Published: February 27, 2018
SALISBURY, WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND – Occasionally, compelling examples of Americana turn up at English auction houses. Such was the case April 2017 when a major piece of American presentation silver made in about 1900 came to a small auction house in England. Semley Auctioneers offered a rare Tiffany & Co. silver, three-handled cup dedicated to friendly Anglo-American diplomatic relations during the opening of the Panama Canal. The Hay-Pauncefote Treaty Cup, consigned to the auction house as the property of a lady of title, easily outperformed its $25/37,000 estimate to bring $91,000, including premium, then sailed back across the pond to enter Tiffany’s corporate collection.
Fast-forward to February 20, 2018, when a teapot attributed to the John Bartlam factory at Cain Hoy in South Carolina – the only known porcelain teapot by the Bartlam concern and therefore the earliest known American porcelain teapot – sold at the auction house Woolley and Wallis for a record $800,000, including premium. It was bought in the room by English dealer Rod Jellicoe on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
This teapot has only recently been identified as a piece of early American porcelain, believed to be part of a matched tea service that reached England in the late 1760s or 1770s. It is only the seventh recorded piece of John Bartlam’s porcelain and relates to a group of wares sold at auction in 2002. Among that group were four tea bowls that were found to match sherds excavated at Bartlam’s factory site. Two of the tea bowls were sold to American museums by private treaty, another to a private collector by the same method, and the fourth was sold at Christie’s in 2013 for a then auction record of $146,500, bought by a dealer on behalf of a private US collector.
The teapot was brought to Woolley and Wallis by a private collector from the southwest of England, one of the firm’s regular clients and, in the words of Clare Durham, the auction houses’s associate director, English and European ceramics and glass, “someone who often buys ‘mystery’ or problem pieces.” Durham said her client had spotted the teapot in a general sale in the Midlands and bought it via the internet for £15. “He brought it to us having identified the pattern in the Isleworth catalog of 2003, but thinking that it might be pearlware. After quite a bit of research, we discovered that it is actually very low fired porcelain, and its key attributes – including the poor firing – match up with those recorded in the known Bartlam pieces.”
The teapot was far from perfect – missing its lid and with a reglued handle. Woolley and Wallis accordingly assigned it a conservative estimate of $14/28,000. The pattern on one side of the teapot is identical to one on a saucer, which is also attributed to Bartlam and which now resides in a private collection in Chicago. Durham said that as far she could ascertain, these are the only two pieces known in this pattern. The design features a palm tree similar to that featured on four Bartlam tea bowls that were sold recently, including slightly ghostlike, almost featureless figures that match up.
John Bartlam (1735-1781) was a Staffordshire potter who left England around 1763 and set up business in South Carolina. A fascinating find, the teapot now joins the family of other Bartlam porcelain pieces, with the other six now residing in the United States, spread between private collections and museums. One of the pieces, a saucer bearing the same unusual underglaze printed blue palm tree and crane design found on the teapot, was originally illustrated in the 2003 catalog of Isleworth pottery, as was a tea bowl that has since been definitively reattributed to Bartlam. The second recorded at auction and the only known Bartlam teapot, this makes it the first recorded American teapot to have been discovered.
Bartlam and his family left the family home in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, to establish a business as a potter in the then colony of South Carolina, at the first of his two factory sites in the town of Cain Hoy. The north of England had at the time a thriving export trade with the English colonies in America, and Bartlam believed he could manufacture high-quality ceramics in situ, saving transportation costs while enjoying a captive market. As such, he became the first known manufacturer of American porcelain, beating Philadelphia-based contemporaries Bonnin and Morris by around five years.
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang curator of American decorative arts, the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who surveyed American porcelain 1770-1920 for both an exhibition and catalog, said, “We previously thought Bonnin and Morris was the earliest, and it is so exciting to uproot that text with new evidence from more recent excavations.”
Commenting on the acquisition of the teapot to the Met’s collection, she stated, “This historical teapot is prime evidence of the ambition and success of Bartlam’s enterprise and a tribute to America’s intrepid and entrepreneurial spirit. Its use of porcelain clay from the Carolinas is a testament to the nation’s rich raw materials, and the telling use of the palmetto tree motif – the state tree of South Carolina – further underscores the American connection. I am so grateful to the museum’s trustees who recognized the importance of the teapot and generously supported its acquisition. We look forward to displaying it in a place of honor among other examples of American porcelain later this spring.”
Frelinghuysen said that as soon as the museum takes possession of the piece, it will go to the museum’s conservator, who will address the homely repair on the handle, and after that it will go on view.
American ceramics expert Robert Hunter, editor of Ceramics in America at the Chipstone Foundation, is author of “John Bartlam: America’s First Porcelain Manufacturer,” which appeared in the 2007 edition of the ceramics journal.
American Porcelain: 1770-1920, by Frelinghuysen and originally published in 1989, exemplifies the Met’s mission for the display and study of the finest examples of American decorative art and what is, in the author’s words, “the holy grail of the ceramics world.”
Other Chipstone Foundation articles touching on Bartlam are Stanley South’s “John Bartlam’s Porcelain at Cain Hoy, 1765-1770,” Lisa R. Hudgins, “John Bartlam’s Porcelain at Cain Hoy, A Closer Look” and J. Victor Owen, “Geochemistry of High-Fired Bartlam Ceramics,” all in the 2007 edition of Ceramics in America. Additionally, Hunter contributed “A newly discovered eighteenth-century American porcelain tea bowl” in The Magazine Antiques, January/February 2011.
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