Archive for the ‘Transfer Print Ceramics’ Category

Every Good Child Deserves Favor

March 26, 2017

Have you ever had the good fortune of having a museum curator allow you into storage to view pottery not out on public display?  If so, (you usually just need to ask) you’ll understand the magic of seeing a drawer open before you for the first time, displaying a pottery type you heard about but had never seen in all it’s glory.  The friendly curator shows you these pots.  Cabinet doors open and there they are.  Row upon row.  Even if they’re of a style you previously thought not terribly interesting, that moment of breathlessness is remarkable.

This magic moment must have been magnified and condensed down to one single item back in the 19th century, particularly for children.  The lucky kids in question, initially from well to do families but increasingly from a broader economic pool, were occasionally given token pottery gifts.  These were usually small mugs, or sometimes mini bowls, plates, or other forms – but always with some transfer print image and/or quote alluding to the joys of behaving.

These children’s pots might have been meant as toys, or maybe they were the kids’ own set of dishes.  Birthday presents.  Graduation presents.  Rewards.  Specialties.  But they were never first line production items.  Most pottery firms made them, but hardly any bothered to advertise them.  Initially made of porcelain, as the 19th century wore on these giftwares were usually done in cheap yellowware with a decal hastily slapped on, often with a copper luster band along the top.

How did the kids feel about these pots?  Were they received in awe as treasured gifts?  Some small part of the explosion of styles and techniques known as the Industrial Revolution made just for them?  Or were they accepted like today’s cheap, plastic, collectible “Happy Meal” junk?

Some gift pots show considerable use.  It seems those with the most popular motifs and images were ‘loved to death,’ played with or otherwise used until they inevitably broke and were tossed in the garbage.  Others are to this day in pristine condition.  Many of these later pots tend to carry the most maudlin, moralizing sayings.  It’s almost as if, once given, they were unceremoniously shoved into a corner hutch, to patiently await collectors from a hundred years into the future.

One wonders about these neglected gift pots.  Who exactly were they really for, the child or the parent?

Readings:

Gifts for Good Children, The History of Children’s China 1790-1890.  Noel Riley.  The Old Chapel/Somerset England.  1991.

English Yellow-Glazed Earthenware.  J. Jefferson Miller.  Smithsonian Institute Press/Washington DC.  1974.

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The Hit Parade: The Beat Goes On

May 10, 2015

Central Mosque Djenne 1984 Once again, a big thanks to Rob Hunter and his inspired Ceramics in America 2014 ‘top ten’ issue. 

If my "Hit Parade" were to be about looks alone, I might have included the creative slip applications of English Mocha ware, or the bizarre, twisted explorations of George Orr, or the brilliant cobalt blues of German Westerwald salt-fired stoneware, or the wood-fired stoneware of Richard Bresnahan with whom I did my apprenticeship, etc, etc. etc.

But the genius of this exercise is to explore pottery’s intimate walk with humanity through the ages.  And it invites musing on one’s own relation to this incredible field as well.  Narrowing that down to ten entries is challenge enough!

For example, I could have easily included the Absalom Steadman stoneware jug c. 1823 which received the highest price paid at auction for early American pottery, thus illuminating the status of historic pottery in today’s art economy.  The 1840 William Henry Harrison transfer print pitcher by David Henderson speaks volumes about the part ceramics played in the development of our national politics.  The 11th century Central Mosque in D’jenne, Mali is the world’s largest adobe clay structure.  (But what’s that silly tourist doing there?)  Potters for Peace’s Filtron water purifier project highlights the enormous contributions of pottery to rural community development efforts.  The black pottery of Maria Martinez offers a classic example of pottery and cultural revitalization.  And the curious parallels between Richard Bresnahan’s unique wood firing process and astro-physics is fodder for an entire book in itself.

Every picture tells a story.  So does every pot.  The thing is, when it comes to pottery history’s ‘top 10,’ the story itself is quite often where it’s at.

And the beat goes on

The Era of Good Feelings

March 10, 2013

Raise your hand if you can name all the presidents.  And if memorizing them made you sleep through every history class from then on? 

The uses to which we put history determines it’s shelf life.  This adage is blatantly visible in English transfer print export pottery to America (ie; show me the money).  Take the first five presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe (of course).  Their shelf life varied.

Everybody loved George Washington (president from 1789-1797).  Shelves full of English export ware commemorated his administration.  Perhaps that’s to be expected of any revolution’s central “founding father.”

There is practically no English export ware commemorating John Adams (1797-1801).  Maybe Adams was just too dour for the English.  But he’d have to be pretty dour to trump the English  love of commerce.

Things got somewhat back to normal with Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809).  Even if many of his likenesses were really just “clip art” portraits with his name pasted under them.  No matter, as long as the name sold.

James Madison (1809-1817) held his own, though he declared a fairly pointless war against England in 1812.  But by then English pottery firms knew the extent of the American market and were prepared to go the distance in catering to popular demand.

Which brings us to James Monroe (1817-1825).  He too had his day.  But presidential portrait pottery had begun it’s decline.  Not so much because of the Monroe Doctrine, but because English firms were catching on to what American potters already knew.  Politics as decoration can be a hard sell.  Practically no American pottery company bothered with political imagery until the election of 1840.  Landscapes, flowers, and famous places were partisan neutral.

The irony is that Monroe’s Democratic-Republican party had wiped out the opposition Federalists.  George Washington’s original ideal of a ‘party-less’ government was within reach. 

The country was still wracked by economic crises, but the opposition party had imploded from it’s own colossal intransigence and a major war was over.  People called the time “The Era Of Good Feelings.”  Yes, people once actually spoke like that about American national politics.   

To those who warn that we risk repeating the past, I say “I wish.”

Readings:
American Patriotic and Political China.  Marian Klamkin.  Scribner’s and Sons/New York.  1973.

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

 

Flow Blue

August 19, 2012

History never repeats itself.  It just rhymes.  Example, the trajectory of blue and white pottery.  Arab attempts to duplicate Chinese porcelain resulted in tin glazed enamel earthenware.  When Arabs added cobalt blue decoration, Chinese porcelain was forever changed – all this thanks to Kublai Khan’s globalization zeal.  Enter the Europeans, hooked from the first anchor dropped in Macao harbor.  Their quest for easily reproducible porcelain (or white clay, anyway) eventually led to Wedgwood’s “Creamware.”  Then to whiter “Pearlware.”  Then to even whiter “Ironstone.”  (An abridged history, but there it is.)

Blue was the spice that fed this circular feeding frenzy.  What emerged was the ultimate in English blue and white transfer printed ironstone.  At it’s best the cobalt saturated transfer print ink made the designs barely distinguishable.  Intensity incarnate.  “Flow Blue.”

Was this just a happy accident?  Cobalt easily “bleeds” in the glaze melt if you’re not careful.  But the subject of blue and white’s addictive appeal fills entire libraries.  That appeal was in full swing long before Flow Blue appeared.  Additional ammonia and calcium in the ink made the blue really flow.  There was nothing accidental about it.  But Stoke-on-Trent potters who began this madness were happy that Flow Blue hid faults in decoration, glazing and firing.

Some Flow Blue was indistinguishable from regular transfer print ware, blue but hardly ‘flown’ at all.  Such variations merely exemplified how the period’s myriad decorative styles were driven by economics; mass production begat mass marketing which begat mass consumerism.  The result?  A fundamental change in how we approached the dinner table, how we took our tea.

Flow Blue has been called a “poor man’s china.”  But price lists of the time belie this notion.  Flow Blue was the most expensive transfer print pottery up to the 1850’s.  Flow Blue stood out from the crowd.  It spanned the arc of Queen Victoria’s rule, if not (entirely) epitomizing Victorian decorative values.  (Flow Blue: 1825 – 1910, Queen Victoria 1837 – 1901.)

Post script:

The other day I added to my meager “poor man’s” collection of early pottery with a set of cracked, chipped Flow Blue plates (Joseph Heath, “Tonquin” pattern, 1840-1850).  Super cheap because of the cracks.  But they are addictive.  I feel their presence without even looking at them.  They sit on my shelf, a throbbing reminder of a time when pottery defined an era.

Flow Blue Plate

Readings:
Flow Blue.  A Collector’s Guide to Patterns, History, and Values.  Jeffery Snyder.  Schiffer/Atglen PA.  2004.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

 

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.

For Those Who Hated Benjamin Franklin

March 13, 2011

Everybody loves Ben Franklin.  Big, sassy, jovial, quick witted.  In England, many loved and admired his inquisitive mind.  In France he was the friendly face of the American Revolution who, along with dour John Adams, convinced the French to join the cause.  Today, well, everybody just loves him.

English pottery firms scrambled to reclaim the American market after the War of 1812.  They favored American independence – as independent customers, not competitors.   And what better way to regain lost ground than by hyping all the wonderful things about the US on cheap transfer print whitewares?  Popular generals, victorious battles, famous places – it was all grist for the mill.  And of course, a sure fire top seller would be old Ben himself.  Because everybody loved Ben Franklin.

Small whiteware drinking cups and plates with Ben’s sayings plastered all over them were everywhere.  These items seem to have been intended primarily for children.  Much like the “collectible” Star Wars junk that appeared in fast food kids meals from the 1990’s onward.

These dishes sported such Franklinesque pearls as “If you would know the value of money try and borrow some,” “What maintains one vice brings up two children,” “Lost time is never found again,” and “It is easier to suppress the first desire than to gratify all that follow.”

A generation of children grew up staring down at these moralistic lectures.  Seeing them day in and day out must have been a visual equivalent to being told to eat your spinach.  Remember children, Ben knows best.  And besides, everybody loves Ben Franklin…

Readings:
American Patriotic and Political China.  Marian Klamkin.  Scribner’s and Sons/New York.  1973.

1840

September 12, 2010

Years ago I would have yawned at the pitcher shown here. 11″ tall,  slip-cast, transfer print yellow ware, made by David Henderson’s American Pottery Company in Jersey City, NJ, 1840.  A crass, stuffy, Victorian frivolity.  Now it stops me in my tracks… Harrison Transfer Print Pitcher

One reason; it’s a technical tour-de-force.  This pitcher was essentially made out of scratch.  With a few notable but limited exceptions, we had no ceramic supply companies in 1840.  Henderson and his contemporaries were tenacious geniuses.

Liverpool had previously flooded the US with similar wares.  Many here tried to duplicate them.  Henderson, himself a cast-off of the English pottery world, claimed first success – initiating America’s mass-produced pottery era.  Others contested his claims.  But they were all operating at roughly the same time; they were all on the cutting edge of what was possible in American ceramics in the early decades of the 19th century.

Another reason for my reaction; the pitcher’s iconography.  The imagery relates to William Henry Harrison’s 1840 presidential bid.  A log cabin, a slogan “The Ohio Farmer,” Harrison, and an eagle.

Previous candidates lobbied party bosses in smoke filled rooms, public speeches being uncouth.  Harrison didn’t just “speechify.”  He hurdled insults at incumbent Martin Van Buren (“Marty Van Ruin”).  He re-invented his own background (“born in a log cabin”).  He coined slogans (“The Ohio Farmer”).  He milked alliances with big business (whiskey magnate E.C. Booze bankrolled his campaign and popularized a drinking term).  He pioneered the “whistle stop” train tour and plastered his face on newly available locally made transfer print ware.

Harrison won, then died of pneumonia a month after giving his inaugural speech in a blizzard.  The blue-blood Harrison probably never saw the inside of a log cabin.  He was an “Ohio Farmer” with thousands of acres, all managed by underlings.  In short, he was a multi millionaire posing as a good ol’ boy you’d want to have a hard cider with and vote for (they don’t all come from Texas).  Boisterous public self promotion, total self re-imaging, slander, spin, collusion – the inception of the modern presidential campaign.

Is there redemption in this story?  The Abolitionists noted Harrison’s success.  Soon they would flood the marketplace with ceramic nick-nacks decrying the evils of slavery.  And there at the beginning was our little pitcher…

…A Victorian frivolity?  More like a 500 pound gorilla.

Readings:
Ceramics in America, 2002. Robert Hunter, Ed.  Chipstone Press/Hanover and London.  2002.

Anglo-American Ceramics, Part 1 Transfer Printed Creamware and Pearlware for the American Market, 1760-1860. Arman, David and Linda.  Oakland Press/Portsmouth, RI.(1998)

American Patriotic and Political China. Marian Klamkin.  Scribner’s and Sons/New York.  1973.

Now You See Him…

July 31, 2010

Imagine what political discourse would be like today without bumper stickers.  Transfer print pottery was the “bumper sticker” of the early 19th century. The invention of transfer print pottery was squarely at the fore of a newly evolving mass culture in Europe and America.  While perhaps not the most important outlet for disseminating news and ideas, transfer print pottery played a  uniquely intimate role in insinuating such topics into peoples daily lives.

For example, thanks to the Liverpool factories that churned out transfer print pottery by the shipload, we know a little bit about Phillip Crandall, an early New England politician.

Same Face Philip Crandall

One of his more famous colleagues whose likeness was also forever enshrined on the sides of a Liverpool pitcher was John Hancock.

Same Face John Hancock

Another was James Monroe, the 5th president of the US whose “Monroe Doctrine” boldly declared that the Western Hemisphere was now our little playground.

Same Face James Monroe

Yes, the whole story can still be read on the sides of these humble items…

Readings:

Anglo-American Ceramics, Part 1 Transfer Printed Creamware and Pearlware for the American Market, 1760-1860. Arman, David and Linda.  Oakland Press/Portsmouth, RI.(1998)

American Patriotic and Political China. Marian Klamkin.  Scribner’s and Sons/New York.  1973.

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