Published: September 28, 2004
How a distinctly English pottery became a uniquely American one is the subject of the new exhibit “‘Fancy Rockingham’ Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth Century America,” on view at the University of Richmond. Some 70 pieces of Rockingham pottery – all from private New York area collections – tell the story of relief molded earthenware in America.
Rockingham pottery takes its name from the estate of the Marquis of Rockingham in Yorkshire, England, where potters in the mid- to late Eighteenth Century created household objects with a characteristic lustrous mottled brown glaze. When Rockingham appeared in America around the 1820s, it acquired a whole new array of colors and patterns. Ceramics scholar and exhibit curator Diana Stradling says the term “Rockingham,” strictly speaking, describes only brown glazed ceramic objects.
“Fancy Rockingham,” Stradling adds, “refers to ornamented or relief molded ceramic pieces.” While the term “fancy” suggests the elaborate or expensive, it was used in the late Eighteenth and first half of the Nineteenth Century to describe decorative art objects with lively decorative, narrative or ornamental patterns, regardless of the color. “Fancy” goods were all the rage from about 1790 through 1840, and some said they were designed to stimulate the imagination and spike creativity.
The wares on view are displayed according to theme and form, although separate space is given over to the four early master molders of “Fancy Rockingham” – Daniel Greatbatch, Charles Coxon, James Jones and Stephen Theis.
The English potters, modelers and designers who arrived in the United Stated in the 1820s and 1830s brought their techniques with them and went on to produce “Fancy” pieces of decorative and utilitarian relief molded ceramics in a variety of styles, glazes and materials. While most artisans arrived at Ellis Island in New York Harbor, and many made the Jersey City potteries their first, and sometimes their only, stop, others moved on to such disparate locations as Vermont, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, Indiana and other towns in New Jersey. Many of these moved from one pottery to another throughout their careers
The newcomers brought along popular English figural motifs, such as “Toby” jugs, which were drawn on the roisterous Toby Fillpot, the subject of an Eighteenth Century English barroom ballad based on Sir Toby Belch in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Another import was the hound-handled jug, which had been made in Staffordshire for more than a century.
For the most part, however, American Rockingham appeared in a range of designs that were particular to these shores. “Fancy Rockingham” objects reflect the fascination with naturalism that was sweeping the young republic. Modelers took heed and incorporated flowers, trees, corn, marine life and animals in their pottery designs. Much awed by images of Niagara Falls, modelers introduced fanciful “cascade” or “waterfall” pitchers, several examples of which are on view.
Scotsman David Henderson is credited with introducing molded ware to America at the D&J Henderson pottery that he established with his brother Joseph in 1828 in Jersey City. It became the American Pottery Manufacturing Company five years later. Industrialization allowed the pottery to become the first to mass-produce ceramics by casting them in molds. The new process eliminated the previous time-consuming production of individual pieces on the potter’s wheel and opened the way to relief decoration of the molded pieces. Talented designers and modelers were much in demand and a number of them came from the English potteries to Henderson’s where they made white earthenware, brown-glazed stoneware and yellow earthenware with themes of naturalism.
Chief among the modelers was Daniel Greatbatch (pronounced Greatback), the master potter of Staffordshire, who came to work for Henderson in 1839. It was Greatbatch who molded the first American Rockingham hound-handled pitcher there circa 1840.
Hound-handled jugs are among the most desirable forms of Rockingham, second only to “Rebekah at the Well” pieces. Among the hound-handled examples on view, the earliest is a 73/8-inch Staffordshire example with a molded hunt scene on one side and a boar hunt on the other, as was customary on such pieces. Made between 1819 and 1823 in Staffordshire and marked “Phillips/Bagster,” the pitcher was executed in smear glass with green slip on leaf decoration on a cream color stoneware body.
Several American Rockingham hound-handled jugs on view were made at Henderson’s in Jersey City, at E&W Bennett in Baltimore and at potteries in Cincinnati and East Liverpool, Ohio. A later example on view was made around 1848 or 1849 at the United States Pottery Company in Bennington, Vt. The modeler was Greatbatch.
Other Greatbatch pieces on view include a selection of daisy-decorated pieces. The most remarkable, the 105/8 -inch one Stradling calls the “Wind-swept Daisies,” pitcher, was designed by Greatbatch and is attributed to the American Pottery Company in Jersey City. It has a handsome matte red-brown slip coating on a gray stoneware body and an interior matte putty-color glaze. The molded daisies and vines on the hexagonal body seem to toss in an invisible wind. The pitcher was made as part of a tea set and was produced in an array of colors, including the rarest, blue.
Modeler Charles Coxon arrived in 1850 at the Baltimore pottery of Edwin Bennett where he made the design for the “Rebekah at the Well” teapot, the most popular form made. Many other factories made some variation of “Rebekah at the Well” late into the century. The form is derived from the biblical story and was designed for the Independent Order of Oddfellows’ Rebekah degree that allowed female relatives of members to join the organization.
Not only did Cox design the most popular form, he also made the rarest pieces on view. A handsome unmarked rose bouquet pitcher in mazarine blue is attributed to the Peoria Pottery and has transparent deep blue glaze on a cream color body. The other blue rose pitcher on view was made for E&W Bennett and has a blue slip glaze on a cream body. Other Coxon works on view include the 1850-1857 “Boy in a Tree” pitcher made at E&W Bennett and two marine pitchers, one in a blue tinted glaze over an opaque pastel blue slip glaze on a cream body. The other has a clear glaze dripped with brown glaze.
Modeler Josiah Jones came from Staffordshire at the request of his brother-in-law Charles Cartlidge to design biscuit busts of celebrated Americans. He made additional modeled pieces, such as corn pitchers, several examples of which are on view. Corn was indigenous to America and was embraced eagerly as a design theme. Jones, it should be noted, was also issued a patent in 1867 for a mineral doorknob.
Stephen Theis made designs for the United States Pottery at Bennington, the pottery that was the source of much Rockingham ware. The company also produced Parian ware and several examples of Theis’s designs are on view. A pitcher in the “Sunflower and Tulip” pattern and one in the “Pond Lily” design were both made in Bennington. His “Psyche and Cupid” pitcher was made in Philadelphia, as was an 1870 serving bowl on view.
The terms “Rockingham” and “Bennington” pottery have long been used interchangeably, and although much of the Nineteenth Century wares made in Bennington were Rockingham, considerable quantities were produced in potteries scattered around the eastern half of the United States.
Production of pottery had commenced in Vermont in 1785 when Captain John Norton needed utilitarian earthenware and stoneware for his distilled products and established the Norton Pottery. The other major pottery in town was that of his brother-in-law Christopher Webber Fenton, United States Pottery Company, which made ornamental yellowware with Rockingham and the new flint enamel glaze, and other wares based on ones made in England.
The Fentons made waterfall pitchers, several of which are on view. They also produced some fine animal figural pieces. One, a 93/4-inch standing lion in flint enamel, was patented in 1849. An unmarked poodle with a basket that is attributed to Fenton was made in around 1849. Fenton also made the charming reclining cow on a base with a spill vase, a form that was popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
English potter Joseph Bennett came in 1834 from Derbyshire to America where by 1839 he established his own pottery in East Liverpool, Ohio. He was joined in 1841 by his brothers Edwin, William and Daniel. The next year James relocated the pottery to Pittsburgh and Edwin moved to Baltimore and established his own pottery there. His brother William followed him in 1847 and the pottery was known as Bennett & Brothers. The “Rebekah at the Well” teapot was one of their best-known products.
Utilitarian objects were rendered with the principle of “dulce et utile.” A handsome covered chamber pot from the Fenton pottery in Bennington was made with a flint enamel glaze with striking patches of orange and blue over olive green on a cream body. A couple of book flasks on view were made in dazzling colors. An unmarked example that is attributed to the Fenton pottery in Bennington has a remarkable flint enamel orange and olive green glaze on a cream body. The other, attributed to Jeffords pottery in Philadelphia, is done in a cobalt blue glaze.
Naturalism prevailed in many “Fancy Rockingham” designs. A very handsome object with molded scallop shells has attractive splashes of blue-green glaze over the transparent brown glaze. It is a spittoon marked “Boston Earthen Ware Manuf’g Co.” Several ice pitchers in the Grape pattern on view came from New Jersey potteries.
The overwhelming naturalistic elements of “Fancy Rockingham” made it a natural for the University of Richmond’s Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature, said University of Richmond Museum Director Richard Waller. “Design from nature is in abundance in Rockingham,” he stated. Having spent 20 years at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, he was familiar with Rockingham and Rockingham collectors and believed that it was a perfect fit for the Lora Robins gallery.
A catalog accompanying the exhibit has an introduction by Waller and includes compelling essays by Diana Stradling and William R. Liebeknecht.
“‘Fancy Rockingham’ Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth Century America” remains on view at the University of Richmond Museums through February 27. For information, 804-289-8276 or www.oncampus.richmond.edu/cultural.
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