Posts Tagged ‘Porcelain’

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.

…40 Years Later

September 25, 2016

Everybody knows the story of how Chinese blue and white porcelain thoroughly influenced world ceramic history.  But we look at this story backwards, from its results.  How did it look from the other direction, from it’s beginning?

Mid 9th century Tang Dynasty grandees were repulsed by isolated southern Chinese potters’ gaudy color and decoration experiments.  Anything other than green (replicating jade) or white (replicating silver) belonged in tombs.

Far away Arabs instantly recognized that new work’s value.  Shiploads of southern Chinese stoneware, mostly bowls, were sent to the Abbasid Caliphate in large re-useable ceramic jars.  These jars had auspicious inscriptions, often in Arabic, scrawled along their outside.  Arabic was the ‘official language’ of the entire trade network connecting southern China to the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Arab potters noticed Chinese stoneware encroaching into their home market.  They responded by inventing a smooth white tin glaze for their own earthenware.  A world of color beyond somber Chinese greens and whites was now possible.  Cobalt blue was the first new hue, followed by many others.  Then someone in Basra invented lusterware, truly replicating copper and silver.

The Arabs began signing their work.  They also sent it back to China, along with Mesopotamian cobalt, to try this new look on white Chinese stoneware glazes.  The first Chinese blue and white was probably painted by resident Persians.

The Tang attitude seemed to be “fine, take the foreigners’ money- they actually like that vulgar stuff!”  But so much money was made that people criticized the volume of trees wasted by this work, and all the new ‘art pottery’ for elite tea ceremonies.  Whole mountainsides were deforested to feed the kilns.

The growing impact of ‘aliens’ led to a vicious reaction, with widespread looting and killing of resident foreign traders.  Colorful, decorated ceramics dried up.  The incoming Song Dynasty reverted to safe, comfortable celadons and whites.

The world had to wait another five hundred years for Persian traders to (again) ask Yuan Dynasty potters to put Mesopotamian cobalt on their new porcelain.  ‘Blue and white’ as we now know it exploded onto the world stage, blossoming over the next three hundred years into pottery history’s single most recognized chapter.

Back in the 9th century, Arab potters saw this tidal wave coming.  Their response – tin glazes, cobalt blue, polychrome, and luster ware – set the whole story in motion.  And they did all that in only 40 years.

Reading:

Shipwrecked, Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.  Regina Krahl, John Guy, J Keith Wilson, and Julian Raby, ed.s Smithsonian Institute/Washington DC.  2010.

Test of Time

January 31, 2016

History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…

700AThe M’ing Dynasty Chinese judged their export porcelain as purely 2nd rate fodder for a lower-browed European audience.  And the European foreigners who gobbled up export porcelain were, to the M’ing, strange, impenetrable, exotic, dangerous aliens. 

But not all M’ing Chinese looked down on export ware, or those who bought it.  Before East India Trade delegations became commonplace in Canton, Macao, and elsewhere, a few officials (a very few) collected export porcelain as expressions of those foreigners who were, to them, strange, exotic, impenetrable, curious aliens.

Chinese export porcelain opened up a completely new world for 16th century Europeans.  Entire industries were spawned to get more, and to make it cheaper themselves.  Until that occurred, Europeans saw the foreign Chinese who made this wonderful work as strange, exotic, impenetrable, glamorous aliens. 

In the years since the China Trade, many scholars have understood the wider view that export porcelain indeed expressed European culture of the time as much as it did the capabilities of M’ing potters.  Take, for example, a typical export item known as the klapmut.  Both Chinese and Dutch used soup bowls.  The Chinese drank thin broths right from the bowl.  Dutch stews needed spoons.  The narrow Chinese drinking rim didn’t allow resting space for spoons, so the Dutch directed Chinese potters to include a wide spoon rest rim: voila, the awkward sounding klapmut.  Today’s elegant wide rimmed bowl began life as a foreign shape for Chinese potters – strange, exotic, impenetrable, unusual, and alien. 

Does any of this old history matter today?  It’s nice, as a potter, to know why I make bowls with wide rims.  Deeper historical analogies can be less satisfying because history never repeats itself perfectly.  Witness the current fear-mongering and election year lunacy, fueled in part by masses of people fleeing violence in the Mid East and beyond.  Europeans and Americans have sympathized with the refugees who bring with them only what they can carry and remember.  But many now struggle with the growing vitriol swirling around these foreign, strange, exotic, impenetrable, desperate aliens.

The refugee crisis needs, among many things, large doses of human decency and is quite a large topic of itself.  But as for the jingoistic xenophobia?  If contemplating the history of Chinese export porcelain (or of history in general) offers any small consolation it is this one immutable guarantee: “This too shall pass.”

Readings:

Vermeer’s Hat, The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  Timothy Brook.  Bloomsbury Press/New York.  2008.

Everybody’s Day in the Sun

September 27, 2015

Madaka ya nyamba ya zisahani
Sasa walaliye wana wa nyuni
(“Where once the porcelain stood in the wall niches
Now wild birds nestle their fledglings”)
    – a Swahili poet, 1815

Long before 15th century Europeans decided everything was theirs, an intricate trading system flourished across the Indian Ocean.  This trade culminated with seven voyages from China to Yemen and Somalia between 1405 and 1431 of a massive fleet led by Chinese Admiral Zheng He, better known as The Three Jewel Eunuch.

By “massive” I mean 62 ships, each weighing over 3,000 tons with 80,000 sq. ft. of deck space and 9 masts, along with 165 support ships of 5- 6- and 7- masts each.  The combined crews totaled over 30,000 sailors and personnel.  Vasco da Gama, in comparison, entered the Indian Ocean 60 years later with three 3-masted ships weighing about 300 tons each and about 130 sailors.  Zeng He didn’t invade or plunder a single state, though.  The Three Jewel Eunuch went forth to trade.

China had been purchasing East African ivory, iron, tea, and spices since at least 500AD.  Eventually, M’ing Emperors dictated that only Chinese products could be exchanged for foreign goods due to the trade’s depletion of China’s gold supply.  Porcelain quickly became an integral part of that policy.  How different this porcelain must have been from later export stuff, enameled right next to Canton’s docks with whatever decorative whims Europeans fancied at the moment.

What did Europe have to offer for the silks, spices, ivory, teas, and porcelain of the Indian Ocean trade?  In a word, nothing.  A bedraggled da Gama limped empty-handed into Mogadishu’s harbor shortly after China abruptly scrapped it’s ocean-going fleet. The Portuguese plundered East Africa’s exotic goods to trade for East Asia’s even more exotic goods.  Somalia and Yemen never recovered.

Europe then embarked on a centuries-long quest, filled with subterfuge, violence, and drama, for more porcelain.  Somalis and Yemenis also valued porcelain.  But throughout Yemen’s trade with China, Yemeni potters stuck to a ‘folk’ expression more common to rural earthenware across the globe.  M’ing vases might have influenced some Yemeni water jar forms, but even that connection seems tenuous.  Nobody tumbled over anyone’s toes to get more and more and more…

Why the different reactions?  Europe’s outlook was colored by a previous thousand years of vicious invasions, in-fighting, and plague.  During that same period, Somalia, Yemen and China built a network of mutually beneficial trade relations without obsessively amassing goods and ceaselessly pursuing profit.  Some might call this a fool’s paradise.  Others call it sophistication.

Readings:

The Lost Cities of Africa.  Basil Davidson.  Little Brown Book Co./New York.  1970.

Yemeni Pottery.  Sarah Posey.  British Museum Press/London.  1994.

China-Trade Porcelain.  John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

The Hit Parade #2: The Scarab Vase

April 19, 2015

ScarabVase The Scarab Vase is why we have terms like “tour de force.”  It is Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s undisputed American Arts and Crafts era masterpiece.

Every inch of this 17" tall porcelain vase’s surface is covered with intensely detailed carvings.  It’s proportions are pure perfection.  Legend has it that the vase developed a huge crack after months of carving the scarab beetle-inspired patterns.  Many a potter would have been crushed.  Adelaide didn’t give up.  She repaired the vase and successfully re-fired it.  Thus it entered the halls of history…

They say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  As such, a list of items that are ‘beautiful to look at’ (ie: famous for being famous) would be never ending, and ever disputed.  A truer (or at least fuller) appreciation of an item’s impact considers it’s context.  This is where the Scarab Vase stands head and shoulders above the crowd. 

The 19th century American Industrial Revolution destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of small-time individual potters.  Hand made pottery was  moribund.  Late-century China Painting barely kept alive the notion of individualized pottery.

But something was missing.  It’s interesting to witness how people throughout history react when they sense a fundamental loss due to mechanization.  Like the Luddites, or the ‘back-to-the-lander’s.’  Looking back years from now, will some definitive, paradigm-shifting work stand out as a reaction to today’s wireless world?  What would that look like?

At the dawn of the 20th century, the reaction against industrialization looked like “The Arts and Crafts movement.”  This movement, defined by works like the Scarab Vase, reignited interest in hand made pottery in this country.  Today’s potters ply their trade because tenacious people like Adelaide Alsop Robineau prepared the way for us.

The Scarab Vase is one of my all time favorite works of ceramic art.  But when I look at this vase, the word that most often comes to mind is “thanks.”

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.

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.

 

Never Do This

December 29, 2013

Porcelain’s unique allure through the ages has elicited reactions from rapture to duplicity.  William Tucker of Philadelphia, for example, was very proud of his “China Factory.”  It was America’s first successfully sustained porcelain effort

Tucker began in 1825, as Barber recounts, “with no previous knowledge of the composition of the ware…[he] set to work, wholly unaided by the practical experience of others.  He succeeded in a few years in perfecting from new and untried materials a porcelain equal in all respects to the best which England had produced after 80 years of continual experiment.”

Not bad.  The China Factory was a “must see” stop on visitors’  itinerary for Philadelphia.  Tucker even won medals in 1827 from the Franklin Institute and in 1831 from the American Institute.

William Tucker lobbied President Andrew Jackson for tariffs on rival European porcelain makers.  Henry Clay argued William’s bill in the senate.  The bill failed.  But that turned out to be the least of William’s woes.

There was a particularly nasty stretch where nothing went right.  Glazes shivered.  Bodies bloated.   Pots melted onto shelves.  Handles fell off.  Entire kiln loads wasted.  Any potter who has experienced this peculiar form of hell (or is living it right now) knows the desperation heard in William’s “Why me?” 

A deaf and dumb employee supplied the answer.  As William’s brother Thomas related: 

We discovered that we had a man who placed the ware in the kiln who was employed by some interested parties in England to impede our success.  Most of the handles were found in the bottom of the saggars after the kiln was burned. [The] deaf-dumb man in our employment detected him running his knife around each handle as he placed them in the kiln.  At another time, every piece of china had to be broken before it could be taken out of a saggar. We always washed the round O’s, the article in which the china was placed in the kiln, with silex; but this man had washed them with feldspar, which of course, melted, and fastened every article to the bottom.  But William discharged him and we got over that difficulty.”

Porcelain’s allure eventually scaled back to that of a more personal aesthetic appeal.  It should today be unthinkable to consider sabotaging any poor potter’s business – porcelain or not.  After all, we’re just potters.  Why pick on us?

Peace on Earth.  Happy New Year.

Readings:

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

American Potters and Pottery.  John Ramsey.  1939.  Colonial Press/Clinton, MA.

France

July 8, 2012

English pottery history is fascinating.  Diverse regional styles.  Colorful personalities.  International influence.  Few European pottery centers can compare.  Perhaps Delft, Rhenish stoneware, Italian Maiolica and Hispano-Moresque…

This leaves a pretty big hole right in the middle of Europe.  France.  If you’re really up on your history, you’d know that much of English slip decoration – marbling, feathering, sgraffito – originated in the wine regions of 13th – 14th century Plantagenet controlled Aquitaine and Normandy.  Most authors stick to just mentioning Sévres porcelain and Bernard Palissy.

French peasant pottery, like French wine, was ubiquitous.  This ‘redware’ rarely gets a nod.  Troyes pottery maybe.  Or the venerable pottery villages, chiefly La Bourne, of Poitiers.

Faience permeated France by the early 14th century.  It was made everywhere, from obscure places like Sadriac and Amboise to major centers like Havre and Rouen.  It’s expansion wasn’t always peaceful.  18th century Lille faience potters almost waged open warfare against Dunkirk upstarts cutting in on Lille’s turf.  Even minor faience villages like Roanne would erupt against treaties with England (and devastating imports).

The international porcelain market was cut throat at best.  Sévres originated with runaway workmen, its technical know-how stolen via alcoholic subterfuges.  But during the Napoleonic Wars enough porcelain from large (Limoges, Sceaux, etc.) and small (Strasbourg, Marseilles, etc.) centers was smuggled into England to seriously disrupt the market.

Women played a noticeable role as well.  Hélène de Hangest established an early, and long lived, faience pottery on her estate in Oiron.  Hélène’s ardent patronage was key to faience’s spread across France.  When Lille potter Jaques Febvrier died in 1729 his widow Marie Barbe Vandepopelière expanded the shop, marketing heavily to Holland.  Equally, the unnamed widow of Francois Dorez in Valenciennes continued the trade.  When a Lyons faience pottery faltered in 1733 it’s (male) owners ran.  Françoise Blateran kept it going until 1758.  Did Mme Blateran appear out of thin air?  Were “widows” not potters before their husbands’ death?

Anyway, these and many more French potters rarely get the mention they deserve.  In English, at least.  Much of this abbreviated ‘tour de France’ comes from Albert Jacquemart’s “History of the Ceramic Art” (translated into English, 1873).  Then again, Jacquemart’s 613 page “Descriptive and Philosophical Study of the Pottery of All Ages and All Nations” allows 160 pages for French contributions and exactly 5 pages to the whole of English efforts…

Readings:
History of the Ceramic Art.  Albert Jacquemart.  Sampson, Low, Martson and Searle/London (English translation).  1873.

Flow Blue: A Closer Look.  Jeffrey Snyder.  Shiffer Books/New York.  2000.

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

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  ReginaldHaggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

 

Pie in the Sky

September 25, 2011

The police came for Julius Norton in New York City.  It didn’t matter that Julius was wealthy.  Intelligent.  Well read.  A gifted musician.  It certainly wasn’t in his nature to commit acts of vice or violence.  As owner of the famous Norton Pottery in Bennington, VT., Julius was in New York on business.  So being clapped in irons must have infuriated him.  Regardless of the charge against him, he surely knew by then the real reason he was stewing in that cell.  He had violated a fundamental principle of good business practice –

Never team up with in-laws.

In those days, a person could be jailed for a business partner’s personal debts.  Julius’ erstwhile partner, and brother in law, Christopher Webber Fenton owed money to lots of people.

Julius inherited a successful stoneware business from his father Luman Norton in 1840.  Julius was slowly growing the business when Christopher  married his sister and burst on the scene in 1845.  Christopher was a scion of another talented pottery family.  His father, Jonathan Fenton, had even written a poem to him as a child about their “pedigree,” prodding him to aim high.

Grow the business you say?  Why not take over the world!  Porcelain!  Agate wareParian sculpturesRockinghamYellow ware!  Anything Staffordshire does we can do better!

For a time, Christopher’s fertile imagination paid off.  Bennington became “the Staffordshire of America.”  The frantic pace during their brief three year collaboration (1845-47) must have been something to witness.  But ideas – and bills – piled up.  To keep it rolling, Julius put in overtime on marketing.  Like his ill fated New York City trip.

In the end, Julius was still a Norton.  Respectability and stability mattered.  The arrest was the last straw.  But others came before.  For example, Julius’ employees were solid neighborhood fellows.  Christopher brought in all sorts of characters to realize his dreams.  Some, like the Englishman Daniel Greatbatch, were amazing.  But many were rabble rousers, often prone to drunken reverie.  One, Alexander Stephens, ended up as Vice President of the Confederate States of America.

After the partnership ended Julius kept some ideas and abandoned others.  He died in 1861.  Christopher continued hatching schemes across the country.  He died in 1865.

But whatever their differences while alive, they’re both equal now.

Julius Norton                  Christopher Webber Fenton

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.

American Stonewares.  Georgeanna Greer.  Schiffer Publishing Ltd./Exton, PA.  1981.

American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

The Potters and Potteries of Bennington.  John Spargo.  Cracker Barrel Press/Southampton NY.  1926.