Review by Paul Fox
Feathers and Foliage: The Life and Times of the Pearlware Peafowl

George Deike and Mickey Deike. Feathers and Foliage: The Life and Times of the Pearlware Peafowl. Shalimar Farm (privately by the authors), 2005. xvi + 370 pp., 358 color illus., 50 color paintings, 14 bw illus., appendixes, bibliography, index. $65.00 (hardcover).

When John and Griselda Lewis published their book Pratt Ware[1] in 1984, I was disappointed, thinking that their definition of Pratt ware was too limited, applying only to press-molded or slip-cast pearlware pottery decorated with high-temperature underglaze colors. When I asked them about it, their reply was that someone should write a separate book about the other polychrome underglaze-decorated wares. George and Mickey Deike have done just that.

The work focuses on the English refined white earthenware known as pearlware that was decorated with polychrome underglaze-painted peafowl in the last quarter of the eighteenth century through the middle of the nineteenth century. The Deikes’ forty years of collecting and fifteen years of careful research have culminated in a beautifully illustrated book written with a humble and personal approach. The magnificence of this book, worthy of a coffee table, is the result of Bill Dillon’s design and the authors’ loving and painstaking production.

The book begins with a description of making pearlware that can provide much information for a beginning student of English ceramics. The first chapter deals with the origin and distribution of the materials used to make this pottery, which serves as the canvas for decoration. The clay, flint, lead, cobalt, and metal ores used were often brought in from afar to areas in England where the pottery was made. Coal, however, was always close by, since a ton of pottery requires ten tons of coal for firing.

The next chapter is about the transportation of raw materials and the finished pottery. Contemporary roads were so miserable that, in enlightened self-interest, the potters promoted the building of turnpikes and canals. There follows a chapter presenting an abbreviated history of bird-decorated ceramics resulting from the authors’ search for the ancestry of these underglaze-painted examples. In the late eighteenth century, birds were painted on delftware, white salt-glazed stoneware, creamware, and porcelain. The last introductory chapter discusses many aspects of the production of pottery, especially pearlware—design, preparation of materials, potting, firing, and decorating methods.

Choosing a single but popular decoration and pattern type as a collecting and research subject has yielded a vast amount of previously unpublished details for the specialist. At the heart of the book’s main section is the Aviary, chapter 5, which illustrates and describes the forty-nine families of painted birds and background settings, defined during years of collection and study. The Deikes use given names, such as Doris or Gertrude, for the styles, rather than dry descriptive labels. (Some names were given to honor particular friends or dealers.) The Deikes provide at least one portrait of each family type. Detailed descriptions of the shapes, foot rims, glaze, edge molding, and so forth—as well as factory, where known—are provided.

The remaining section of the book deals with the details of the more than 650 examples of peafowl decorated pearlware. Chapter 6 discusses the pottery shapes. Each form—plates, saucers, teapots, for example—is summarized in text tables providing details of peafowl decoration.

The next chapter deals primarily with elements of decoration other than the birds themselves, such as body color or foliage and trees. These variables are brought together to compare similarities and differences that could reveal family relationships based on recurring design elements or perhaps common factory or decorator origins.

The last chapter describes two of the many other types of polychrome underglaze painted pearlware decoration, House and Flower Basket. These patterns are discussed and illustrated to show that there is a large field of study waiting for someone with dedication and time.

Finally, all of the data are tabulated in a series of six appendixes. The first summarizes all of the 650 ceramic examples in the book. Remaining appendixes summarize, for each of the forty-nine bird families, the shapes of the pots (appendix ii), the shapes of the plates (appendix iii), the pose and outline features (appendix iv), the colors used (appendix v), and additional features, including foliage and decorative bands (appendix vi).

The bird family summaries are very useful for classifying a piece of pottery. It will be interesting to see whether collectors, museum curators, and auctioneers will attribute or catalog according to the Deikes’ aviary. Peafowl collectors will certainly use these family names, and even if curators and auctioneers choose not to use the Deikes’ unique names, they surely will no longer use simple generic descriptions for pottery with this type of decoration.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs by Jurgen Lorenson and paintings by Eric Werner, resulting in full-color illustrations on almost every page. On opening the book one is immediately struck with the “roll-out” view of a peafowl decorated pearlware mug on the endpapers. Justin Kerr’s adaptation for Feathers and Foliage of this type of photographic image, which shows the decoration of an entire jug or a mug laid out on a flat surface, is the best method I have seen for turning a beautiful three-dimensional object into a beautiful two-dimensional picture. I know this technique has been used before in archaeological contexts, but to my knowledge it has never been used to this extent in a decorative arts reference.

This book shares what the authors have seen, measured, and thought about their beloved birds. In their afterword, they express the hope that readers will also find these birds to be pleasing and interesting. Given that the Deikes’ boundless enthusiasm for English ceramics in general is “contagious to all who come in contact with them and their collection” (as dealer Joyce Hanes Ruskin notes in her foreword), this book should be great inspiration for dedicated collectors to explore other underglaze painted patterns.

Paul Fox, Student of English ceramics

Ceramics in America 2006

  • [1]

    John Lewis and Griselda Lewis, Pratt Ware: English and Scottish Relief Decorated and Underglaze Coloured Earthenware, 1780–1840 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, Eng.: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1984).