Archive for the ‘unaker clay’ Category

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.

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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.