They say old pots never die, they just get broken and thrown away—only to be dug up by some ceramics fanatic who writes endlessly about their significance. Okay, perhaps no one has actually said that, but it is apt considering the content of the many articles that have appeared in Ceramics in America over the last thirteen years. And I am happy to say that the 2013 volume continues to epitomize the enthusiastic search for meaning in ceramics through dogged research, creative interpretation, and, in some cases, brilliant observation.
Ceramics scholars have been writing about American pottery for well over a century. The legendary Alice Morse Earle, one of the early pioneers writing on ceramics, produced numerous books and articles between 1890 and 1904 on early American material culture, among them China Collecting in America (1890). A self-proclaimed “china hunter,” Earle published much of the early knowledge about the use of imported Chinese and English wares in domestic settings in New England. Another hero of American ceramics was Edwin Atlee Barber, whose Pottery and Porcelain of the United States (1909) is still considered the bible for the history of domestic ceramics production. These authors, and of course others, provided a broad outline of ceramic history in the American context that scholars and collectors continue to fill in.
What is astonishing, though, is the magnitude of the new discoveries and reinterpretations of even well-known ceramics traditions. Most American ceramics research and collecting is regional if not local. Collectors hoard information as well as pots, and the competition for either can be ferocious. Clay-based feuds among collectors frequently result in a resistance to publishing new research, in an arguably counterproductive belief it will protect one’s interests. With the advent of the internet, it is auction houses that disseminate regional information, some of which is decades out of date. The more iconic a particular pottery type has been in the seminal literature, the less likely new research will be incorporated into catalog descriptions or exhibit labels.
The nineteenth-century alkaline-glazed face vessels from the Edgefield District of South Carolina are a prime example of an American ceramic genre that has a long history with both collectors and scholars. Barber discussed them at length in his 1909 book and connected their making and use with the slave population of Edgefield whose cultural roots extended back to Africa. While various attempts have been made in the ensuing years to better understand the historical origins and use of these vessels, most of the basic steps in connoisseurship have been not undertaken. A surprising amount of speculation has been put forth in the absence of archaeological findings, documentary evidence, and rigorous typological analysis. In a major effort to remedy this, researchers Claudia Mooney, April Hynes, and Mark M. Newell submit their provocative article “African-American Face Vessels: History and Ritual in 19th-Century Edgefield.” They further the argument that face vessels were not just functional jugs and cups, but also served as powerful ritualistic objects used specifically in the African-American practice of conjuring.
This essay is but one scholarly product that has resulted from the landmark exhibit “Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina,” curated by Mooney and sponsored by the Chipstone Foundation. Another important result of the Chipstone initiative was the symposium “Unmasking the Mysteries of Face Jugs,” held at the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum of Art in Columbia, December 7–9, 2012. Beyond the diverse array of speakers, the symposium invited the ceramics community at large to contribute their thoughts regarding the history, uses, and meanings of these culturally charged objects. Mooney, Hynes, and Newell’s work adds a significant contribution to the literature on Edgefield face vessels and, perhaps most important, has catalyzed the field to continue the archaeological, typological, and material research needed to fully understand the history and use of the face vessel.
Another long-standing topic related to Edgefield ceramics is examined in Philip Wingard’s article “From Baltimore to the South Carolina Backcountry: Thomas Chandler’s Influence on 19th-Century Stoneware.” The potter Thomas Chandler is well known to collectors of alkaline-glazed stoneware from the Edgefield district of South Carolina. His creations are beautifully thrown and finished with distinctive and aesthetically inventive slip-trailed decorations. One could make a case that Chandler’s pots are the most beautiful American stoneware ever produced. Despite the survival of so many of his utilitarian masterpieces, a full history of Chandler’s life has never been recorded in the published works on Southern pottery.
This reevaluation of Chandler’s early history was triggered in part by the discovery of a Baltimore churn made in the typical blue-and-gray salt-glazed ware of that city’s prolific potting history. This object, however, is anything but typical, having been incised with one of the most elaborate scenes of a house and farmyard ever found. The churn was signed and dated by Thomas Chandler in 1829, thus providing a link to his early training in Baltimore. Wingard, a long-time collector and dealer of Edgefield stoneware, deciphers this “Rosetta stone” of Chandler’s work and has written the most complete rendition of this master potter’s biography. Along the way, Wingard draws on his years of experience collecting and conducting research on Chandler’s marks, glazes, and decorative styles to build a chronology and understanding of the potter’s life. Beyond basic connoisseurship, Wingard strengthens his arguments by making use of archaeological and documentary evidence. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Wingard’s article is the suggestion that Chandler, having been exposed to face vessels in Baltimore in the 1820s, should be fully credited with introducing this form into the Edgefield potteries. The publication of Wingard’s research surely will induce archaeological exploration of the many sites in which Chandler worked during his career and a comprehensive exhibition on his life and work.
In sharp contrast to the incomplete knowledge of stoneware production in the Edgefield district of South Carolina are the stoneware products of Alexandria, among the most easily recognized in the country. Highly collectible, the pots are boldly decorated in cobalt blue and virtually always identified with a potter’s stamp. In the 2012 volume of Ceramics in America, Barbara Magid offered “‘Stone-ware of excellent quality, Alexandria Manufacture’ Part I: The Pottery of John Swann,” an encyclopedic overview of the early potter. This year she continues with “Part II: The Pottery of B. C. Milburn.” In this heavily illustrated essay, she provides the most comprehensive typological study of Benedict Cuthbert Milburn’s products through the analysis of more than 150 surviving vessels and tens of thousands of archaeological fragments recovered in excavations. Of particular interest is Milburn’s use of cobalt slip trailing, which Magid suggests began between 1847 and 1854. The style seems suspiciously similar to what Thomas Chandler was doing contemporaneously in Edgefield, South Carolina, and warrants scrutiny for evidence of a possible connection. Magid’s study firmly establishes Milburn’s place in the history of American stoneware, documenting both his aesthetically competent decorations on what must be considered utilitarian objects and his ability to provide Alexandria consumers with a signature product for more than forty years.
Artistic vision expressed through ceramics has an ancient history, and the use of the medium to create sculpture is as old as the craft itself. Clay has continued to be relevant well into the space age and, when paired with new technologies, continues to be a vital part of our life. Thomas Folk provides a perfect case study for this assertion with his fascinating article “Waylande Gregory: Science and Ceramics.” Waylande Gregory, considered to be one of the leading figures in mid-twentieth-century ceramic art, had a long career designing porcelain tableware for major American brands. However, it is his monumental sculpture “The Fountain of the Atom,” made for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, that helped seal his critical acclaim. Folk focuses on this particular work to give us a sense of Gregory’s interest in the atomic age and its prescient ramifications for mankind as expressed in his metaphoric treatment of the figures that make up this sculptural tableau. Folk organized a retrospective exhibition of Gregory’s work, sponsored by the University of Richmond Museums, Virginia, which has traveled to the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and will be on view there until March 23, 2014. A biographical catalog accompanies the show and is highly recommended.
Although the science of ceramic making has come a long way in explicating ancient clay bodies and glazes, sometimes the simplest thing can befuddle the most astute expert. Ivor Noël Hume has made a career out of finding overlooked bits of information, and here he questions a tiny pinhole found in a group of English earthenware money boxes—common, everyday objects made by potters working in the Surrey/Sussex area of England just west of London. These ceramic objects have been well known to archaeologists excavating sites in the metropolitan area. Some examples have survived fairly intact, though most, of course, were smashed for the monetary rewards within. These money boxes, like American piggy banks, have slots for the coins, but why the pinhole? In the quest for an answer, Noël Hume enlisted the help of London ceramics specialist Jacqui Pearce and master potter Michelle Erickson, the results of which are presented in a two-part article: “A Hole in One? or, In Search of Piggy Banks and Christmas Boxes” and “Money Boxes: The London Evidence.” Whether the function and meaning of these mysterious pinholes are fully resolved I leave to the reader to decide. It is, however, an instance in which the question is as brilliant as the answer.
Given the enormous amount of research and publication in recent years on the topic of eighteenth-century English pottery, one could wonder what is left to present and discuss. Diana Edwards, noted scholar and author on this broad topic, shows us that important collections are available to be mined for ceramic treasures. In her essay, “English and Continental Delft at Temple Newsam House, Leeds,” Edwards opens the display cabinets of this English manor house. While the English creamware collections of Temple Newsam are widely known and have been beautifully published, the tin-glazed wares have not received their due attention. The objects included in the article span a hundred-year history and reflect changes in style and social rituals. Readers are encouraged to visit this wonderful house museum and explore its rich furnishings.
There has been no greater icon in the American ceramics world than the American China Manufactory of Gousse Bonnin and George Anthony Morris, who opened their factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1769. Within three years it had closed, leaving behind scattered historical accounts and, as of this writing, a mere twenty intact objects, several archaeological specimens, and a handful of tiny fragments excavated from the site. In contrast to many early endeavors, there is a rich documentary trail that records the rise and fall of this important American factory. In fact, the entire 2007 volume of Ceramics in America was devoted to this topic, with the expectation that it would be the final word on the subject. Through careful reading of untapped archival resources, however, ceramics scholar Diana Stradling has gleaned even more evidence of the story. Titled “Bonnin & Morris: Reading between the Lines,” the article presents fascinating new information on the identities of those involved in the factory, among them Thomas Byerley, Josiah Wedgwood’s nephew and the head painter, and “about a dozen prime hands” from London’s Bow porcelain factory who had traveled to be part of the Philadelphia enterprise. Mysteries and questions remain about the factory and its products, but Stradling gives us hope that answers are still available to be found.
In 1978 my colleague Dan Mouer, an archaeologist with Virginia Commonwealth University, took me to a stoneware pottery site deep in the woods in eastern Henrico Country. I was impressed with the mounds of waster fragments piled high, but I didn’t fully appreciate the ramifications of the untouched condition of the site. Since then, researching one of the most significant nineteenth-century stoneware complexes in America has been a major preoccupation. Unlike Alexandria stoneware, which is nearly always signed, the salt-glazed potters who worked in the Richmond and Petersburg region of Virginia in the first half of the nineteenth century rarely signed their pots. From about 1805 until the devastation of the Civil War, dozens of stoneware potters plied their trade, creating visually distinctive wares that have long been lumped together as the James River Valley school.
Richmond was at the epicenter of stoneware production for many reasons, but the two most important were clay and transportation. As illustrated by the endpapers chosen for this volume, the deepwater port of Rocketts was clearly a hub for shipping. The scene, by artist Albert Charles Pleasants, was done sometime between 1841 and 1844 and shows the port at it busiest. The building in the foreground may be the location of one or more of the Richmond potteries. If you look closely at the men loading cargo on the dock, you might see the ovoid shapes of Richmond stoneware awaiting their final destination. I would like to thank Robert Leath and Daniel Ackermann of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts for making this image available, and special thanks to Alex Franklin for his research related to this painting.
In the first comprehensive exposé of this incredibly rich and varied regional stoneware tradition, authors Kurt Russ, Oliver Mueller-Heubach, Marshall Goodman, and myself combine decades of expertise, collecting, and research in “The Remarkable 19th-Century Stoneware of Virginia’s Lower James River Valley.” The reader is also referred to the exhibition “From Kaolin to Claymount: Demystifying James River Valley Stoneware,” sponsored by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, available online at www.mesda.org/onlineExhibits_sprite/mesda_from-kaolin-to-claymount-demystifying-james-river-valley-stoneware.html. Though a great amount of new information is presented in this article, the study is still but one step in organizing future research, which must include the archaeological examination of these well-preserved sites that have lain fallow for years but will be destroyed by development.
The 2013 volume concludes with five insightful book reviews compiled and edited by Amy Earls. Book reviews have been a staple of the journal since its inception, and continue to document the scholarship of the field.
Planning is underway to present more theme-oriented volumes. The 2014 volume of Ceramics in America, for example, will be particularly exciting, as I have asked ten authors to present their “Top Ten” lists on assigned topics, from the most important twentieth-century ceramic vessels to those that best reflect London’s ceramic history. This volume should elicit quite a bit of discussion and, it is hoped, some controversy over the choices. Readers are encouraged to submit documents, queries, and information about ceramics-related objects to the journal’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ceramics-in-America/