Graham Hood
Bonnin and Morris Redivivus

An author is flattered by the reprise of his early work. This author is also surprised that it has taken so long for the kind of searching questions and illuminating insights embodied in this issue of Ceramics in America to appear. I have thought that perhaps it was because the work had such a narrow focus—to prove the connection between a small colonial “factory,” known briefly from documents, and a handful of modest wares. That it was a “first” seemed to lend it a minor cachet, but it was still small. Even the pieces that have come to light because of my work are few.

I will further admit that once I had proved the connection to my own satisfaction and had finally found a publisher, I tended to consider the work of such small moment that I was surprised when anyone expressed interest in it. This is not false modesty. A slender book about china that sells fewer than one hundred copies a year is hardly the stuff to inflate self-regard. But lovers of ceramics are often marvelous enthusiasts, so if it was a surprise it was also a pleasure when someone recognized the work. 

Of course, additions and insights have surfaced over the years, while clever and important work has recently placed mine in a different and deeper context. In 1989 Michael K. Brown sensitively pulled together a number of documentary discoveries and connoisseur’s perceptions.[1] In the same year, by unusual coincidence, two major exhibitions featured Bonnin and Morris wares, including newly discovered pieces. “American Porcelain, 1770–1920,” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which was accompanied by a grand catalog written by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, showed several pieces to their very best advantage. “The American Craftsman and the European Tradition, 1620–1820,” produced by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and shown there before proceeding to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, tellingly juxtaposed several of the Philadelphia pieces with comparable ones of English origin. This exhibit also featured a major catalog, edited by Francis J. Puig and Michael Conforti. 

While these elegant exhibits were under way in marble halls, old documents were being dusted off and dirt was being displaced in distant fields in efforts to revise our knowledge of contexts. Were Bonnin and Morris really the first to make porcelain in the colonies? If not, who was? Was it actually Andrew Duché (1710–1778)? In most histories of porcelain in eighteenth-century Britain and its empire, the contentious Duché is mentioned—sometimes simply as a footnote, at other times more hypothetically as an important innovator and key supplier of materials. He has been as controversial in our lifetime as he was in his. The questions have nagged: Did he or did he not make a proto-porcelain in Savannah, Georgia, about 1740? And was he the man who brought the kaolinic clay to London, precipitating the first Bow patent in 1744? Did he then go on in the important role of supplying this material from the colonies to the capital for the next decade or more? 

Bradford L. Rauschenberg amassed copious detail and faced these questions squarely in a long article in 1991.[2] I agree with him that the weight of evidence surely points to a negative answer, but the main questions are unresolved. Indeed, they recently were addressed again, by Australian scholars W. Ross Ramsay, Judith A. Hansen, and E. Gael Ramsay in the 2004 edition of this journal.[3] We await answers to these questions with bated breath. 

And what about the South Carolina enterprises of the Staffordshire master potter John Bartlam (or Bartlem; ca. 1735–1781)? Surely he, more than anyone in the region before him, would have known what raw materials and advanced techniques were necessary to produce different types of wares. Even Josiah Wedgwood, by comparison a mighty industrialist indeed, considered him a serious threat to his trade. Both in public and in private statements Wedgwood spoke of Bartlam almost as a nemesis—even after Bartlam’s business had folded and he was dead. 

In 1764–1765 the news in England was that Bartlam and others had “set on foot some Potworks” in South Carolina, and had hired an agent to lure experienced workmen from England to help establish “new Pottworks” there. By 1771 Bartlam had quit his first enterprise and had moved to Charleston, where he claimed that “He already makes what is called Queen’s ware, equal to any imported.” From the documents it appears he aimed to make porcelain there, too, but he seemed to achieve little of substance. 

Once again, Brad Rauschenberg marshaled impressive amounts of documentation and addressed the topic in a lengthy paper, published in the same year as his work on Duché.[4] Rauschenberg detailed the three stages of Bartlam’s career in South Carolina—Cain Hoy, Charleston, and Campden. Wedgwood might have saved himself all his indignation. Local conditions and finances prevented Bartlam from being a serious competitor. Nevertheless, the question of what he actually did produce still begged, answered in part by archaeologist Stanley South’s excavations at Cain Hoy, a site that has yielded fragments of molded table- and tea wares, green-glazed cauliflower and melon wares, and underglaze-blue painted pieces.[5] 

Not wholly satisfied with what his eyes were telling him about these sherds, Robert Hunter recently sought the further aid of scientific analysis, which has proved that the underglaze-blue painted items were indeed soft-paste porcelain. This is a major development. At this time, these sherds of Bartlam’s clearly point to a colonial “first.” What does this do to Bonnin and Morris’s presumed status? 

The incorporation of a more advanced science, it seems to me, is exactly where studies in our kinds of materials should be heading. This journal and J. Victor Owen’s work show how productive a scientific approach can be. And what about technique, a thorough understanding of and profound familiarity with how things are made, from the inside out? Michelle Erickson’s skill and insights add new layers of perception about these almost iconic items.

Glenn Adamson’s work expands our appreciation of broader, more theoretical contexts, such as why men of erudition and science at the time were fascinated by contemporary developments in porcelain manufacture.

When I think about how the Bonnin and Morris project has evolved over the past forty years, I have to take issue with a statement I made in my original preface. There I alluded to the famous “Three Princes of Serendip.” But the discoveries I made then were not so much the results of chance or accident (which is what the word serendipity does suggest) as they were of people’s generosity. Really, all kinds of people were extraordinarily generous with their knowledge, their resources, their time, and their permissions. I proceeded by a series of delighted encounters from specialist to zealot to enthusiast, each one eager to help and share. Museum workers usually embody this happy characteristic, but this project in my experience topped them all. Young and inexperienced as I was, somehow historians, archaeologists, curators, librarians, scientists, collectors, teachers, philanthropists, family descendants, and property owners all wanted to help. The project succeeded simply because I was able to pull together all that others contributed. 

If I would no longer use the word serendipity, I would also give serious consideration to changing the title of my book. The partners’ endeavor in Philadelphia was known to those at the time who had any interest in such matters either as the China Factory (or Manufactory) or as the American China. Most people did not know (and it is doubtful they cared) who owned it or who was running it. In any event, The American China is both more descriptive and more symbolic of the whole spirit of the enterprise. That would be my choice now. 

I must also express a belated but very sincere apology to the two young men who actually did the dirty work, who brought out of the ground the evidence that proved incontrovertibly the connection between documents and objects. Paul R. Huey and Garry Wheeler Stone were advanced students in archaeology under Dr. John Cotter at the University of Pennsylvania. They were willing, for a stipend that was almost pitiful, to bring their special skills to the narrowly focused project and the unusual site. They did what they did, from beginning to end, in the most professional (and enthusiastic) manner. That I—in well-meaning ignorance—chose to include only a small part of their work in my book should not have exposed them to the criticism the book received from certain archaeologists. I doubt this criticism jeopardized their subsequent careers, but I still apologize. 

And finally I express my admiration for Robert Hunter. His special skills and enthusiasm have made this journal a success of substance and style, not just of surface. His clever perceptions have brought new light to an old subject (well, Bonnin and Morris seem old to me, having lived with them for more than forty years!). For his enthusiasm in devoting so much energy to revisiting it in a special issue of the journal I humbly thank him.

Ceramics in America 2007

  • [1]

    Michael K. Brown, “Piecing Together the Past: Recent Research on the American China Factory, 1769–1772,” American Philosophical Society Proceedings 133, no. 4 (1989): 555–79.

  • [2]

    Bradford L. Rauschenberg, “Andrew Duché: A Potter ‘a Little Too Much Addicted to Politicks,’” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 17, no. 1 (1991): 1–101.

  • [3]

    W. Ross Ramsay, Judith A. Hansen, and E. Gael Ramsay, “An ‘A-Marked’ Porcelain Covered Bowl, Cherokee Clay, and Colonial America’s Contribution to the English Porcelain Industry,”Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2004), pp. 60–77.

  • [4]

    Bradford L. Rauschenberg, “John Bartlam, Who Established ‘new Pottworks in South Carolina’ and Became the First Successful Creamware Potter in America,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 17, no. 2 (1991): 1–66.

  • [5]

    Stanley A. South, with Lisa Hudgins and Carl Steen, John Bartlam: Staffordshire in Carolina (Columbia: South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 2004).