Published: October 7, 2008
Splashed with vibrantly colored glazes, on occasion decorated with unique molded motifs and sometimes fashioned into whimsical animal forms, the unmistakable Nineteenth Century redware and stoneware pottery produced in the Shenandoah Valley has long been near and dear to the hearts of collectors. Playful in their nature, exquisite in their forms and delightful in presentation, these fanciful pots regularly blur the boundaries of a plain and simple utilitarian ware †often transcending into the highly coveted folk art arena.
While more than 300 potters are known to have produced pottery in the culturally diverse Shenandoah Valley region from the late Eighteenth Century to the early Twentieth Century, one potting family stands out from the rest in terms of output and artistic merit. And from that family, one potter †John Bell †stands tall among them.
“The Bell Family Pottery,” an exhibition on view at the Washington County Museum of Fine Art through November 2, explores the legacy of all of the different family members and the unique flair with which they created their wares. Featuring more than 100 examples of the best known examples of Bell pottery, the exhibition is curated by scholar, auction liaison, antiques dealer and pottery aficionado John C. Newcomer.
“If you are a pottery lover, this is a must-see,” proclaims Newcomer. “This exhibition is one of the most, if not the most, important and complete collections of Bell family pottery to have ever been assembled. It is an important visual record illustrating all of the known marks used by the Bells, and the 12 showcases are filled with great forms, great colors and great objects,” he said. “Every maker from the Bell family is represented, and several pieces of them are the only examples that are known to exist.”
Born in 1775, Peter Bell was operating a potting shop in Hagerstown by 1808 and was listed in the town records from the period as one of four known potteries extensively involved in the trade. Operating there until 1824, Peter relocated to Winchester, Va., where he worked until 1845. The father of the Bell family then moved back to Hagerstown and constructed a house and pottery where he remained until his death two years later. The site is the now the home of the Renfrew Museum, which, coincidentally, houses a major collection of Bell pottery.
Each of Peter’s four sons pursued the pottery trade; the eldest, John, was born in 1800; followed by brothers Samuel, 1811; Solomon, 1817; and Upton (date unknown). Remarkably, the great tradition of Bell family potters continued for 100 years, eventually involving and ending with the third generation.
Born in Hagerstown, John Bell became one of America’s preeminent potters, using glazes and techniques that many scholars believe are unsurpassed in American earthenware ceramics of the period. Although John learned the trade from his father, he advanced his knowledge by developing innovative recipes for different glazes and learning new techniques.
After apprenticing under his father in Hagerstown where the concepts of the German Eighteenth Century pottery were instilled in him, he married in 1826 and relocated to Chambersburg where he worked until 1833. It was there, working with Jacob Heart, that he learned the English ceramic molding techniques that would later become so popular in all of the Bell family pottery wares.
John achieved great status and wealth during his lifetime, earning his bread and butter by producing a line of utilitarian pottery that was an essential part of everyday life. However, John was not intimidated by the stylish ceramic output of the large city potters or the stylish English and European imports.
Often imitating the imported wares that were popular with the social elite of the period, John succeeded in inventing and producing glazes that stylistically emulated the popular Rockingham, mocha, Wheildon, spatterware and Bennington wares. In doing so, he was able to provide common households with a necessary ware that was luxurious in appearance but modest in price.
In the 1830s, he became the first American potter to make use of a tin glaze that produced a white surface, creating an appearance similar to stoneware.
Samuel and Solomon Bell set up shop in Strasburg, Va., opening in 1834. Solomon acquired the molding technique from his brother John in 1840 and it soon impacted the style of pottery produced there.
The Civil War was a major interruption for all aspects of life in the Shenandoah Valley, ultimately affecting the production of pottery. As reconstruction and railroad service advanced after the war, however, the need for the utilitarian wares increased dramatically. The Bell family dominated pottery production during this period; John and family in Waynesboro, and Solomon, Samuel and his family in Strasburg. The period was a heyday for the Bells due to their voluminous and artful production.
The third generation of Bell potters included John W. Bell, John’s son, who worked with his father for many years and then ran the Waynesboro pottery after his father’s death from 1881 to 1895. Mary Elizabeth, John W.’s sister, also worked at the pottery as a decorator and signed pieces, although few are known to exist. One such example with highly decorative applied floral motif is on view. Samuel Bell’s sons also worked as potters, with Bell family potting production finally coming to an end in 1908.
In addition to emulating the high styles of the urban elite, “John Bell was not above pirating forms and traditional glazing techniques from established and highly successful potteries,” such as Bennington, stated Dr George Manger in 2003 during a previous exhibition of Bell pottery at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. A well-known authority on the pottery of the Shenandoah Valley, Manger is one of several who loaned items for the current exhibition.
While many of the potteries throughout the region also produced “copies” of the sought-after forms of the day, many copying the Bell imitations, none was as successful as John Bell, especially when it came to glazing. Especially poignant is a large butter tub with a mottled brown over yellow exterior glaze and twisted “rope” handles rising from the rim.
“His competitive nature is quite evident in his production of sophisticated items not normally made in the backcountry,” said Manger. One of the stars of the exhibition is the John Bell coffee pot thrown in a Pennsylvania-German manner and coated with a cream colored tin glaze. With a faux-molded handle and a stylish gooseneck spout, the pitcher is decorated in manner reminiscent of the spatterware imported into the region, with its edges bordered in green and a large brown central floral decoration highlighted by green tulip buds.
Evidence of the extensive range of production is seen in another redware pitcher on view, this one using the tin glaze that created the cream-colored body glaze that is accentuated with a “seaweed” decoration seen in the imported English mocha wares. A rare example of John Bell’s output, the pitcher is banded in brown and green at the base.
One of the earliest pieces in the exhibition is a slipware bowl that is incised “Peter” on the base. “It is one of two known pieces marked by Peter Bell,” states Newcomer, who with the aid of Manger was able to compare the signature to Bell’s signature on the land deed for the Hagerstown property he purchased in 1845. “It is without a doubt the exact same script,” confirmed Newcomer, “the only other signed example known is in the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.”
Perhaps taking a lesson from his son, Peter also produced a noteworthy pitcher that is displayed in the exhibition. Although well potted, it is crudely decorated with a hand-drawn attempt at achieving a “seaweed” pattern that would also copy the British mocha wares.
A flower pot marked “S. Bell and Son” is glazed with an overall creamy-colored ground that is further decorated in the manner of stoneware produced in the region, as large brush strokes extend downward from the rim in a repeating pattern with even larger ones intermittently breaking up the pattern by providing a foliate effect. This pot is decorated with brown and green slip.
The Bells’ playful personalities are exemplified in the variety of whimsical animal figures that they obviously enjoyed producing. These highly coveted figures are regarded as classic pieces of American folk art, and the most widely known creator is John Bell. One full showcase in the exhibition is devoted to the animal figures produced by the Bells, a case that Newcomer fondly refers to as the “menagerie.”
A highlight of the section is a John Bell-attributed redware figure of a dog holding a basket in its mouth with wonderful scratch-decorated fur and a profusely stamped floral decorated base †perhaps suggesting that the well-intended pooch is standing in the midst of a garden. Easily forgiven for trampling the flowers, the dog is carrying a wine bottle, cup and loaf of bread in his basket.
“The magnificent figure of a dog with basket in mouth is awe-inspiring,” stated Shenandoah pottery expert Dr Eugene Comstock during a previous exhibit. “Undoubtedly this is one of America’s most outstanding ceramic animal figures of all times. This John Bell-attributed form is robust and intriguing with its basketful of jugs and provisions. The simple but charming glaze is suited to the animal’s form and inspirational presence.” The piece measures more than 10 inches in length and more than 9 inches tall.
An unmarked figure of a lion, also attributed to John, is scratch-decorated and glazed with slip on the beast’s chest, the tips of his ears, eyes, nose and teeth. According to Newcomer, this is the smallest known example of a lion figure by the potter. John was known to have produced other animals as well, including birds, roosters and a goat; examples of bird whistles and the goat are on view in the exhibition.
Although relatively few surviving examples are known from the various potters throughout the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys, Solomon and Samuel Bell of Strasburg, Va., the brothers of John, used animal figures in several phases of their production, such as smaller redware versions of popular figural cast iron picture frames with a spread-winged eagle perched on the crest, and also figures of whippets that often flanked entranceways. In contrast to the animals made by John, the Strasburg figural forms are typically molded and not formed freehand.
Another example of figural uses from the Bell’s Strasburg pottery included classical lion’s head handle mounts affixed to the sides of many of their large Grecian-shaped jardinieres.
While pottery is the main attraction, Newcomer thought it important to “throw in some artifacts to fill in the blanks” in regard to the history of the Bell family. A Jacob Maentel watercolor portrait of John Bell is featured, along with daguerreotype images of John Bell and his wife, Mary Elizabeth. Silhouettes of John, his wife and their son, John W. Bell, are also on view.
Items on display were culled from four private collections, including Dr and Mrs George Manger, Mr and Mrs Ray Snouffer, Mr and Mrs Walter Smith and the Bonnard Morgan family. Three institutions also loaned items, including the Renfrew, the Washington County Historical Society and the exhibition’s host, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.
Although a catalog has not been produced for this exhibition, recommended reading includes Pottery From The Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys , a hardcover book by Manger complete with 111 full color illustrations. It is available for $55 (shipping and handling included) from Dr George Manger, 235 Mill Street, Suite 1, Hagerstown MD 21740, or by calling 301-797-0363.
Newcomer stresses that while visiting the exhibition, plans should be made to also view the pottery collections at the Washington County Historical Society (The Miller House) that is located just five blocks away. The Renfrew House is a short drive, as is the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. “It makes for a great weekend,” states Newcomer.
The Washington County Historical Society is at 135 West Washington Street, Hagerstown, MD 21740; 301-797-8782 or www.mdwchs.com . The Renfrew House is at 1010 East Main Street, Waynesboro, PA 17268; 717-762-4723 or www.renfrewmuseum.org . The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley is at 901 Amherst Street, Winchester, VA 22601; 540-662-1473 or www.shenandoahmuseum.org .
For further information on “The Bell Family Pottery” exhibition, contact the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, 91 Key Street, 301-739-5727 or www.washcomuseum.org .
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