Posts Tagged ‘Decorative Arts’

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


Colonial Williamsburg Journal.  Stuff and Nonsense.  Winter 2008.

The Age of Innocence

November 27, 2011

Potters aren’t generally considered to be among the great film critics.  There’s probably a reason for that – something to keep in mind while reading what follows…

I don’t know if there is a cinematic sub-genre called “expository drama,” but there should be.  Films like “Amadeus,” “Dead Poet’s Society,” or “Round Midnight” aren’t documentaries.  But watching them teaches us something about classical music, poetry, and jazz.

So what about pottery films?  As luck would have it, there is one.  No, not “Ghost.”  It’s a 1993 film called “The Age of Innocence.”

“The Age of Innocence” is an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel set in New York City circa 1875.  The book landed Wharton the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a woman.  The film is a maudlin, sappy, sleeper that tries to make the viewer feel sorry for the travails of the super wealthy.  Well, I suppose even they can have a hard time now and then.  (I’ve not read the book which I’m sure is wonderful for its realistic portrayal of a time and place Wharton lived through.)

Still, if you like Martin Scorsese, the film’s director, or Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, the film’s lead actors, you might enjoy this movie.  But there is another character that isn’t in the credits.  Actually, it’s an ensemble cast and it drives the entire film.  This “cast” is better known as the Decorative Arts.

Late 19th century Victorian porcelain was never one of my favorite styles.  That’s partly because I’d only previously experienced it in glass cases and pictures.  The Age of Innocence is saturated with this body of work (the porcelain, as well as the furniture, silver, crystal, etc.).  The actors sometimes seem to exist merely to adorn the decor.

Period films often get rave reviews (and Academy Awards) for costumes and sweeping scenery.  This one deserves a nod for it’s decorative arts.

So, here’s your homework.  See “The Age of Innocence” some night after all your work is done.  The next day go any Museum with a decent collection of late Victorian porcelain.  Ask yourself afterward if the experience changed your perspective on these items.

If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

Early American Pottery and China.  John Spargo.  The Century Co./NY.  1926.


Intellectual Property Rights

July 31, 2011

The music industry is currently awash in copyright battles.  New technologies force everyone to protect their slice of the pie.  The Grateful Dead was one band that addressed this issue early on.  Their ‘open door’ policy of encouraging a cult of bootlegging and brand recycling broadened their reach and helped propel their success.  Many bands today explore similar paths.

But navigating the maze of intellectual property rights issues has never been simple.  Over two centuries ago new technologies in pottery making changed the Decorative Arts landscape.  The use and abuse of patent laws led to an equally complex slate of responses.  Many potters relied on patents and copyrights to assure recognition and appropriate compensation for their discoveries.  Some avoided patents, feeling the required detailed description of a particular technique would only make that technique easier to steal.  The most far-sighted saw the possibilities of a bigger picture.

This situation offers a rare chance to liken Josiah Wedgwood to the Grateful Dead.

In a 1789 letter to Thomas Bentley, Wedgwood wrote:

“So far from being afraid of other people’s getting our patterns we should Glory in it, throw out all the hints we can and if possible have all the Artists in Europe working after our models… With respect to myself, there is nothing relating to business I so much wish for as being released from these degrading slavish chains, these mean selfish fears of other people copying my works.”

Wedgwood never sought patents for his Queen’s Ware.  His logic was interesting.  “Instead of 100 manufacturers selling to the world, it would have been just one amusing England…”

…But he did sue people for stealing his process information.

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potters.  John Thomas.  Adams & Dart/London.  1971.

Master Potters of the Industrial Revolution: the Turners of Lane End.  Bevis Hillier.  The Born & Hawes Publishing Co./London.  1965.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Clement Wedgwood.  S. Low, Marston & Co. Ltd/London.  1913.

A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.  Dennis McNally.  Broadway/New York.  2002.