Archive for the ‘English Pottery’ 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.

Advertisements

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.

Save

Save

Fringe Elements

June 14, 2015

Deflt Detail Southwark 1628The technique was loose and sloppy.  The imagery bordered on abstraction.  The finished product seemed almost tossed together.  But closer examination reveals an intense, studied effort.  This was 17th century delftware from Southwark on the Thames River, opposite London.

What was going through these potters’ minds?  More to the point, what was going on right outside their doors?

Potters, along with painters, glaziers, weavers, metal smiths, wood workers, and artisans of all sorts congregated in Southwark from the 13th century onwards.  Musicians and actors (including Shakespeare and the famous Rose Theater) joined them.

But "congregated" is a generous term.  "Confined" would be more accurate.  Many of Southwark’s artisans, potters included, were "strangers" or "aliens" – immigrants that is: Dutch, French, German, Spanish, etc.  Most were gathered by the Royal family or other local elites wanting the ‘latest and greatest.’  Alien artisans weren’t allowed to settle within London city limits, however, thanks to collusive efforts of London’s various artisan guilds.  (In a true expression of big city mentality, "foreigners" were English nationals from outside London who, like actors and musicians, weren’t much welcomed either.)

London’s guilds continually petitioned the crown to evict, tax, restrain, or otherwise punish those nasty alien ‘job stealers.’  Guild vitriol curiously belied sentiments echoed a little over 100 years later in the newly independent United Colonies of America – that handiwork of foreign artisans seemed superior to local products.

Back in Southwark, restriction had its advantages.  The London guilds’ more extreme efforts rarely stuck because Southwark was outside the authority of London’s bailiffs.  Southwark was a multicultural and aesthetic melting pot spiced with a righteous dose of siege mentality.  The scene was further powered by caffeine, an exotic new stimulant then flooding English society.

Respectable London saw Southwark as a rough, seedy, blue light district full of prostitutes, thieves, aliens, actors and artisans of all stripes (which it was).  But everyone who was anyone wanted what Southwark offered…

Other English delftware pottery centers of Norwich, Liverpool, and Bristol – port towns all – were similar ‘wretched hives of scum and villainy’ (to paraphrase a famous traveler from a galaxy long ago and far away).  These were the dodgy environments that produced some of the most creative art of the era.

Readings:

The King’s Glass.  Carola Hicks.  Random House/London.  2007

The Graves Are Walking.  John Kelly.  Macmillan/London. 2012.

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 Hit Parade #9: The Portland Vase

March 1, 2015

428px-Portland_Vase_V&A I don’t particularly like this vase. I find the style tight and constricted.  But it belongs on any ceramic greatest hits list.

Volumes have been written about Josiah Wedgwood’s Portland Vase, c. 1790.  Essentially, it’s 9½” tall with white sprigging on a black “basalt” body (one of Wedgwood’s many nomenclature shenanigans).  It’s a replica, in ceramic, of a Roman cameo glass vase made around 1AD.  Many have hailed it as a defining Masterpiece for both Wedgwood and  England’s Industrial Revolution.

Josiah Wedgwood made his name with the Portland Vase.  But he made his fortunes with his ensuing “Queen’s Ware” line.  That was only possible because of the technical know-how he amassed previous to making the Vase. 

Wedgwood made the Portland Vase knowing nothing about ceramic chemistry beyond personal observations. (Geology wasn’t even a recognized science for another 20 years.)  And some of his materials came from across an ocean, and in areas owned by people at war with Europeans.  And there were practically no maps or roads in those regions.   And the Vase’s imagery (as on the original cameo glass) was one long continuous sprig.  And that one long continuous sprig didn’t smudged upon application (look at it close up).  And the sprig didn’t deform or crack.  And it stayed on during drying and firing.  And the entire process was made to be repeated.  And these processes coalesced a nascent ceramics supply business into being (where would we be without that?).  And his efforts helped coin an entirely new meaning for the word “industry.”

Many potters see Wedgwood’s industrializing efforts, with their logical conclusion being today’s cheap imported stuff available at any WalMart or shopping mall, as the bane of hand made pottery. 

Perhaps.  But there’s a flip side.  Almost overnight, a wide swath of the working class could now afford refined ceramics.  It was purely a marketing ploy, for sure.  But before this moment, anything terribly fancy was out of reach for most people.  Now the masses could aspire to have fine art in their own homes.

Very few objects carry the wallop that this vase does.

If you doubt that last statement, try doing something like the Portland Vase yourself some time – preferably before you make your own list of ceramic greatest hits…

Reading:

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

The Map That Changed The World.  Simon Winchester.  Harper Perennial/London.  2009.

The Pineapple

December 14, 2014

What’s up with the pineapple? 

Pineapple imagery appears on many types of early decorative arts, from grave stones, to hymnals, to quilts, to furniture, to pottery.  Today the pineapple is considered a symbol of hospitality.  Why?  One school of thought explains that serving such a rare, expensive, and highly perishable imported fruit to guests during 18th century social gatherings in England or North America was quite a treat. “Oh my, how hospitable you are!”

The 18th century intelligentsia would have quickly read the intended meaning behind the pineapple image.  They were  well versed both in the language of classical symbolism and the art of social gatherings.  Federalist and Georgian decorative arts, and Neoclassicism in general, was positively replete with  arcane symbolically coded messages.  These messages were mixed and matched to create a variety of commentary to fit whatever occasion presented itself. 

The pineapple was rarely if ever seen on English or North American dinner tables until refrigeration and steam powered transportation made access to it practical.  Pineapples were so rare, in fact, that nobody at the time associated them with anything other than the expensive quirks of the host.  The first recorded reference to the pineapple as a hospitality symbol was in a 1935 promotional booklet about traveling to Hawaii.

What is described today, and reproduced by many in the traditional arts scene, as a pineapple was in fact a pinecone.  18th century socialites well understood the pinecone as a classical symbol of fertility and regeneration. 

In classical Greek mythology, Dionysus the God of Wine held a pinecone topped staff – classical wine making required pine resin.  The famous Dionysian rites were a frolicking romp of fertility and regeneration.  It’s one reason why holiday wreaths often include pinecones instead of pineapples.

Some allowance can be made for mistaking the 18th century pinecone for a pineapple.  When the English first encountered the fruit they visually associated it with the pinecone by calling it a “pine-apple.”  But only a little allowance can be made.  When the classical cannon of symbolism was established nobody in Europe had any idea what a pineapple was.

 Floral Pattern w pineapples c1700

Readings:

Colonial Williamsburg Journal.  Stuff and Nonsense.  Winter 2008.

Bastard China

June 29, 2014

OK, that title might get some attention.  Perhaps a little context is in order.

Its ironic how many American foods are named after other countries – French toast, English muffins, German chocolate, Spanish rice, Irish stew, Mexican food, Chinese food, etc – yet most nationals of those countries have no idea what these strange American foods are.

A similar phenomenon exists in pottery.  We call many things we make by either their form: plate, bowl, cup, or by their use: colander, teapot, luminary.  But some of our most common glazes carry names of far away people and places: rockingham, bristol, albany (in the 18th/19th centuries), and tenmuku, celadon, shino, oribe, etc (today).

Then there’s tin-glazed white earthenware.  Italians originally called it ‘majolica‘ after the Spanish island of Majorca through which 14th century Italy imported Hispano-Moresque pottery – and Iberian potters.  The French called it ‘faience‘ after Faenza, Italy from which 15th/16th century France imported much early majolica – and Italian potters.  Skipping Holland for the moment, where 15th/16th century faience traveled next – along with French (and Italian) potters – the English called it ‘delft‘ after the eponymous Dutch town – and still more 16th/17th century immigrant Dutch potters.

So what did Dutch potters call this ware?  Trade with China via the Dutch East India Company was hitting its stride just when Delft, Holland became a major pottery center.  Keeping in mind Holland’s fabled marketing sensibilities, the Dutch called tin-glazed earthenware majolica they learned from Italian faience potters ‘porcelain,’ of course.

Customers seeking the cultural trappings associated with high-fired, translucent Chinese porcelain (the real stuff) but who wouldn’t/couldn’t pay it’s high price, soon learned the difference.  Early Dutch ‘porcelain’ was certainly cheap.  It also had a tendency to crack from thermal shock when contacted with boiling hot water for tea.  And why own porcelain if not for drinking tea?  Another name for this peculiar Dutch ‘porcelain’ soon became common: ‘bastard China.’

Reading:

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain. W. Pitcairn Knowles. Scribner’s/New York.

Lunar Man

June 1, 2014

All the Lunar Men were crazy.  They even called themselves “Lunartiks.”  How else to explain some of their activities?

  • Item: intentionally self-inflicted suffocation (while developing a vacuum sealing apparatus).
  • Item: static electricity parties (while studying effects of electricity).
  • Item: condensed urine injections (while exploring the uses of microscopes in medicine).

Some might counter the Lunar Society of Birmingham, England was simply one of many 18th century philosophical clubs dedicated to expanding the general knowledge base.  The Lunar Society convened between 1765 and 1813.  Their roster included some of the era’s most brilliant movers and shakers including Matthew Bolton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin.  The Lunar Society typified the animating spirit of the Industrial Revolution, a.k.a. the “Age of Reason.” 

They met on the Sunday before each month’s full moon so there would be light to travel home by.  Lunar meetings featured forays into the world of the possible.  Experimentation was the game of the day.  The world was their oyster to study, test, exploit, devour and profit from.

But the urine thing?

Well, maybe they all didn’t do that.  Still, to be a Lunar Man (yes, they were all men) meant being into that sort of thing.  Each Lunar Man brought his own interests and perspectives on scientific topics of the day.  Everyone was equally excited about the others’ revelations.  So if they didn’t all inject condensed urine, they heartily embraced its premise of scientific exploration. 

One thing they didn’t agree on was politics.  The polemics of the French Revolution ultimately broke them apart.

Lunar Men’s inventions included some of the most critical innovations of the time: steam engines, standardized coin minting, geologic, chemical and biological discoveries, improvements in transportation, advances in educational methodology, etc.  And of course Lunar Man Josiah Wedgwood’s thermocouple revolutionized precision firing in the pottery industry.

Potters remember Wedgwood for his thermocouple, his organizing genius and his long list of pottery achievements.  But we should also remember his penchant for experimenting solely for experimentation’s sake.  In other words, for howling at the moon.

Readings:

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World.  Jenny Uglow.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux/New York.  2003.

Ingenious Pursuits, Building the Scientific Revolution.  Lisa Jardine.  Doubleday/New York.  1999.

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

 

The Old Soft Shoe

March 9, 2014

Andrew Duché of Savannah, GA was one of many 18th century devotees of the quest for a true ‘Western’ porcelain formula.  In a May 27, 1738 trustee report by Georgia’s colonial secretary Colonel William Stevens, Duché proclaimed “something very curious, which may turn to good account for transporting, and he is making some tryal of the kinds of clay; a small tea-cup of which he showed me, when held against the light was very near transparent.”

Duché next announced he “had found out the true manner of making porcelain.”  This would make him the first English-speaking person to achieve the quest.  Duché more likely had simply stumbled upon Cherokee “unaker” clay, an American kaolin.  He asked Georgia’s board of trustees for money, a 15 year patent, and more money. 

A board member asked Duché to replicate the porcelain feat.  Duché said he couldn’t until someone gave him money to build a kiln.  An interesting conversation would have ensued had a potter been present.  As it was, the obvious follow-up question was left hanging…

But Duche’s song and dance convinced Georgia’s founder James Oglethorpe.  In 1743, Oglethorpe gave Duché a trip to England to lobby potential backers there.  Duché failed on that count.  But his visit helped spark a chain of events which led to the successful replication of porcelain by other quest devotees. 

Duché’s visit inspired William Cookworthy, a London apothecary, to begin his own search.  Cookworthy ultimately discovered Cornwall stoneBow Pottery, near London, agreed to use unaker in their experiments.  Bow made England’s first true porcelain the next year with Cherokee clay.  And of course Josiah Wedgwood had his ear low enough to the ground to hear of Duché’s curious unaker clay.  Soon Wedgwood agents would be trawling Georgia and the Carolina’s for this white gold’s source. 

Back home, Duché convinced Isaac Parker to hire him.  Isaac and his soon to be widowed wife Grace were attempting New England’s first stoneware production.  Duché went to Cambridge, MA and did whatever it was that he sort of did.  But his tenure there soon ended.  He then faded to obscurity.

These were heady years when the scientific method was still not quite the fully defined, quantifiable process it is today.  Anything was still possible.  You could almost make a living at it.

Readings:

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.

 

Erin Go Bragh

February 9, 2014

Ireland might not be the first stop on most people’s tour of historic tin-glazed pottery centers.  But surprises await even on the byways of pottery history…

Irish delftware production began in Belfast around 1697.  Coincidentally, a large deposit of particularly well suited high lime content clay was easily accessible at nearby Carrick Fergus.  This Carrick Fergus clay was so well suited to the job that most English delftware potteries imported it for their own work.  Delft potters (in Holland, that is) imported clay from Norwich, England and mixed it half and half with their own deposits.  But Delft prohibited exportation of it’s own clay to other places.

Delftware potters of Lambeth, England saw an opportunity in the early 1700’s to cut into Belfast’s market.  They hired John Bird to set up a delftware shop in Dublin.  His first kiln load failed, by all accounts, in a particularly “spectacular” fashion.  Given the history of kiln failures, this must have been quite a failure.  John was immediately fired.

John Bird had developed a special firebox design for his kilns, using coal as fuel.   John promised to freely share his coal firing technology as part of his original deal with his backers.  John’s patent is the first recorded use of a coal fired kiln.  The technology rapidly spread throughout England and beyond.

Irish delftware sales agents travelled with England’s mercenary armies, virtual mobile towns, operating in the North American colonies during the French and Indian War (aka the Seven Years War).  A large number of Scottish and Irish mercenaries were drafted for the war effort.  Once on American soil, these mercenaries were told to stay (England wanted them out of the way back home).  The ex-pats turned to Ireland for their pottery needs when they settled into villages after the Treaties of Paris and Hubertusburg ended the war in 1763.  What marketing!

The Scotch Irish mercenaries hated England as a result of their abandonment by the crown.  Their presence in the colonies added considerable fuel to the growing revolutionary fervor.  But that, as they say, is another story altogether…

Erin Go Bragh!

Reading:
English & Irish Delftware.  1570 – 1840.  Aileen Dawson.  British Museum Press/London.  2010.