Archive for the ‘redware pottery’ Category

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.

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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 Demise of the Quaker Juggernaut

August 23, 2015

Essay Writing (or Ad Copy) Rule #1: Start with an attention grabbing headline.  Hyperbole with an ironic twist works well.  So it is with this title: pure ironic hyperbole.

Unless you actually lived through it.

The Quakers were a powerhouse force in the pottery world of colonial Boston.  They weren’t the only potters in town (Charleston across the bay, actually), but they comprised a substantial proportion of them.  Pottery may not have been regarded as anything more, or less, than a job a person might do.  But it certainly was an integral part of everyday life.  Just look around your kitchen today.  How many things do you have whose sole purpose is to keep things in?  Much of these would have been ceramic during Colonial times.  Continuous hard use meant breakage.  And, as the saying went, “…when it breaks, the potter laughs.” 

Tax roles indicate colonial Boston-area potters were solidly middle class, and sometimes even in the upper percentages of income earners.  Yet after the Revolution, Quakers faded from the pottery making record.  Why? 

The burning of Charleston by the British Navy in 1776 was a huge blow.  The Quakers lost everything.  They and their businesses were scattered to the hinterlands of New England.  But the same troubles befell all of Charleston’s potters.  Many of these others managed to continue quite well. 

A darker force was at work: the approbation of their neighbors during the war.  Quakers held very strong beliefs about remaining aloof from temporal authority.  They refused to take sides in the Revolution.  Because polarization – ‘with us or agin us’ – so easily comes to dominate most conflicts, the Quakers were hated.  They were persecuted.  Boycotted.

As they were during the Civil War.  And during WWI.  And WWII.  Richard Nixon (a Quaker himself) put the Quakers on his infamous “Enemies List” for their anti-Viet Nam war stance.  The American Friends Service Committee was practically an enemy of state during Ronald Reagan’s incursions into Nicaragua… 

It isn’t that Quakers were commies, or hippies, or draft dodgers, or rebel sympathizers, or Tories.  The history of Quakerism in the U.S. only serves to remind us that polarizing discussions of religion and politics really have no place in a harmless little essay about colonial pottery. 

Except when these issues converge to destroy the livelihoods of a group of talented, successful potters who just wanted to do their own thing.

Readings:

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

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

Rules for Radicals.  Saul Alinski.  Vintage Press/New York.  1989.

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 #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.”

What They Were Thinking

November 2, 2014

“Where does your clay come from?” is a common question asked at historical pottery demonstrations. Answer: “The ground.”  Another common inquiry, relating to the widespread use of lead glazes by early potters, is “Didn’t they know lead is toxic?  What were they thinking?”

Lead glazes give people the creeps.  But lead was fairly easy to obtain, it was cheap, it had a wide firing range, and it offered a wonderful variety of glaze colors.  Lead is actually one of the world’s greatest glaze materials – except, of course, exposure to it destroys your central nervous system.

So lead glazes require further comment.  Most early American potters didn’t have access to higher firing stoneware clays, which don’t use lead glazes.  It wasn’t until the early 19th century spread of canals and toll roads that shipping prices lowered enough for stoneware to blossom.

A common glaze recipe in the early US had about 10 parts lead to 3 parts loam or sand.  The best lead source came from sheets used to seal tea – tea chest lead – reduced to a white powder by soaking in vinegar.  But most potters went to dry goods merchants who sold imported lead as a paint ingredient.

People knew of lead’s toxicity by the 18th century.  It was called “potter’s rot.”  But end users weren’t immune.  In 1783, a Connecticut doctor blamed a recent “bilius colic”epidemic on all the local lead glazed redware flooding the market during the English embargoes of the time.

Philadelphia and New York newspapers issued challenges to develop alternative glazes.  Federal and State agencies issued periodic warnings against lead use.  But lead glazing persisted well into the 19th century.

Why were people so obstinate?

Insight to that question can be gained by posing a similar set of questions.  Imagine a visitor from 200 years into the future asking people on the street today:  “Didn’t you known nuclear waste takes hundreds of thousands of years to decay?”  “Why did you dump all that garbage into the ocean and rivers?”   “Didn’t you know about global warming?”  “What on Earth were you thinking?”

Readings:

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

The Jug and Related Stoneware of Bennington.  Cornelius Osgood.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland, VT.  1971.

Champagne

October 6, 2014

I find myself at yet another outdoor show, hoping it won’t rain or get too windy.  (Instead it’s hot, humid and stifling, the customers are wilting.)  How did I end up here?  How did all this begin?

Actually, it all began in the 12th century with the first of the great Medieval Fairs in the fields of Champagne, northern France.  These fairs were a raucous, sprawling combination of trade show, flea market, and circus.  Similar bazaars developed earlier in the more civilized regions of the Middle East, Africa, India, and China – but that’s another story.

For centuries after the fall of Rome, and even during Roman times, Europe had no organized ‘economy’ from which to develop such an event.  At the risk of a sleep-inducing lecture on Medieval economics, two things prevented fairs from developing earlier: Catholic Europe’s antagonism toward usury including (broadly) the concept of commerce, and the manorial fief system that kept artisans tied to one lord’s manor as their sole market base.

Of course a sort of ‘farmer’s market’ existed in towns and villages,  and Jews, Arabs, and other ‘outsiders’ were allowed (barely) to move goods from one place to another to sell at a profit.  But rampaging Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Huns and Vikings were mere memories by the 12th century, and the Black Death was still 100 years in the future.  Cities swelled in this stable environment.  The manor now had competition.

Merchants made the annual trek to the fields of Champagne to stock up and place orders for luxury goods to feed their voracious markets, both old and new.

The great Champagne Fairs eventually faded as competing regional fairs sprouted up.  One surviving craft activity in Champagne was pottery.  A vestige of those far off days could still be seen centuries later in the rustic redware of Troyes.

I’m looking through one end of a telescope at the colorful, exotic beginnings of the modern craft fair.  What would medieval potters from Troyes see if they looked back at me?

Reading:

The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950 – 1350.  Robert Lopez.  Cambridge University Press/Cambridge, England.  1976.

Hervey to Some

June 15, 2014

What’s in a name?  Everything, obviously.  Especially when it’s your own name.

This was particularly true for Goshen, CT redware potter Hervey Brooks (1779-1873).  As a child, his parents referred to him as ‘Harvey.’  When his sister Clarissa moved to Missouri Territory in the 1830’s, she addressed her letters to ‘Harvey.’  When he tried to go west like Clarissa and so many others, his mom wrote to him as ‘Harvey.’  (He only got as far as Granville, NY before eventually returning to Goshen.)  Back home his brother John called him ‘Harvey.’  Surviving letters in Old Sturbridge Village’s research library indicate pretty much his whole family called him ‘Harvey’ his entire life.

Of course, spelling was an iffy art form in the early 19th century.  Standardization came later, thanks in great part to Noah Webster.  But its a fair bet to assume intention with spelling that consistent.  And ‘Harvey’ isn’t such an odd name after all – if a bit rare for the time. 

Yet he wrote ‘Hervey’ on every document he ever signed.  He presented himself to the world as "Hervey" his entire adult life.  Again, consistency.

Why ‘Hervey?’  One theory (supported only by the above mentioned observations) imagines him as an adolescent.  Young and rearing to go.  This was the era between the Revolution and the War of 1812 when the entire country was redefining itself.  Creating the new out of the known.  Maybe youth culture expressed itself then, as it so often does, with slang vocabulary and nick-names unique to that atmosphere.  Maybe ‘Hervey’ was one such nick-name.  Maybe he proudly wore it the rest of his life like an old hippy’s long hair.

But none of his relatives seemed to buy into the ‘Hervey’ thing.  Ever. 

So imagine this scenario.  He died.  His family had to arrange his funeral.  They had to pick out a head stone.  They had to instruct the mason what name to carve onto the stone. 

This was their chance.

What would it be?  ‘Hervey’ or ‘Harvey?’

Hervey Brooks Headstone

Readings:

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

 

Arson, Politics, and Pottery for the Masses

May 18, 2014

Talk long enough to most potters today and the topic of pyromania will eventually arise.  But talk is cheap.  18th and 19th century redware potters were among the best at torching their shops.  Urban potters could take down large neighborhood swathes as well.  Especially in ports and towns along major waterways.

Of course all that damage was unintentional.  Every spark from barely controllable bottle kilns was a disaster waiting to happen – not to mention the health hazards of lead glazed fumes spewing across densely populated areas.  And the waterfront was prime real estate for potters.  Water was the cheapest way to transport heavy raw materials and bulky, fragile wares.

Town fathers tolerated this situation because many potters did a fair bit of trade.  And many potters were town fathers.

But there were limits.  Pottery was eventually zoned away from the docks and toward less populated areas.  An 1838 provision in the Laws and Ordinances of the Common Council of Albany, NY, an important Hudson River transport hub, stipulated that potteries “upon any lane or street which might be deemed noxious or unwholesome shall be removed upon notice given by the Police Justice or any Alderman.”  Offending potters were also fined $25.

Interestingly, the last major pottery related conflagration in Charleston, MA wasn’t due to pottery making at all.  Not directly, anyway.  Bombardment from British warships in 1775 drove the inhabitants, particularly the dock-side potters, away.  Nobody was around to put out the fires.  Charleston burned to the ground.

Pottery had been a major occupation in Charleston.  But the potters didn’t return.  The British action scattered redware production across New England.  The Redcoats effectively brought pottery to the masses.

The Royal Navy wasn’t aiming at potters per se.  Their operation was against the Sons of Liberty.  The fiery appeal of that raucous, self-ordained band of revolutionary self-determination zealots drew in many Bay area artisans, including Charleston’s potters.

Much later, a similar group with similar motives burst on the scene.  This new group named themselves after the Sons’ signature act on Boston’s Long Wharf during the night of December 16th, 1773.

Both groups became famous for their passionate stand against entrenched oligarchs.  But while one group (obliquely) disseminated pottery and democracy, the other was (quickly and quite concretely) co-opted by the highest bidder.

Readings:
Bunker Hill, A City, A Siege, A Revolution.  Nathaniel Philbrick.  Viking Press/New York.  2013.

Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware.  Brian Cullity.  Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA.  1991.

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.

Fate

January 13, 2014

Instead of ranting on the travails of redware mugs, and by extension all pottery,we offer the musings of a guest contributor.  Benjamin Franklin’sA Meditation on a Quart Mugg” was originally posted on July 19, 1733.  (Presented here in redacted form because Ben could go on once he got up to speed.  For the brave of heart, see this entry’s Comments for the full Meditation.)

Wretched, miserable, and unhappy Mug! I pity thy luckless Lot, I commiserate thy Misfortunes, thy Griefs fill me with Compassion, and because of thee are Tears made frequently to burst from my Eyes.

How often have I seen him compell’d to hold up his Handle at the Bar, for no other Crime than that of being empty; then snatch’d away by a surly Officer, and plung’d suddenly into a Tub of cold Water: Sad Spectacle, and Emblem of human Penury, oppress’d by arbitrary Power!

How often is he hurry’d down into a dismal Vault, sent up fully laden in a cold Sweat, and by a rude Hand thrust into the Fire!

How often have I seen it obliged to undergo the Indignities of a dirty Wench; to have melting Candles dropt on its naked Sides, and sometimes in its Mouth, to risque being broken into a thousand Pieces, for Actions which itself was not guilty of!

How often is he forced into the Company of boisterous Sots, who say all their Nonsence, Noise, profane Swearing, Cursing, and Quarreling, on the harmless Mug, which speaks not a Word!

…And yet, O Mug! if these Dangers thou escapest, with little Injury, thou must at last untimely fall, be broken to Pieces, and cast away, never more to be recollected and form’d into a Quart Mug. Whether by the Fire, or in a Battle, or choak’d with a Dishclout, or by a Stroke against a Stone, thy Dissolution happens; ’tis all alike to thy avaritious Owner; he grieves not for thee, but for the Shilling with which he purchased thee!

If thy Bottom-Part should chance to survive, it may be preserv’d to hold Bits of Candles, or Blacking for Shoes, or Salve for kibed Heels; but all thy other Members will be for ever buried in some miry Hole; or less carefully disposed of, so that little Children, who have not yet arrived to Acts of Cruelty, may gather them up to furnish out their Baby-Houses: Or, being cast upon the Dunghill, they will therewith be carted into Meadow Grounds; where, being spread abroad and discovered, they must be thrown to the Heap of Stones, Bones, and Rubbish; or being left until the Mower finds them with his Scythe, they will with bitter Curses be tossed over the Hedge; and so serve for unlucky Boys to throw at Birds and Dogs; until by Length of Time and numerous Casualties, they shall be press’d into their Mother Earth, and be converted to their original Principles.

Reading

http://www.historycarper.com/1733/07/19/a-meditation-on-a-quart-mugg/