Posts Tagged ‘Tulip Ware’

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.

Advertisements

The Story of How One Thing Leads To Another

August 28, 2016

“How far is the southern sky in the eyes of a lone wild swan?
    The chilly wind strikes terror into one’s heart.
    I miss my beloved who is traveling afar, beyond the great river,
    And my heart flies to the frontier morning and night.”

A poem was painted onto a bowl in the southern Chinese town of Changsha during the T’ang Dynasty, around 875ad.  It spoke of tragic longing for a far away loved one.  The bowl’s intended owner wouldn’t care.  The Abbasid Arab would think it was cool because it had Chinese writing on it.

That person never saw the bowl, however.  It was found in 1988 among the wreckage of a 9th century Arab trading ship off the Java Sea island of Belitung.  This wreck illuminated the evolution of several small, local trade routes into an international network connecting Zimbabwe to China.  That evolution also inspired epic pottery innovations.

Before getting into that, let’s go back earlier in T’ang times, when pottery wasn’t terribly valued.  Ornate, poly-chrome ceramics were for burials only.  Increasingly outlandish tombs prompted sumptuary laws severely limiting funeral pomp.  Ceramic funerary art quickly art died out.  So did the Silk Road, from increased instability along that fabled route.  Then came tea.  China, like Europe 500 years later, changed radically.  Pottery (tea wares) immediately caught upper class attention.  A 755 – 763ad civil war was the final spark.  Refugee potters fled to Changsha, previously a southern back-water dumping ground for exiled losers from the cosmopolitan north.

The refugee potters copied popular Yue green glazed tea wares.  Yue green looked like jade, which complimented the tea’s color.  Changsha’s potters were ignored.  They came from a ‘place of melancholy’ with ‘dense and poisonous vapors.’  Location is everything.

Changsha’s ignored, cast-away poets, like it’s potters, did whatever they wanted.  Poets like Huaisu the Wild Monk invented ‘Wild Cursive’ with free, irregular lines and fluid character links.  Changsha potters applied this new, wild brush work to their green ‘vapor cloud’ pottery.

Such looseness defied conventional T’ang aesthetic uniformity.  But Arabs loved it.  Trade with the Abbasid Caliphate via new maritime routes exploded.  Changsha became southern China’s major trading and pottery center.

This story has many spin-offs.  We’ll settle for now with an observation of possible interest to Pennsylvania ‘Tulip Ware’ devotees.

The most common Changsha floral design was a petaled flower with a central dot.  These ‘rosettes’ appeared here before anywhere else in China.  One could follow this pattern to Abbasid Baghdad, then to Fatimid Egypt, then to Umayyad Spain, then Renaissance Italy, then Anabaptist Moravia, then North Carolina and Pennsylvania…

Imagine your world turning on the central dot of a mad monk’s petaled flower.

To be continued…

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

Spartacus

July 19, 2015

Militia units from surrounding towns faced the angry crowd.  The militia captain demanded, “Who is your leader?”  The entire crowd shouted, “I’m the leader!”  This confrontation might bring to mind a famous scene from the 1960 film Spartacus.  But it actually took place on March 7, 1799 in Easton, PA., during what is known as the Fries Rebellion.

The Fries Rebellion was one of many, like the Shay’s and the Whiskey Rebellions, that immediately followed the Revolutionary War.  These uprisings rose from tensions between Revolutionary ideals of egalitarian self-determination, and problems of nation building with a centralized power structure.  In post-Revolutionary terms: (egalitarian) Republicanism vs. (centralized) Federalism.

The Fries Rebellion occurred in German communities of Pennsylvania’s Northampton,  Montgomery, and Bucks counties.  German immigrants had been near the bottom of the social ladder since establishing themselves in the area several decades earlier.  They were drawn to the fringes of colonial society by the allure of freedom from impoverished servitude back home.  Pennsylvanian Anglicans and Quakers, however, considered them ignorant, lawless, and alien.

Along came the Revolutionary War and it’s egalitarian promise.   Here was a chance to socially advance by joining the cause, enlisting in the Continental Army, and proving themselves as patriotic – and equal – citizens.

The Fries Rebellion, like Spartacus’ slave revolt, was quickly put down.  Unlike Spartacus, who was nailed to a pole by the Roman army, the Fries Rebellion’s nominal Republican leader John Fries (the whole point was that there should be no ‘leaders’) got a presidential pardon by Federalist John Adams.  Furthermore, the status of German communities continued to grow.

As Germans fought to secure a place in the new order, they began proudly displaying their ‘German-ness’ for all to see through quilting, illuminated manuscripts, furniture, and other decorative arts.

This was the heady environment that witnessed the flowering of Pennsylvania sgraffito redware pottery, or “Tulip Ware” as it has become affectionately known.  Yes, Tulip Ware is flowery, ornate, and pretty.  It also denotes pride and determination in the face of discrimination and disrespect.  There was no need for individual leaders in that effort, either.

2 dove heart

Reading:

Many Identities, One Nation, The Revolution and It’s Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic.  Liam Riordan.  University of Pennsylvania Press/Philadelphia.  2007.

The Great Road

October 30, 2011

Seemingly inconsequential moments sometimes result in life long lessons.  In an episode of the 1960’s colonial frontier TV series “Daniel Boone,” his son gets lost for a time.  When the son realizes he’s stumbled into the Cumberland Gap, he finds his way home.  The Cumberland Gap.  A geography lesson about an important colonial passageway across the Appalachian Mountains that a certain kid growing up in Des Moines, IA never forgot.

Many years later, when I became interested in early American pottery, I heard of another famous route.  The Great Wagon Road, also called The Great Road, sprawled from Philadelphia PA, to Augusta, GA (1770 – 1880).  Like the Appalachians that it traversed, different sections of The Great Road had different names.  It was The Valley Pike in the Shenandoah Valley.  Farther south it was The Carolina Road.  And of course the whole thing developed along a pre-existing Indian route (some parts of Virginia even called it The Great Warrior’s Trail).  The Great Road brought all the contemporary comforts to the local inhabitants – at least in areas where wagons could actually use it.

Several potteries existed along The Great Road.  Wythe and Washington Counties, VA, and Sullivan and Carter Counties, TN were particularly active.  These were mostly redware potters.  Historians today generally lump them together as “Great Road Pottery.”

A Great Road Pottery exhibit would reveal differences between potters and areas.  Some of the more southern potters were influenced by the North Carolina Moravians (domed lids and wavy green and white slip trailed decoration).  More northerly potters reflected the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon communities of the mid-Atlantic region (large looped handles with stamped ends and either daubs or trailed imagery in manganese).  But overall, the forms were basic work-a-day items intended for heavy use around the farm.

It makes sense to consider Great Road potters as a distinct group even though they were working in fairly isolated conditions.  They all used similar raw materials to serve similar rural communities in similar ways.  This insular context constitutes a core definition of what used to be called “style.”

It would be hard to apply that definition to any random area today.  Even though we also work in isolated studios using similar commercial materials to serve similar art market communities.  Then again, we shouldn’t confuse “style” with individualized “flair” – however expressive the latter might be.

Readings:
Slipped and Glazed: Regional American Redware.  Brian Cullity.  Heritage Plantation of Sandwich/Sandwich MA.  1991.

Telephone

July 17, 2010

The mounted officer charged the enemy.  Or rallied the troops.  Or  maybe just smoked a pipe while out on a joy ride.  Whatever his intentions, they were important (or interesting) enough to meritDragoon 1 eternal commemoration.  His ride was depicted several times on earthenware plates made in southeastern Pennsylvania between the mid 1770’s and 1849.

So who was this rider?  A Philadelphia Light Horse Dragoon?  He often wielded saber in one hand, pistol in another.  A dragoon on the attack.  His attire suggests this, and the earliest plates date from the Revolutionary War. But  the rider probably morphed into George Washington soon after the General’s death in 1799.  Commemorative prints of Washington were widely popular then.  The rider sometimes blew a bugle, with pistol or saber accompanying, as if George were urging his forces forward.  Here was a known pattern ready to fulfill  demand for memorabilia.

Dragoon 2 WashingtonBut what about the pipe that sometimes appeared?

Possible references to intention and identity were inscribed around the rim of the plates – when one was present, the earliest plates have none.  From 1805: “I have ridden over hill and dale and have found disloyalty everywhere.”  This saying was associated with Washington’s doubts when the going was rough.

But things quickly degenerated: “I have ridden over hill and dale and everywhere have found pretty girls.”  The ride soured: “I have ridden many hours and days and yet no girl will have me.”  The rider became desperate: “A pipe of tobacco does a man as much good as though he spends his money with the girls.”  Then fed up: “A pipe of tobacco does a man as much good as though he spends his dollar in a butcher shop.”  Hope fades: “I have traveled up and down the street and yet my purse Dragoon 4 pipewas empty.”  By ride’s end, around 1849, he was delirious: “I am a  horseman like a bear, I would that I in heaven were.”

The ride reads like a decades long game of telephone.  If many potters took part, why not?  Attribution isn’t always clear, but most of these plates made after 1805 seem to be by Johannes Neesz.  If it was just old Johannes taking us for a ride, well, I’ll leave the final word to him (found on another of his plates):

In olden times it was so, that an old man’s words were taken as true.

Readings:
Lead Glazed Pottery.  Edward Atlee Barber.  Museum of Philadelphia/Philadelphia.  1907.

Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.

Tulips

July 10, 2009

The tulip has been around for a long time.  It’s been called the holiest of flowers, the herald of spring, an aphrodisiac.  The tulip inevitably pops up during any investigation of early American  pottery, an entire branch of which is often called “Tulip Ware.”  Of all the floral motifs available to the potter, the tulip is one of my favorites.  Particularly the more stylized versions.  Some are hardly recognizable, almost cosmic.  But there’s another reason why I appreciate the tulip motif.

In 1570 tulips were introduced into Holland after a long journey from the northern Himalayas via Persia and Ottoman Turkey.  These were not the tulips of today.  They carried a certain virus that caused radical deformation and discoloration, resulting in blooms of singularly fascinating qualities.  The Dutch had never seen anything like it.  They began trading bulbs with genealogies of particularly spectacular blooms.  Higher and higher prices were paid.  Rather than wait for a bloom to evolve, speculators began trading on the bulb’s expected merits.

A futures market evolved.  What was traded was not the bulb, or even the note certifying that a bloom to be was of a particular genus, but on the value attached to the note.  Then on the value attached to the value of the note.  The bulb itself had long since bloomed and died off, if it ever existed at all.  Fortunes were amassed and spent.  All on credit.  The market for bulb futures notes grew into a Tulip Craze of mammoth proportions.

Is this story beginning to sound familiar?  Would any Dutch trader of the time have difficulty jumping into the Derivatives Market of 2008?  There was easy money to be made.  Just wrap a seductive image around a potent lure such as greed, and it is easy to see how far things can go.  It was the world’s first stock market bubble.

The end came on February 1, 1637.  At a market in Haarlem (tulip “markets” were conducted in taverns) a note was put on the block.  Nobody bid.  An awkward silence followed.  In minutes, everyone in the room was frantically trying to sell.  By the end of the week, the Dutch Tulip Market evaporated.  The economy crashed, leaving a wake of devastation…

I love the tulip motif.  I appreciate it’s formal qualities, and it’s iconography.  But most of all, I keep it at the forefront of motifs I employ as a sort of reminder.  Even if only to myself.

Try not to get too carried away.

tulip 12

Readings:
TulipoMania.  Mike Dash.  Crown Publishers/New York. 1999.

Tulip Ware of the Pennsylvania-German Potters.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Dover Publications/New York.  1926.