Published: December 4, 2001
By Laura Beach
NEWPORT NEWS, VA. – Call them “china hunters” as Annie Trumbull Slocum did in her 1878 book about the adventures of an intrepid group of collectors. Or “pot people,” as noted archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume does. It is for this large, diverse, and worldwide fraternity of ceramics lovers – dealers, collectors, curators, archaeologists and potters themselves – that Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisc., has created Ceramics in America.
In overall concept and format the annual journal, whose debut issue just went on sale, is much like Chipstone’s acclaimed American Furniture, right down to the rich, creamy paper it’s printed on; luminous photographs by Gavin Ashworth; and Wynne Patterson’s elegantly simple design.
Readers might wish for a bit less simplicity when it comes to naming contributors, only a few of whom are identified by more than name in this 300-page opus. Still, those in the museum field or antiques trade will recognize some of these doers and thinkers, among them Michelle Erickson, Don Carpentier, Jonathan Rickard, Diana and Gary Stradling, Louise Richardson, Janine E. Skerry and Elizabeth Gusler.
Ceramics in America departs from American Furniture in its overtly celebratory regard for collectors and collecting. To his credit, editor Robert Hunter, an archaeologist and antiques dealer himself, upholds Chipstone’s high scholarly standards while remaining mindful of the interplay between objects and people. People not only create ceramics, but through contemplation and appreciation endow them with life, something that comes through in the most engrossing of these essays.
The volume features nine articles by amateur and professional students of ceramics, reviews of important new publications, a checklist of articles and books on ceramics published between 1998 and 2000, and an index. An article written in the first person by a collector is a welcome innovation, lending compelling biographical interest while providing a rare glimpse of objects not otherwise on public view. A “New Discoveries” section allows experts to publicize, in short format, notable findings relating to single objects, group of objects, archaeological finds, or and documentary material.
As Hunter notes, scholarly attention to ceramics has never been great, but the field, like its many publications, is becoming increasingly specialized. It is the goal of Ceramics in America “to explore the broad cultural role that ceramics have played in North America from the first European settlement to the development the American ceramics industry to the present.”
The editor seeks a plurality of views and a variety of approaches. Articles range from the general and theoretical to the practical and specific. In an essay with broad application, Ann Smart Martin, the Chipstone Foundation professor of American decorative arts at the University of Wisconsin, supplies a checklist for studying ceramics that is calculated to yield insight into the culture that produced the objects. Martin’s theory was put into practice in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s new decorative arts galleries, where some of the same themes and conclusions are presented with the objects from which they derived.
Less theoretical is Ivor Noel Hume’s essay “Potsherds and Pragmatism: One Collector’s Perspective.” In 1957, Hume became head of Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeology department. He began collecting English pottery the following year. Hume’s memoirs, If These Pots Could Talk, were recently published by Chipstone, coinciding with the opening of an exhibition of his collection, given to the foundation, at the Milwaukee Art Museum on October 5.
Hume’s engagingly anecdotal essay contains good-natured, if sometimes unconventional, advice to fellow collectors, plus a spirited defense of amateur archaeology. He writes, “It is fair to say, I think, that 90 percent of all British pottery dating prior to the mid-Seventeenth Century has come not from the cellars of foreclosed mansions but out of the ground.”
Early in his career, London was “a prime source for intact Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century pottery found on city construction sites. In those days the London Museum’s agent, G.F. Lawrence, who doubled as a dealer, became known to every building site laborer as ‘Stony Jack,’ to whom they would trade dug-up pots for beer money.” Through such activities, history museums developed superior collections of utilitarian wares, which in the past had hardly been considered art at all.
Hume decries elitism in collecting and cheerfully notes, “…The warts-and-all anti-establishment philosophies of the 1960s have invaded the museum world. At Colonial Williamsburg, as elsewhere, the gentility of the post-World War II generation, with its emphasis on bowing and ball gowns, has been replaced by interpretations that call a powder room a privy…In England, as in America, students of everyday earthenwares and stonewares are for the first time studying them with the care and enthusiasm hitherto devoted to naught else but porcelain and the best of Wedgwood.”
Dealers will tell you that you can’t really know your inventory if you don’t own it. Scholars, too, have a different take on their disciplines if they actually buy and sell artifacts. “Collecting interest is fostered and sustained by availability. …And what we cannot buy, we tell ourselves we do not want. I know that in my own collecting career I have shifted from one ware to another as examples become harder and harder to find or were priced out of my league,” Hume writes.
Economics, perhaps, contributed to Hume’s refreshingly unorthodox views about condition. He argues that repairs can actually make an object more, rather than less, interesting. “I am aware that this is not a rationale employed by professional appraisers, but it is one that has served me well through half a century of ceramic collecting and has assured the survival of many a piece that might not otherwise have found so forgiving or appreciative of a home.”
It was “an attractive white salt-glazed deep dish” that started Troy D. Chappell on his course as a collector, which he writes about in “An Adventure With Early English Pottery.” Within a year of buying his first piece in 1969, Chappell’s interest had “grown to encompass a fuller array of useful and ornamental pottery. From the outset I perceived that a comprehensive collection might not be possible. Instead, I sought to assemble a representative grouping. If I were to begin today, I would concentrate on English delftware regardless of period.”
Chappell offers some well-taken advice to others who would follow his example: avail yourself of the expertise that dealers and fellow collectors most often generously offer; and exercise discipline in your purchases from the outset. Chappell dashes hopes when he states, “Through the years there was only one instance when I felt I found a real bargain.”
An entirely different tact is taken by Michelle Erickson, a practicing ceramist, and Robert Hunter in “Dots, Dashes, and Squiggles: Early English Slipware Technology.” “Our approach most closely follows that of ‘experimental archaeology,’ which relies upon testing and replication to show how an artifact may have been made. By actually ‘going through the motions’ employed by early English potters we can better appreciate both the manual process and the material aspects of slipware.” Erickson and Hunter take issue with art historians, who have described slipware as “rustic” or “folky.” By crafting several pieces, they demonstrate that “the inherent nature of the materials … dictates the aesthetic character of the ware, not the predisposition of the potter.”
Ashworth’s tempting photographs of the pieces formed and decorated by Erickson, shown as they progress from wheel to kiln, remind us of pottery’s satisfying sensuality. Like bread, life’s staple, slipware is baked before being consumed, but not before being dipped in slip as thick and brown as chocolate sauce, and decorated with what looks like icing. This gastronomic parallel has been observed by others. The words “syrup,” “batter,” and even “jam” and “Cornish cream” have been used to describe the making of slipware.
Donald Carpentier and Jonathan Rickard write about “bright and fancy wares and the ingenuity of British slipware potters” in “Slip Decoration in the Age of Industrialization,” a companion piece to the one by Erickson and Hunter. The article presents an overview of slip decoration methods that were incorporated into the repertoire of mechanized techniques of British potters beginning in the second half of the Eighteenth Century. Stylish and costly, Neo-classical wares by Josiah Wedgwood were colored with slips, but slip decoration was also used on inexpensive utilitarian pottery called “mocha” or “dipped” ware.
Some of the research published in Ceramics in America is groundbreaking. In “European Ceramics in the New World: The Jamestown Example,” Beverly Straube writes about the Jamestown Rediscovery excavations in Virginia, the site of America’s first English-speaking colony.
Since 1994 the dig has unearthed more than 20,000 sherds from the world over, including fragments of Chinese porcelain, Portuguese tin-glazed wares, French Martincamp ware, North Italian wares, Raeren stoneware, and Frechen stoneware.
Discussing actual finds as they relate to other documents, such as period paintings, Straube constructs a scenario for the importation and use of these ceramics much as one would reconstruct a shattered pot. She concludes, “…the Jamestown Rediscovery excavations [are] opening up new areas of historical consideration that have not been posed by the written record. …Every bit a primary source, the same as a letter or account written four hundred years ago, each vessel has a story to tell if only we learn to decipher the codes.”
A more personal tale is told by Diana and J. Garrison Stradling, dealers who have spent years researching the Nineteenth Century potter Jabez Vodry. Combining historical research, connoisseurship and archaeology, the Stradlings document the life of the Staffordshire-born craftsman, who journeyed to Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana and finally Ohio before he died in 1860. “With Jabez Vodrey still looking over his shoulder, we hope to have volume one of a book on his world ready for publication soon,” the authors write.
With its emphasis on timely revelations, ‘New Discoveries’ may come to be the section of Ceramics in America that readers turn to first. Sample articles from this year’s volume include an rdf_Description by Margaret K. Hofer identifying a figural Delft salt in the collection of the New-York Historical Society as the only one of its kind in an American museum; a piece by Taft Kiser reattributing pottery that had been thought to have been made in the Chesapeake area to the Donyatt potting region near Taunton, England; and news of Joyce Geary Volk’s acquisition, via Carl Crossman, of a Yixing punch pot, long sought by the Warner House in Portsmouth, N.H.
Given its broad mission, the first issue of Ceramics in America 2001 seems disproportionately concerned with English pottery made before 1900, an emphasis which corresponds to Chipstone own collection strengths. Already at work on volumes two and three, Robert Hunter says that will change. “Next year we are going to have two articles on English porcelain, particularly those that were imported and used in this country in the Eighteenth Century; an article on American Parian; a couple of articles about Abolitionist ceramics; Nineteenth Century earthenware from Morgantown, Va.; and an article on a private collection of English and German stoneware.” The 2003 journal will feature American stoneware. The editor is soliciting manuscripts “across the board,” from private collectors to professionals. Hunter hopes to involve contemporary studio potters, as well.
Ceramics in America may be purchased for $55 from University Press of New England (1-800-421-1561) or from Amazon.com for $38.50. Appropriately, the publication will be on prominent display at the third annual New York Ceramics Fair, planned for January 17 to 20, 2002, at the National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Avenue in New York City.
An extensive series of lectures sponsored by the Chipstone Foundation includes talks by Don Carpentier, William Sargent, Andrew Maske, Amanda Lange, Michael Komanecky, Jo Lauria, Ellen Paul Denker, Mark Shapiro, Harry Frost, Janice Paull, David Barker, Gary Stradling, Kirk Nelson, and Ron Fox.
Ceramics in America 2001. Edited by Robert Hunter, with contributions from Ivor Noel Hume, Ann Smart Martin, Beverly Straube, David Barker, Michelle Erickson, Robert Hunter, Don Carpentier, Jonathan Rickard, George L. Miller, Diana Stradling, J. Garrison Stradling, Troy D. Chappell, Merry Abbitt Outlaw, Charlotte Wilcoxen, Jacqueline Pearce, Margaret K. Hofer, Taft Kiser, Carl Steen, Mark B. Newell, Catherine Banks, Joyce Geary Volk, Louise Richardson, Richard Hunter, John C. Austin, Norman E. Barka, Meta F. Janowitz, Patricia M. Stamford, Janine E. Skerry, Jean Wetherbee, Elizabeth Gusler and Amy C. Earls. Published by the Chipstone Foundation. Distributed by University Press of New England, Hanover, N.H., and London; 292 pages, illustrated in color; $55 hardcover ($38.50 from Amazon.com).
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