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Review by Louise P. Richardson
Delftware at Historic Deerfield, 1600–1800

Amanda E. Lange. Delftware at Historic Deerfield, 1600–1800. Deerfield, Massachusetts: Historic Deerfield, Inc., 2001. 165 pp.; 169 color illus., bibliography. $50.00.

Deerfield’s extensive collection of English tin-glazed earthenware, commonly called delftware, is the basis for the catalog Delftware at Historic Deerfield, 1600–1800 and major exhibition “Delicate Deception.” As the first in a series of decorative arts catalogs planned by Deerfield, this thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated publication showcases not only the museum’s collection but also the scholarship of curator Amanda Lange and her staff. 

The majority of delft objects in the museum’s collection were given by two couples, Henry and Helen Flynt, Deerfield’s founders, and Reginald and Rachel French. The Flynts purchased many rare and spectacular examples from major dealers, while the Frenches concentrated on more common pieces with local histories. It is unusual for two such different collecting philosophies to be represented in one collection, but Lange wisely has combined them with recent acquisitions and loans to display a broad spectrum of tin-glazed wares. Three essays introduce the catalog. “Collecting Delftware at Historic Deerfield” focuses on the Flynts, who were influenced by Colonial Williamsburg and especially Winterthur to enhance their carefully assembled interiors with ceramics. Of the dealers who supplied the Flynts with ceramics, John Kenneth Byard and Millie Manheim are profiled in this chapter. Although it is understandable that the Flynts should have top billing, it is disappointing that less than one paragraph was devoted to the Frenches. As Lange says in her final sentence, “The French collection’s breadth of ceramic patterns virtually makes it an encyclopedia of delftware exported to the New England region” (p. 10).

The second essay covers the history and manufacture of delftware, concentrating on the introduction and development of the ware in the British Isles. In 1567, two potters arrived in Norwich from Holland, founding an industry that continued for more than two centuries. Lange attributes delftware’s popularity to the passion for Chinese porcelain, so easily imitated by delft, and the change in dining and drinking patterns requiring specialized ceramics; its fragility, especially when used for hot liquids, was the reason for its decline. This is an abbreviated version of a well-documented history. Lange does not address the similarities between the early English and Dutch delftwares nor the histories of the individual pottery centers.

“Delftware in the Connecticut River Valley,” the third essay, is the most valuable for students of U.S. ceramic consumption. Much has been written about delftware in the mid-Atlantic region, most notably John Austin’s comprehensive volume on Williamsburg. However, aside from the catalog of the China Students Club of Boston’s fiftieth anniversary exhibit, little research has been published on delftware in New England.[1]

Lange’s presentation of evidence from probate inventories and merchants’ accounts in the Connecticut River Valley, combined with family artifacts from the Dr. John Williams household, reveals that the most commonly listed items were plates and bowls, with gallipots and ointment jars appearing archaeologically. The inhabitants of Deerfield were slow to replace pewter and treen with earthenware, so delftware did not enjoy the same popularity there as it did in New England seaports. Considering the difference in terminology between eighteenth-century accounts and current names for ceramic forms, and the fact that smaller items were frequently combined in inventories, it may well be that Deerfield households had a greater variety of delftware than previously realized. The catalog is organized by functional category: dining wares, flower containers, lighting devices, and an impressive collection of ointment pots. Some of the more unusual items in the collection, although not specified in Connecticut River Valley inventories, have been noted in other New England locations. Flower containers, stands or salvers, draining bowls or colanders, salts, and monteiths are among them.

It is important to remember that the most common utilitarian vessels are least likely to survive. While the London-made bottle and basin (fig. 90) are beautiful examples of toilet articles, hand-wash basins and plain chamber pots far outnumbered any other forms in sanitary wares. Similarly, small, undecorated ointment pots are common archaeologically but were too unimportant to appear in inventories. 

Lange introduces each functional category with a brief history of the customs of the times relating to ceramic use. She then describes each object, adding historical or archaeological data concerning the related pieces. For example, figures 15 and 16, punch bowls decorated with blue fish on powdered manganese ground, are accompanied by an explanation of the fish as a symbol of drinking and with references to other fish bowls in North American contexts. This is extremely valuable research information.

The publication of Irish Delftware by Peter Francis has drawn attention to delftware production in other locations in the British Isles.[2] New England ships were calling regularly at Scottish and Irish ports, so it should be no surprise that ceramics were included in the trade; however, this exhibit is the first to display pieces with New England histories. The French collection contains examples with local histories from Delftfields in Glasgow and possibly from Dublin. Both Irish and Scottish sherds have been identified recently in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Lange has correctly attributed these pieces when possible and has explained the difficulty in distinguishing between Liverpool and Dublin examples. 

Mounting a major ceramics exhibit presents challenges for many museums. It is especially difficult to create an exhibit that will appeal to both the general museum audience and to specialists in the field. Highly ornamental wares, like Meissen porcelain, present well in exhibit galleries, but delft, with its inexpensive, utilitarian forms, is much more difficult to display. Although Lange’s research has produced an impressive teaching experience, and she draws from an extensive collection, the objects themselves lack the drama of high-style ceramics, and a large gallery space tends to diminish rather than enhance their impact. The space does allow for more use of partial room settings with appropriate accessories, such as the dining table arrangement. This type of presentation could have also been used for other categories and would have worked well with Historic Deerfield’s large collection of related objects. A video of contemporary potter Michelle Erickson making delftware reproductions not only helped to explain the potting process but also provided a connection with the people who originally produced these pieces. 

In complete contrast to the exhibit gallery are the visible storage study galleries, where most of the French collection resides. Here, the ceramics enthusiast can find case upon case of objects, each carefully identified. The catalog combines the best of both presentations. The dust jacket, with its multiple plates, is as enticing as the study of galleries, while the catalog entries give a thorough analysis of each significant object.

Delftware at Historic Deerfield is a valuable reference in a compact volume. It deserves a place in the library of anyone with an interest in English delftware exported to North America.

Louise P. Richardson
Research Associate for Ceramics, Strawbery Banke Museum

Ceramics in America 2003

Contents
  • [1]

    John C. Austin, British Delft at Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with Jonathan Horne Publications, 1994); China Students Club of Boston, Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence (Lexington, Mass.: Scottish Rite Masonic Museum of Our National Heritage, 1984).

  • [2]

    Peter Francis, Irish Delftware: An Illustrated History (London: Jonathan Horne Publications, 2000).