from it.  This pottery was called “Tonalá Bruñida.”  The bright red extremely low fired clay wasn’t from Central America however.  It was mined uniquely in Guadalajara, Mexico.  And  every Central American knows that Mexico is part of North America.  Water in Tonalá pots (until the mine tapped out in the 18th century) fizzed even more when stirred. 

But that’s not the odd part.  Aristocratic Spanish ladies were crazy for Tonalá water jars and mugs.  Drinking from these vessels caused a psychotropic, almost opium-like effect.  The visiting French Countess D’Aulnoy described how after drinking this water the Spanish ladies “went into a trance.  Their stomachs became distended and hard and their skin turned into a yellow color like that of a quince.” 

But that’s not the odd part.  French ladies hated Tonalá.  They thought water kept in these pots tasted like dirt.  They got no psychotropic thrill from drinking the water.  They were disgusted by the smell of it. 

That’s probably not so odd.  Anyway, the very low temperature at which Tonalá was fired made it extremely fragile.  Breakage was common.  That was a good thing, because the Spanish ladies got an extra buzz by eating the broken shards and dust.   This was positively too barbaric for the French ladies.  Even the adventurous Countess D’Aulnoy, who gave it a try, later confided “I would have preferred to eat sandstone…”

The odd part (to me anyway) is how this situation was seemingly looked upon as simply a ladies “vanitas” activity.  Bubbly, intoxicating drinks and chewy, cosmic pottery?  Where were the gentlemen?

Readings:

Cerámica y Cultura.  Gavin, Pierce and Pleguezuelo, eds.  University of New Mexico Press/Albuquerque.  2003.

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

 

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.

Mayan Lily Problems

July 4, 2014

Specialists are like librarians.  They know everything.  At least they handle information well.  The rest of us can only keep our eyes open and hope for the best.  Mayan Drinking Cup

Example: a visit to the Library of Congress in Washington DC.  The LOC’s small collection of pottery in their  “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibit included an 8” straight sided vessel from the Guatemalan lowland Maya circa 600 ad.  This slab-made earthenware pot has a base coat of burnished white slip.  A black swath runs at an angle up the side, encompassing two lilies daubed in red.  The swath ends near the top below an encircling inscription, or “primary standard sequence glyph band.”  The rim is also banded in black.

European fleur-de-lis, symbol of royal prerogative, closely echo the ancient flowers depicted on this pot.  Did Mayan lilies also imply noble aspirations?  Lilies regularly appeared on lowland Mayan pottery.  And much surviving Mayan pottery suggests commemorative usage, particularly suitable for the high-born who could afford such niceties.  But nobody knows what – if anything – lilies represented.

The ‘glyph band’ inscription says the pot was a drinking cup.  While the inscription is also a dedication, it oddly names no specific individual or event.  Maybe the cup was just something a typical Mayan ‘chicha bar’ kept on hand for whatever toast a drunken patron might shout out.  Or perhaps was it a generic ‘gift’ mug, somewhat like a blank greeting card.  Or a tourist-trade item for folks visiting the big city.

Several other Mayan pots in the exhibit had clear but totally meaningless glyphs.  They seemed to offer just the ‘idea’ of writing.  Why?  So illiterate customers could feel a little more highbrow?  Could the potter then charge more, explaining a deeper meaning?  Did the potter also not understand what glyphs meant?

In this context the lily cup  reminds me of certain modern marketing practices.  I’m not sure how to feel about that notion.  Is it a comforting example of how the more things change the more they stay the same?  Is it ironic?  Or is it somehow just disappointing?