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Review by Mark Zipp
Texas Clay: Nineteenth-Century Stoneware Pottery from the Bayou Bend Collection

Amy Kurlander, with essays by Joey Brackner and Michael K. Brown. Texas Clay: Nineteenth-Century Stoneware Pottery from the Bayou Bend Collection. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2015. 99 pages; 262 color, 11 b/w illus. $26.95 (softcover).

“You may go to hell and I will go to Texas.”[1] These famous words of iconic American pioneer Davy Crockett ring softer but no less true in a groundbreaking study of the state’s nineteenth-century stoneware manufactories. Texas Clay: Nineteenth-Century Stoneware Pottery from the Bayou Bend Collection is the catalog for an exhibit of the same name at the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, September 5–November 1, 2015. The focus is on pieces in the Bayou Bend Collection, at least 159 of which were donated by Houston collector William J. Hill in 2012. Two Bayou Bend curators—Amy Kurlander, exhibit curator and project fellow for the William J. Hill Texas Artisans and Artists Archive at the museum, and former curator the late Michael Brown—and Joey Brackner, director of the Alabama Center for Material Culture, provide thoroughly researched essays on a subject that has been understudied and often overlooked.

Amy Kurlander’s “An Introduction to Stoneware Pottery in Nineteenth-Century Texas” offers an excellent background on the art of stoneware production and discusses its emergence in the state of Texas in the 1840s. Ceramics enthusiasts will be impressed with the depth of Kurlander’s research and presentation, down to a map of Texas potteries and their natural clay sources within the state (p. 16). Kurlander draws connections between the Edgefield, South Carolina, pottery style and Texas stoneware as she highlights two of Bayou Bend’s most outstanding American ceramic jars. Both, made circa 1850, display a distinctive ovoid form with four applied lug handles at the shoulder, a trait typically associated with the work of Edgefield potters. One (figure 26), produced by Thomas Chandler in Edgefield, South Carolina, is covered in a greenish alkaline glaze with iron slip decoration and includes the seldom-seen incised signature “Chandler Maker” under one handle.[2] The other (figure 24), covered in a reddish-brown alkaline glaze, bears the impressed signature of Marion County, Texas, entrepreneur Jefferson S. Nash, who, Kurlander notes, was born in Georgia and had familial ties to Edgefield potters (p. 17). This relationship between Edgefield and other pottery complexes farther west is a theme further emphasized in essays by Brackner and Brown.

Kurlander also discusses an associate of Nash, the somewhat mysterious African American potter Milligan Frazier (ca. 1848–after 1910). The Louisiana-trained Frazier produced stoneware near the Nash site during a later period and is well known among collectors of Texas stoneware for vessels displaying “thick, separated runs of dark brown glaze” (p. 19).[3]

Kurlander highlights a lesser-known ceramic folk artist, John L. Stone, who made a temperance jug in Oletha circa 1870–1872 (p. 22). Stone produced this masterwork in the style of the infamous Kirkpatrick brothers of Anna, Illinois, by whom he was previously employed. Kurlander includes a striking full-page image of his piece, which she describes as “a ground for encircling rattlesnakes, creeping spiders, crawling lizards, and a doomed, sinking man” (pp. 22–23). The jug (figure 31), with its various applied animal and human figures, is a significant acquisition that stands out among the many utilitarian pieces in the collection. In 2015 it was purchased and graciously donated by Bayou Bend docent Leslie Bucher and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston trustee Brad Bucher, who funded the exhibition and catalog.

Brackner, in his essay “The Shaping of Texas Pottery: Shards along the ‘Thousand-Mile’ Journey from the Carolinas to Texas,” takes an ambitious approach to the origins of Texas stoneware production, tracking the migration of eastern potting families to Randolph and Chambers counties in Alabama, and onward to Texas. The author, citing late stoneware authority Georgeanna Greer, aptly refers to Alabama’s booming pottery complex in these counties as a “Crossroads in Clay” (p. 33), where potters of different origins commingled and shared ideas. Much of Brackner’s essay discusses the “Rock Mills” school of potting, named for a pottery-dense region in Randolph County where a “mix of Edgefield-trained potters alongside those from North Carolina and Georgia would create a style of pottery that would in turn influence other communities” (p. 34).[4] Mississippi, Louisiana, and, ultimately, Texas are also discussed. Rife with original census research, photographs of the potters themselves, and images of shards from various kiln sites, Brackner’s essay is truly authoritative.

Brown’s “The Wilson Potters: An African-American Enterprise in Nineteenth-Century Texas” takes an in-depth look at the Guadalupe Pottery of John M. Wilson Jr. (1808–1881) and the Capote stoneware establishment managed by his ex-slave Hyram Wilson (1836–1884). Brown’s analysis of the history of the Wilson potteries is extensive and includes images of the Wilson potters (pp. 49, 59), twentieth-century photographs of the Capote site (pp. 60–61), and a two-page photograph of Hyram Wilson products, all of which bear the stamp “H. WILSON & CO.” (pp. 62–63). His commentary on this master-slave relationship is compelling. He is quick to note, just as Kurlander and Brackner have, that Texas stoneware craft was ever changing, often driven by its potters’ training or markets in the regions where they formerly worked. He expounds on Kurlander’s discussion of Jefferson S. Nash and the Edgefield influence revealed in pieces bearing his mark. He credits Ohio-trained potter Isaac Suttles with bringing salt-glaze techniques to the shop of John Wilson (p. 59). Other innovations were possibly homegrown, as he thoughtfully points out “significant differences” between ware produced by the Wilson potters at the Guadalupe Pottery and later pieces made by the same men under H. Wilson and Company (pp. 64–65).

Pictures are worth a thousand words, especially in the realm of decorative arts, where the nuances of a craft are difficult to convey through the written word alone. One of the many strengths of this publication is its abundant use of high-quality color photographs (most by Thomas R. DuBrock) of the stonewares. Several full-page images, most featuring the museum’s best pieces, allow the reader to see the subtleties of the objects’ alkaline- and salt-glazed surfaces. Additionally, photos of each pot depict the sheen of the glaze without reflective hot spots that mask color and form. Particularly appealing to students of Texas stoneware is the photographic survey, by county, of the state’s stoneware products. This grouping of more than 180 color photographs of pieces in the Bayou Bend Collection clearly shows the stylistic differences and similarities between the work of virtually every nineteenth-century Texas stoneware manufacturer. The format of this section, which displays six to eight images per page, allows for easy comparison between regions and potters.

I have often wondered why Texas stoneware has received little fanfare over the years. In my work at an auction house, I have handled a number of Texas-made pieces exhibiting a high level of sophistication in their craftsmanship. A few, I have felt, were comparable in quality to the work of the great nineteenth-century stoneware manufactories of the eastern and midwestern United States. Why, then, has interest been so limited or, at the very least, so regional? The answer is unclear. However, I hope that the rapidly growing enthusiasm for southern decorative arts and the inclusion of areas farther west, coupled with publications and exhibits of the quality of Texas Clay, will increase awareness of the state’s stoneware craft. From their studies of the work of figures like Nash, Stone, Frazier, and the Wilsons, the authors insist that Texas stoneware is not just a subject of American history or material culture. It is a matter of art.

Mark Zipp
Crocker Farm

Ceramics in America 2016

Contents
  • [1]

    This quotation is a popular paraphrase from Crockett’s actual quotation, printed in Niles’ Register, April 9, 1836, p. 99, available online at http://martinparmer.tripod.com/id11.html (accessed July 18, 2016).

  • [2]

    Numerous examples of stoneware bearing impressed maker’s marks by Thomas Chandler are known. The fact that the signature on this jar was carved into the clay by hand is highly unusual. The piece was donated to Bayou Bend by legendary collector and philanthropist Ima Hogg in 1974.

  • [3]

    A discussion I recently had with southern stoneware authority Dr. Arthur Goldberg brings into question the attribution of a jar to Milligan Frazier, illustrated in Texas Clay (p. 94). The jar includes two incised slash marks at the shoulder, often referred to as “slave marks.” According to Dr. Goldberg, these markings, coupled with the jar’s form and glaze, indicate an Edgefield origin. He suggests that an elemental clay analysis be performed to create a body of work concretely attributed to Frazier.

  • [4]

    For a more comprehensive study of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century stoneware produced throughout the state of Alabama, see Joey Brackner, Alabama Folk Pottery (Tusca­loosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006).