Archive for the ‘Regional topics’ Category

The Common Goat

October 14, 2018

Thomas Bewick’s riveting 1790 publication “A General History of Quadropeds” includes a chapter titled “The Common Goat.” Prints inserted at every chapter end in Bewick’s tome exemplified, for the reader’s edification, ideal versions of each animal in question. In this case we see a boy, let’s call him Billy, playing with his favorite pet goat.

Why is this relevant? For one thing, Bewick’s book was a goldmine for English potters of the time who needed readily available imagery of warm, fuzzy animals to slap onto cheap transfer print wares for domestic and export markets, including the insatiable American market. A plate featuring Billy’s favorite goat fit right in, given the sentimentalized nature of much of that era’s transfer decoration.

The potters who lifted Billy and his goat asked no permission from Bewick, nor offered any royalties. But even before England’s more stringent 1840’s copyright laws, these potters might touch up the bucolic scenes – a frilly border here, a bit of hand painting there – to make their finished products ever more appealing. They adapted the prints to fit their surfaces and their needs.

I first heard of Billy’s goat plate and Bewick’s source prints in Judie Siddall’s “Dishy News.” Her article led me to consider the roles of adaptation and innovation in ceramics.

Cheap 19th century transferwares will probably not interest today’s ceramic artists (or others) who favor expressions of innovation, rather than adaptation, in their craft. After all, innovation brings something new to the table, a more individual touch, instead of merely rehashing old ground.

But isn’t innovation essentially a yardstick by which we measure the relative impact of a potter’s efforts? Transferwares, for example, were a major innovation of the late 18th century. In turn, adaptation is a manifestation of style; a lens through which we may understand the selection and arrangement of cultural, technical, and decorative resources available to a potter.

Overly emphasizing the endless quest for something new under the sun risks simplified “either/or” judgements: is it or is it not innovative? Clearly acknowledging the value and provenance of our resources, and not just how far we bend these to our wills, can offer insights within a communally engaged environment. Isn’t this a more humane way to appreciate pottery efforts through time – and to make pots today?

If it takes a meditation on maudlin transferwares to realize this point, so be it.

Readings:

Dishy News, A Transferware Blog. “Serendipity, Source Prints, Thomas Bewick, and Transferware.” April 5, 2015. Judie Siddall. Blogspot. Accessed June 15, 2018.

Tamales

August 5, 2018

The Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is arranged on three floors. The top floor displays contemporary work. The middle floor features artists from the past 200+ years of what is now the US. And the first floor contains Pre-Columbian and Native American art. Questions could be raised about this benignly implied chronological layout, as many of the Native American works were made well after much of the art on the floors above it.

…But the topic here is tamales. So never mind…

The first things you see upon entering the Wing’s first floor are three large Pre-Columbian ceramic jars. These imposing, highly ornate, earthenware containers are described as ossuaries or funeral urns. The honorary storage of human remains occurs throughout the history of ceramic usage and continues today in the form of urns for people’s ashes. I cannot doubt the curators’ classification of these objects.

However, several years ago I attended a talk by foodways historian Dr. Frederick Opie titled “Earthenware: A History of Table Traditions and Related Recipes.” During the presentation, Dr. Opie mentioned a feast somewhere in Pre-Columbian Central America at which the regal host gifted a very large quantity of tamales to a visiting dignitary.

The tamales had to be put in something, and ceramics were the go to containers of the day. My conception of those MFA funerary jars shifted radically when I imagined them being stuffed full not of human bones but of tasty tamales and presented, quite probably along with the chef who made the tamales and the potter who made the jars, to a visiting noble. This image catapulted the MFA jars beyond the austere, quasi-religious domain of funeral art and into the raucous realities of traditional competitive feasts.

A disclaimer here: Although I had eaten tamales before, I fell in love with them many years ago during a sojourn in Nicaragua. A bicyclist traversed the neighborhood every day hawking tamales from a basket on his handlebars. They were still hot, fresh from his mom’s kitchen just around the corner. To die for.

I am impressed by the iconic formality of the MFA containers. But we needn’t always consider ornate Pre-Columbian ceramics to be intended strictly for religious ceremonies. When I think of jars like these being crammed full of tamales and presented as gifts of high honor, I can only smile.

Readings:

Earthenware: A History of Table Traditions and Related Recipes. Dr. Frederick Douglas Opie. 2015 NCECA Conference Keynote Presentation. Providence, RI. March 25, 2015.

The History of Art, Second Edition. H.W. Janson. Prentis Hall/New York. 1977.

MFA Jars

The Illustrious Client

June 10, 2018

Meditations on a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Sherlock Holmes spars with a nasty cad who is trying to cajole a lovely young heiress into marriage in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” One of the plot vehicles in this case is the fact that Baron Adelbert Gruner, the nasty cad, is also a famous collector of antique Chinese porcelain. He had even published an influential monograph on the topic.

To successfully execute the case, Dr. Watson has to overnight assume the role of a porcelain connoisseur in order to, well, you’ll have to read the story. Suffice it to say that the hapless Watson is found out in short order. Hi-jinx ensue.

Of course, such a fate would befall anyone given the task of becoming a porcelain “expert” in one night – even with the help of Wikipedia and Siri. The rarified environment of the high end antiques market is replete with extremely knowledgeable people for whom not just the history, but the provenance, market value, and current availability of highly desirable objects is of utmost concern. Without these collectors’ efforts there would be precious few museum collections for today’s poor struggling potters to visit in their own endless search for inspiration and edification.

But let’s return to Baron Gruner. “A complex mind, all great criminals have that. Cool as ice, silky voiced, and poisonous as a cobra. He has breeding in him – a real aristocrat of crime, with a superficial suggestion of afternoon tea and all the cruelty of the grave behind it.” The wise old adage that ‘one should always except the present company’ is as relevant here as it is anywhere. And checks and balances have evolved over the years to keep transactions as clean as possible. Yet this spectacularly evocative description confronts us with a glimpse into a compromised and complicated issue.

Regardless of today’s honest brokers and good intentions, the trade in expensive and rare antiques from exotic places ever evokes an ignoble, shadowy tinge of past grave digging, historical site despoiling, smuggling, and outright pillaging. But don’t take Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s word for this. Just ask any of your archeology friends.

Readings:

The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Garden City Books/New York. 1930.

The Plundered Past. Karl Ernest Meyer. MacMillan Publishing Company/New York. 1977.

All The Best Rubbish. Ivor Noel Hume. Harper/New York. 1974.

The Name of the Game

August 20, 2017

Suppose your pottery shop has a pretty good reputation. Suppose your neighborhood is full of pretty good pottery shops, maybe 30 or so. Suppose you all make pretty much the same stuff. And suppose you all even formed a collective of sorts to help everyone manage business. Now suppose that “neighborhood” covers only 2 or 3 city blocks. And suppose that “reputation” means an entire continent eagerly standing in line to buy your neighborhood’s handiwork.

About 340 years ago those “neighborhood potteries” were in the town of Delft. That “collective” was the Guild of St. Luke. And that “reputation” ruled Europe for almost a hundred years.

A question arises. Why didn’t those Dutch potteries sign their work? With such high demand, and in such tight quarters – 2 or 3 city blocks! – why did they opt for anonymous group identity over individual recognition? Today we immediately imagine signing our work as basic marketing. Branding. A signature on a pot seems the most obvious way of saying: “Hey! I’m over here!” But that’s just our perspective.

Delft potteries did ultimately sign their work. Their dominance in Europe, begun during a vacuum left by a prolonged civil war in China with its curtailing of export porcelain production, was being challenged. The war had ended, and Chinese porcelain was back. Also, other European potteries were getting serious about their own faience, porcelain, and creamware. This competition threatened delftware’s very existence. It was sink or swim, so they signed – and most ultimately sank.

But another reason why they began signing pots tells us perhaps as much about ourselves as about them. A faint but fundamental shift had happened. The delftware craze required a consistent commercial ceramic materials supply network. Nobody could do that much production while digging their own clay. Standardized materials ultimately meant easy replication of anything, anywhere, anytime. “Style” as a defining aspect of “tradition” in pottery would no longer be understood as a local distinction, tied to a specific geographic (and geologic) place with unique, communally shared values. Style would now become a showcase for individual expression based, essentially, on looks.

What does all this mean? Maybe not much. These events weren’t the beginning of that change in perception, nor its end. Still, the beginnings of the factory system in ceramics was a “writing on the wall” moment that, ironically, propelled individual fame over collective expression.

Reading:
Delffse Porceleyne, Dutch delftware 1620 – 1850. Jan Daniel van Dam. Wanderers Publishers/Amsterdam, NL. 2004.

The One Common Denominator

April 30, 2017

What do a bowl, a pitcher, and a teapot have in common?  A spittoon, of course!

OK, as a joke this is ridiculous.  But it makes perfect sense when studying 19th century Rockingham glazed pottery in the United States.  Every potter today knows – or should know – that making pottery is only half the story.  Using pots brings them to life.  When we trace ownership and function from kiln to cabinet, some interesting patterns come to light – like the connectivity of spittoons in the Rockingham market.

Of all ceramic types made in the US during the 19th century, Rockingham best held it’s ground against the flood of British factory work, infatuation with Chinese porcelain, attempts at copying English styles, etc.  Rockingham, with scratch blue stoneware as a close second, is the most truly iconic American pottery style of that, or any, era.

In 2004, author Jane Perkins Claney decided to take a closer look at Rockingham to understand it’s longevity and attraction.  Initially, potters plastered all sorts of items with this glaze.  But as time and market observations marched on, a clearer understanding of who wanted what, and why, developed.  Production eventually narrowed down to these principle items.

Teapots tended to be favored by middling class women aspiring to a higher afternoon tea circuit rank, but couldn’t quite afford imported finery.  Pitchers were most popular among bar lounging men.  But not just any pitchers.  A molded pitcher with perforated spout predominated.  A fashion of the day was to guzzle brew straight from these pitchers.  The perforated spout kept the foamy head in place, and not all down the shirt of the sot or dandy swigging away (more sedate patrons simply liked that the spout kept the foam out of their mugs while pouring).

Rockingham bowls were found on most farmhouse dinning tables.  Farm families, and usually their farm hands, ate together at the same time.  Massive quantities were easiest served direct from large bowls, buffet style.  If you’re polite you go hungry!  Most rural households were too far apart to encourage a ‘tea circuit,’ so the next best thing was to serve huge meals in the finest bowls within the farmhouse price range: Rockingham.

So, where did the spittoon fit in?  Everywhere.  It was the single commonest Rockingham form (for obvious reasons) throughout Rockingham’s entire production history.  Spittoons were simply everywhere.  Tea parlors, public houses, homes, courthouses, trains, lady’s bathrooms.  Everywhere.

Reading:

Rockingham Ware in American Culture, 1830-1930.  Jane Perkins Claney.  University Press of New England/Hanover.  2004.

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.

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 Story of How One Thing Leads To Another

August 28, 2016

“How far is the southern sky in the eyes of a lone wild swan?
    The chilly wind strikes terror into one’s heart.
    I miss my beloved who is traveling afar, beyond the great river,
    And my heart flies to the frontier morning and night.”

A poem was painted onto a bowl in the southern Chinese town of Changsha during the T’ang Dynasty, around 875ad.  It spoke of tragic longing for a far away loved one.  The bowl’s intended owner wouldn’t care.  The Abbasid Arab would think it was cool because it had Chinese writing on it.

That person never saw the bowl, however.  It was found in 1988 among the wreckage of a 9th century Arab trading ship off the Java Sea island of Belitung.  This wreck illuminated the evolution of several small, local trade routes into an international network connecting Zimbabwe to China.  That evolution also inspired epic pottery innovations.

Before getting into that, let’s go back earlier in T’ang times, when pottery wasn’t terribly valued.  Ornate, poly-chrome ceramics were for burials only.  Increasingly outlandish tombs prompted sumptuary laws severely limiting funeral pomp.  Ceramic funerary art quickly art died out.  So did the Silk Road, from increased instability along that fabled route.  Then came tea.  China, like Europe 500 years later, changed radically.  Pottery (tea wares) immediately caught upper class attention.  A 755 – 763ad civil war was the final spark.  Refugee potters fled to Changsha, previously a southern back-water dumping ground for exiled losers from the cosmopolitan north.

The refugee potters copied popular Yue green glazed tea wares.  Yue green looked like jade, which complimented the tea’s color.  Changsha’s potters were ignored.  They came from a ‘place of melancholy’ with ‘dense and poisonous vapors.’  Location is everything.

Changsha’s ignored, cast-away poets, like it’s potters, did whatever they wanted.  Poets like Huaisu the Wild Monk invented ‘Wild Cursive’ with free, irregular lines and fluid character links.  Changsha potters applied this new, wild brush work to their green ‘vapor cloud’ pottery.

Such looseness defied conventional T’ang aesthetic uniformity.  But Arabs loved it.  Trade with the Abbasid Caliphate via new maritime routes exploded.  Changsha became southern China’s major trading and pottery center.

This story has many spin-offs.  We’ll settle for now with an observation of possible interest to Pennsylvania ‘Tulip Ware’ devotees.

The most common Changsha floral design was a petaled flower with a central dot.  These ‘rosettes’ appeared here before anywhere else in China.  One could follow this pattern to Abbasid Baghdad, then to Fatimid Egypt, then to Umayyad Spain, then Renaissance Italy, then Anabaptist Moravia, then North Carolina and Pennsylvania…

Imagine your world turning on the central dot of a mad monk’s petaled flower.

To be continued…

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

The Eye is the Window to the Soul

July 17, 2016

Charles looks out at passers-by who only pause, “how strange,” before moving on.  It isn’t Charles’ fault.  He was painted that way.  Of all the commemorative delftware plates on all the museum shelves all the world over, this is one of those select few bizarre portraits with eyes blatantly, even intentionally, off kilter.

King Charles II of England wasn’t the only one to get this strange eye treatment.  It is occasionally found on delftware plates depicting all the last Stuart monarchs from Charles II, to James II, to Mary, and finally Anne, along with the first Hanoverian King George I just after her.  But, curiously, no other gentry portrait plates, nor royalty images on forms other than plates, include such odd eyes.  Books and magazines are silent about this ‘royal treatment.’  This is a job for the experts.

A museum curator explained most of these plates originated in Holland, where Mary and her Dutch co-Regent William of Orange were quite popular.  A collector counter-claimed that most, if not all, of these plates came from Bristol.  But why the eyes?  Another curator mused, “Were the potters trying to ‘show perspective’ by slanting the eyes?”  Even the experts admit being flummoxed.

Worried that my query might fizzle out into suggestions and ‘what-if’s,’ I turned to that ultimate arbiter of wisdom – Facebook:

“I was reading just yesterday about Mary’s death, and then William’s, and then about Anne’s succession, and her sad life losing 16 children…I think that Mary was unkind to Anne. I get the feeling this potter did not like Mary,” posted a fellow interlocutor.

Maybe the potter didn’t like Mary (Mary certainly didn’t like her sister Anne).  And maybe other potters didn’t like Charles (the puritans didn’t), or James (not many people at all liked James), or Anne (an important patron of the arts who struggled to be liked), or George (who, being a king of a whole new line, had his own share of troubles).

Are we left clinging to the slippery slope of 17th and 18th century English royalty popularity contests?  Or do we just admit the limits of worn out cliches when studying human nature.

I look at Charles, and Charles looks back.  The potter who painted him remains opaque.  I continue looking…

Eyes Charles

Readings:

Queen Anne, Patroness of Arts.  James Anderson Wynn.  Oxford University Press/London.  2014.

Delftware at Historic Deerfield, 1600 – 1800.  Amanda Lange.  Historic Deerfield Inc./Deerfield MA.  2001.

English Delftware.  F. H. Garner.  Faber and Faber/London.  1972.

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