Robert Hunter

The response to the inaugural issue of Ceramics in America has been highly favorable with comments coming from a varied audience. As anticipated, historical archaeologists and decorative art students have acknowledged the importance of the journal for their respective disciplines. Surprisingly, though, reaction from contemporary potters and academics has been particularly enthusiastic. This suggests that Ceramics in America may indeed function as a vehicle for supplying historical context to an audience not otherwise routinely exposed to this material.

Certainly the overall response to the journal confirms that interest in ceramic topics is continuing to grow and expand. Beyond professional societies, there are a number of small, special interest groups that form a large constituency of ceramic devotees in this country. One case in point is the Wilson Pottery Foundation, descendants of nineteenth-century stoneware potters Hiram, James, and Wallace Wilson. The Wilson pottery was established by these former slaves and produced a wide range of products in Texas. An article on their story is planned for a future issue of Ceramics in America.

Meetings and conferences also continue with astounding frequency. The lecture series associated with The New York Ceramics Fair sponsored by the Chipstone Foundation and Ceramics in America is of particular interest, as many of the journal authors speak at this annual event in January. For the highest level of enthusiasm and sheer volume, the National Council for Education in the Ceramics Arts (NCECA) annual conference, held this year in Kansas City, had the feeling of a revival meeting with several thousand participants. A notable special focus conference, sponsored by Historic Deerfield and organized by curator Amanda Lange, brought together an international cast to discuss the topic of delftware. The symposium, which coincided with an exhibit and publication of a book, achieved the commendable goal of attracting an audience of curators, collectors, archaeologists, auction house specialists, dealers, students, and working potters.

This second issue of Ceramics in America continues its interdisciplinary approach. Ivor Noël Hume again leads off with an eclectic essay offering the latest insights into his diverse collection of pottery. If one uses the jigsaw puzzle as metaphor, Noël Hume has found more pieces of the picture he painted in his first article and his recent epic If These Pots Could Talk: Collecting 2,000 Years of British Household Pottery. Noël Hume’s critical evaluation of previous research, whether long-held notions or his own published statements, demonstrates how so-called definitive conclusions in ceramics research can be as fragile as the subject matter itself.

It has been said there is as much archaeological analysis to be done in the drawers and storage cabinets as can be done in the ground. Certainly, the image of the vast warehouse in the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark clearly reminds us of this potential for rediscovering bureaucratically buried treasures. In her article, Merry Outlaw opens the cabinets to a special group of ceramics, which had been excavated in the 1930s by archaeologists working at Jamestown. Known as North Devon sgraffito slipware, this assemblage is unparalleled in the quantity of virtually compete vessels and the diverse representation of vessel forms and decoration. Although bits and pieces have been reported on throughout the years, this is the first comprehensive survey of this important archaeological collection.

Ceramic enthusiasts can generally be lumped into two distinct groups: pottery people and porcelain people. And, for the most part, never the twain shall meet. This dichotomy is an interesting sociological phenomenon. Leading authorities on English pottery often dismiss the thought of studying anything else, while porcelain “connoisseurs” have opined that pottery is nothing but a second-rate pretender. Regardless, at the heart of all porcelain or pottery stories are the materials and technology. Unfortunately for most of us, hard science or chemistry and physics are prerequisites for truly understanding the “alchemy” of the art. Toward this end, Victor Owen presents a forensic look at the ingredients of the early recipes of eighteenth-century British porcelain manufacturers. Careful reading of his paper will underline the importance of implementing material science in the identification of porcelain bodies along with the long-held connoisseurship approach.

A century after the introduction of porcelain table and tea wares for the English market, a new technological breakthrough permitted the mass production of another aspect of ceramic art previously reserved for the dilettante. Ellen Denker traces the use of Parian porcelain by English and American sculptors to create affordable commodities for the increasingly art conscious world. For the first time in America, ceramic bodies were being used for strictly decorative purposes for an upwardly mobile, domestic market.

Ceramics have been used since antiquity to convey social, political, and religious messages. Indeed, we know more about the imagery of Greek and Etruscan mythology from their pots than any other single source. One of the most potent symbolic uses of the ceramic medium in recent history was its association with the abolition of slavery in the Anglo-American world. While relatively rare, this class of ceramics reflects one of the most far-reaching social ills of modern Western civilization. In his thoughtful narrative, Sam Margolin explores the images and slogans used in the abolitionist movement. Illustrated with extraordinary and poignant objects from the collection of Americana specialist, Rex Stark, Margolin frames the historical context for these important political wares.

As the antislavery ceramics bring a harsh reminder of yesterday’s social ills, other types also prompt us into recalling cultural heroes who have faded from public consciousness. One such figure is Toussaint L’Ouverture. A household name in early nineteenth-century America, he was immortalized when his portrait was reproduced on earthenware pitchers made ostensibly to champion the antislavery cause. Jonathan Prown, Glenn Adamson, Katherine Hemple Prown, and this writer combine social and art historical methods to interpret a fascinating but previously unrecognized American-made ceramic object. The resulting evidence not only provides a compelling basis for more research into the diversity of American-made ceramics, it also gives new life to L’Ouverture’s legacy as the commander of the only successful slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere and his subsequent influence in the abolitionist cause.

When conducting material culture research, where hard evidence is often fleeting and conjecture is required, archaeologists usually have the firmest footing in opening windows to the past. Al Luckenbach’s excavation of a large cellar associated with Rummey’s Tavern in now-forgotten London Town, Maryland, offers a crystal clear snapshot of a circa 1725 Anglo-American ceramic assemblage. No reading of inventories or travelers’ descriptions can substitute for the physical remains of the actual pots and dishes used to store, prepare, and serve food and drink in an early colonial American tavern.


Ceramics in America 2002