Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

As It Was In The Beginning

April 12, 2020

Apocalyptic allusions of biblical proportion aren’t ideal introductions to pottery history during, say, a pandemic. This whirlwind discussion instead reminisces on some more charitable – if highly condensed – aspects of human interaction.

We begin with the “crooked but interesting” Egyptian Fatamid Caliphate and a curious phenomenon accompanying, even propelling, the diffusion of ceramic traditions across the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, and Western Hemisphere. Potters flocked to Cairo to learn exciting techniques like “Polychrome Tin-Glazing” and “Lusterware.” When the Fatamids imploded, the potters fanned out, inspiring new traditions along the way.

One landing spot for these exiles was Muslim Spain, from whence “Hispano-Morosque” pottery was exported, via Majorca, to Italy. Once Italian “Maiolica” was established in Faenza and elsewhere, these “Faience” potters exported themselves to France and Holland whose “Delftware” potters hopped over to England.

When English pottery exploded onto the main stage of the Industrial Revolution, Stoke-on-Trent potters regularly shared work with neighbors. There were more “Creamware,” “Pearlware,” and “Ironstone” orders than individual shops could handle alone.

For a shining moment, “Talavera” potters in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) blended east, west, north, and south. Meanwhile, pottery family networks from Virginia to Massachusetts supplied “Redware” to local communities. As the US inexorably sprawled westward, “Salt-Fired Stoneware” potters assembled and re-assembled in successive pottery boom towns; Bennington VT, Trenton NJ, East Liverpool, OH, Monmouth, IL, Redwing, MN.

Finally, at the dawn of the Modern Age, we see perhaps the last great unified tradition that spanned boundaries and defined eras – “Art Pottery.” Potters in these and many other traditions worked together, often jumping from place to place, spreading the word and unifying the output.

But here we stop, a couple decades later as a cocky young Pete Volkous joins the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. We stand on a cusp of major change. What will emerge includes a world of inspiration at the fingertips, a mechanized global supply system, a mature empirical knowledge base, and a studio arts education system that emphasizes personal exploration. A contemporary journey into individual expression will challenge the traditional impulse for interaction and interplay.

What will be gained? What will be lost? More importantly, what has been learned? Pondering the centuries, I think of a seemingly stale cliché: when the effort is made, there truly is strength in numbers. In this case, however, not just strength but a collective eutectic of profound beauty.

Readings:

Five Centuries of Italian Maiolica. Giuseppe Liverani. McGraw-Hill/New York. 1960.

American Art Pottery. Barbara Perry. Harry N. Abrams/New York. 1997.

Let It Be

September 8, 2019

“European ceramics were forever indebted to superior Chinese efforts, once exposed to those wonders.”

This nugget of received wisdom, initiated by a continent-wide, 200 year long porcelain recipe hunt, permeates the study of European ceramics from roughly the 16th century onward. That perspective even percolated down to the Fine Arts studio ceramics narrative after Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940) put celadon, tenmuku, and other Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) stonewares on unimpeachable pedestals; many of these glaze types remain to this day (in name at least) routine options in European and American studios.

But what drove the West’s China obsession during the centuries preceding Leach’s book were not Imperial Sung jewels, but hybridized, prosaic Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) export porcelains. Few westerners even knew of those exquisite Imperial examples before the Middle Kingdom’s late 19th century implosion, just decades before Leach began his pottery career.

More to the point, export production was almost from the start led by aesthetic and functional dictates of the “devils of the western ocean.” These dictates stemmed from a highly refined Iberian, Mediterranean, and ultimately Islamic enameled earthenware tradition – which, incidently, also heavily influenced initial Chinese blue and white development. This earthenware tradition, plus a mature northern European understanding of high temperature materials and kilns, had already established ceramics as fine art worthy of Europe’s idle rich. China’s inspiration could not have been absorbed and acted upon without these pre-existing conditions.

Now consider post-China trade Europe, ie; the Industrial Revolution. Porcelain was by then widely produced throughout the continent. But the masters of the Industrial Revolution instead ran with earthenware clay and glaze materials combined with scientific analysis, increased machine power, and efficient transport of bulky supplies and fragile finished products (and a heavy dose of child labor, but that’s another story). Chinoiserie was certainly a popular decorative option, but one of many. The Industrial Revolution transformed earthenware into fine art and fine dining utensils available to nearly every level of society – a truly revolutionary development.

Interaction with China over the centuries has left an enormous and indelible mark on European and American ceramics. But leaving it at that is almost like writing a 300 page book on the history of Rock and Roll, 250 pages of which are about the Beatles. Yes, of course the Fab Four were musical geniuses who cast a long shadow.

But 250 pages? Really?

Readings:

A Potter’s Book. Bernard Leach. Transatlantic Arts/New York. 1940.
The White Road. Edmund DeWaal. Chatto and Windus/London. 2015.

The World Turned Upside Down

June 9, 2019

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” makes sense only when one looks backward. It’s cold comfort to anyone facing an uncertain future. Still, some things actually do happen for a reason.

In the early 18th century, for example, French king Louis XIV found himself once again out of money. His costly wars against the English and Dutch (i.e.; the War of Devolution, the Dutch War, the War of the Spanish Succession, etc.) led him to enact various Sumptuary Laws restricting the amount of silver, gold, and other metals that the flock of aesthete nobility around him could flaunt. The Sun King needed precious metals to fill his coffers and base metals to make his cannons.

This situation turned out to be very good for the potters of France, and it’s a fair bet they knew this. After all, their wares could not be melted down into ingots or shot. French potters, inspired and instructed by Italian tin glaze potters, had mastered the “grand feu” maiolica process in the mid 16th century. By Louis XIV’s reign, they greatly expanded their color pallette with the “petit fuefaience enameling process. A host of new, flamboyant styles burst on the scene.

The Rayonant style, inspired by Japanese Imari porcelain (then all the rage) defined French Rococo faience. Armorial plates were a big part of this new French work. Faience parlant (speaking faience), with imagery featuring cartoons and text, was equally popular.

Another unusual style was called Singerie. It featured monkey imagery – “singe” means “monkey” in French. Prancing, mischievous monkeys hopped across a wide variety of wares. They were so mischievous they hopped across national boundaries to create a continent-wide fashion. Monkeys were seen on English tankards, chopping down trees full of eligible bachelors to the delight of on-looking maidens. In sprawling Portuguese tiled murals, they were livery attendants to sumptuous weddings of hens

An entire genre of prancing, mischievous monkey pottery came into being because of the proclivities of a powerful man with no sense of fiscal responsibility.

Of course this result only makes sense if looked at, mischievously, backwards. If one looks the other way, and tries to discern possible future outcomes of a man who is today in a position of power and who has absolutely no sense of responsibility – fiscal or otherwise – one can only imagine what mischievous results we might end up with…

Marraige of the Hen

Readings:

Tin-Glazed Earthenware In North America. Amanda Lange. Historic Deerfield/Deerfield, MA. 2001.

Gifts for Good Children; The History of Children’s China, 1790 – 1890. Noel Riley. Richard Dennis Publishing/Somerset, England. 1991.

Azulejos; Masterpieces of the National Tile Museum of Lisbon. Editions Chandeigne/Paris. 2016.

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 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.

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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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.

A Thousand Years of Linguistics

May 15, 2016

caveat: the following train of thought happened entirely after the fact.  The plate shown here resulted purely from a confluence of design ideas, time constraints, and physical limitations.  Thus it ever was for the potter…

Charger, fish
If an efficient way to destroy a culture is to destroy it’s language (or simply kill off it’s  population), then a good way to honor a culture is to learn it’s language (and leave the people  be) – likewise for a culture’s artistic heritage.  But a culture’s visual language can take on a curious life of its own while traveling through the ages.

So, let’s talk delft.  Delft is a creole ceramic expression.  What began in the Arabian peninsula as a blue decorated tin-glazed response to white Chinese porcelain traveled back to China and then sprayed out in various forms, blanketing the globe.  Each stop along the way sprouted whole new styles of expression (like delftware), even as local potters freely drew from what came before.

How cool it would be to trace this language by following a single image or decorative device along it’s entire historical arc!  By seeing that image express change and/or constancy in the hands of an Arabian, Chinese, Indian, Yemeni, Persian, East and North African, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, English, Irish, or Mexican potter.  Maybe curators, collectors, or scholars could identify such an image.  I can’t.  The big picture is too sprawling.

I’ll have to do like the old potters did and make my own ‘little picture.’  This one begins with a collision of two motives – to paint a fish (thus joining the ranks of fish-painting potters), and to wrap my head around an ‘Italianate’ delftware border pattern – combined with a diminishing inventory of blank plates as the clock ran out before a show.

Floating in the background were a 12th century Yuan Dynasty export porcelain bowl intended for the Indian Ocean trade, an early Dutch plate possibly made by an immigrant Italian faience potter, an obsession with Southwark floral imagery that creeps into every unguarded corner when I decorate, my brush and stick learning curve, a vague possibility that I may be related to early Delft potters, and a healthy dose of repetitive muscle strain.

Can one respectfully interpret the range, spirit, and boundaries of a historical style while still telling a unique story?  Who knows?  On the other hand nothing the potter makes exists within, or comes from, a vacuum.

The tale I offer goes something like this: “Here’s me wandering along in the language of pottery history.”

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Where We All Belong

December 20, 2015

Any visitor to the Grand Canyon can appreciate the enormity of space confronting them.  This expanse is as awe-inspiring to the eye as it is difficult for the mind to fully fathom.

Which, obviously, brings us to the complete redefinition of the ceramics scene during the era of England’s North American colonial adventure.  European potters of the time had embarked on a series of transformational explorations rarely matched before or since.  Every household aspired to own a piece of this ‘great leap forward.’  Marketing efforts by the likes of Josiah Wedgwood aimed to fulfill those aspirations.  It was a race to the top motivated by status, technology, and money… 

From this pinnacle of success one could look down, all the way down to the most marginalized, dispossessed communities in colonial society: indentured Irish and Scottish immigrants, decimated indigenous tribes, enslaved Africans. 

These communities also marveled at the fancy new wares.  But slaves, Indians, and indentured servants didn’t fit Staffordshire’s advertising profile.  So they did what people had done since Paleolithic times.  They dug up whatever local clay was available, hand-formed it into rudimentary but useable pottery, piled wood over it, and set the lot on fire.  A small batch of what is now called "Colonoware" soon emerged from the ashes. 

Colonoware is a unique pit-fired pottery type because much of it crudely but intentionally mimicked the Colonial era’s refined ceramics.  It was, in fact, a mash-up of West African, Late Woodland, and early Irish/Scottish styles, flavored with the full force of Stoke-on-Trent.

Archeology tells us marginalized communities occasionally owned cast-away pieces of refined ceramics, chipped, broken, or otherwise conferred upon them by society’s betters.  Archeology also tells us Colonoware was found in households at every level of colonial society, from the lowliest hovels to the kitchens of governor’s mansions.  

And why not?  Not every kitchen supply needed storing in fancy pottery.  Many cooks would even assert that certain dishes were best prepared in these crude earthenware pots.

Nobody held Colonoware, or those who made it, to any standard of beauty or status.  Nobody at the time even thought to give Colonoware a name.  But it spanned the chasm between the Industrial Revolution and the Paleolithic.  And it did so in the intimacy of colonial homes across all ethnic, social, and economic boundaries.  Except for that, Colonoware would hardly be worth noting at all.

Readings:

Catawba Indian Pottery.  Thomas John Blumer.  University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL.  2004.

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

A New Face on the Countryside.  Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver.  Cambridge University Press.  1990.

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.