Archive for the ‘Ireland’ 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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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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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.

William Fives

September 22, 2013

“…a small brown jug bears his name, in slightly uneven letters, W. Fives.” – M. Lelyn Branin.

In 1834, scions of Whately MA pottery families Orcutt and Crafts began a shop ultimately known as the Portland Stoneware Company of Portland, ME.  They churned out huge amounts of ware, mostly 1 to 4 gallon jugs.  Orcutt dropped out in 1837.  Caleb Crafts took William Fives as a partner.  Their partnership ended a few years later.  Caleb left town.  William stayed on, but never again as owner.

It seems William Fives had talent.  Many potteries traded owners during the 19th century.  But William continued at this shop through a succession of owners.  Almost like a tacit agreement that he ‘come with the shop.’

He rented an apartment on Green Street with several fellow potters.  William eventually married, bought a house and had children.  He quietly passed away on Dec 5, 1849.

In the words of genealogist Susan Hoffman, William Fives “led a very quiet life.”  Normally, that would be commendable – though somewhat dull.  In William’s case “quiet” was amazing.  His family had emigrated from Ireland in 1803.   William was Irish in the mid 19th century northeastern United States.

The Irish were roundly despised even before a mid century deluge of ragged Irish immigrants broke on these shores.  They were considered even lower than the black population at the time.  After all, white folk ‘knew’ the blacks.  Blacks spoke the same language, had the same religious beliefs, ate the same foods and, while often poor, they did not generally live in abject squalor.  Gaelic speaking Irish arrived with absolutely nothing.  They were starving, stinky, sickly and destitute.  They tended to radicalism due to past experience.  Worst of all, they were papists! Catholic!  The Irish didn’t become ‘white’ until well after the Civil War.

William Five’s Green Street apartment seemed to be a focal point for Portland Stoneware Company potters.  Their surnames suggest an eclectic work environment.  Clough (Welsh), Aliff (Breton), Vankleek (Dutch).  ‘Melting pot’ potteries might not have been rare, although it is known that some – the Norton’s of Bennington most notably – strictly favored local boys.  The Portland roster indicated a fairly open-minded environment in the midst of wide spread xenophobia and anti-Irish sentiment.

Open minds are to be treasured even in the best of times.  For that alone William Fives and his cohorts deserve notice.

Readings:
The Early Potters and Potteries of Maine.  M. Lelyn Branin.  Wesleyan University Press/Middletown Ct.  1978.

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

How the Irish Became White.  Noel Ignatiev.  Routledge/New York, London.  1995.