Published: February 21, 2006
With its earthy palette and arresting design, the pottery Americana collectors casually, sometimes inaccurately, call “mocha” appeals to practiced eyes. The artist Leonard Baskin and fashion designer Bill Blass were fans. With many others, they were drawn to mocha’s graphic, often unpredictable combinations of dots, dashes, bars and speckles; painterly ribbons and swirls; diamonds, checkerboards, squares and motifs suggestive of cat’s eyes, twigs, worms and, significantly, trees and seaweed.
As one might guess about a man whose email address begins with the prefix “mocoloco,” Jonathan Rickard is the most ardent enthusiast of all. The former advertising executive turned self-employed writer and designer has nursed his obsession for 30 years, living surrounded by his pots in an Eighteenth Century cape-style house near the Connecticut River.
Rickard’s pursuit recently culminated in Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939. Published by University Press of New England in association with Historic Eastfield Foundation of East Nassau, N.Y., the long-awaited book, written and designed by Rickard with images by the author and noted decorative-arts photographer Gavin Ashworth, is visually seductive and compelling in its scholarship, accomplished over the past 17 years.
For students and collectors, the volume explores both history and technique; categorizes different types of decoration; showcases prime examples; advances the general understanding of the role of turners in mocha production, listing many of them by name; contrasts the mainly British pottery with comparable French and North American wares; and includes an annotated directory of manufacturers along with an extensive bibliography.
“I’ve traced the misuse of the term mocha over the past 150years,” the author confesses. In England, mocha traditionallyreferred only to banded wares with treelike, or dendritic,decoration caused when a turner, the artisan most responsible forthe pot’s appearance, dribbled an acid solution, such as tobaccotea, onto the alkaline slip. In the United States, mocha is oftenbroadly thought to encompass similar appearing examples offactory-made, lathe-turned, banded earthenware decorated by dippingthe vessel in slip, then manipulating the slip to create pattern.
Mocha was most likely named after the Yemeni port city of al Mukha, famous for moss agate, says Rickard. Though British-made dipped wares date to the 1770s, the first documented instance of mocha pottery appears in Lakin & Poole’s 1790s invoices for “Mocoe tumblers.” Primarily produced in Staffordshire but also made in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, mocha, among the cheapest ceramics available in America, was exported in quantity to the United States between 1800 and 1840. France produced dipped faience of similar appearance. Banded yellowware with dendritic decoration was made in North America from around 1830 to the early Twentieth Century.
“Through most of the Twentieth Century, collectors associated dipped ware with grandmother’s Victorian-era yellow mixing bowls,” says Rickard. As a consequence, prices for early mocha languished for generations.
“Eldred’s sold two rare mocha double-jugs in 1966 for $90each. Today, they might bring $50,000,” says the collector. Indeed,a baluster-form jug with fan decorations and bands of ocher, rustand dark brown sold at Skinner in 2001 to New York dealer JonathanTrace for a record $50,600. The jug was consigned by Rickard, whopurchased it at the Bolton salesroom in 1989 for $6,600, also arecord at the time.
Educated at the Massachusetts College of Art in the early 1960s, where he shared his teacher Arthur Hoener’s deep interest in the color studies of Joseph Albers, Rickard, who grew up with an affinity for old things in North Attleboro, Mass., first encountered mocha at Skinner in the late 1960s. Already a collector of mechanical banks, he bought his first pieces in London in 1972.
“A dealer dumped out his coffee to sell me his mocha cup,” says the collector, who filled his suitcase with £5 mugs and £10 jugs. Back home, he continued his hunt. Some of his first pieces came from Connecticut dealers Orkney & Yost, who tutored him in connoisseurship. Rickard sold his antique bank collection, reinvesting his profits in his new advertising, public relations and marketing firm. He displayed much of his growing mocha collection in his Glastonbury, Conn., offices.
At a Sally Van den Bossche show in Norwich, Conn., in the late 1980s, Rickard met the late Lisbon, Conn., dealer Jerome Blum, to whom Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939 is dedicated, and his wife, Selma, who continues the couple’s business, known for its extensive selection of fine Eighteenth Century English ceramics and brass and American furniture.
“You’re welcome to visit us any time. We have a very large stock. You probably can’t afford anything, but you can look,” Jerry Blum – who Rickard describes as “a man of many parts, each with a sense of style” – told the collector. A retired garment industry executive, Blum later conceded, “I didn’t know mocha from schmoka when I started.”
“Jerry had a level of passion that I connected with rightaway. I started buying things from him of the best quality, takingmonths to pay. He made me stretch,” says Rickard, who took thedealer’s words as challenge and encouragement. Over the yearsRickard also bought from Bill and Terry Kurau, Pam Boynton andStephen-Douglas and was a regular customer of London dealers GarryAtkins, Charles Garland, Jonathan Horne, Alistair Sampson and JohnShepherd. Noted for his mocha inventory, New Hampshire dealerWilliam Lewan, who died in February 2004, was a friend and sourcefor 25 years.
“My pleasure in collecting is diminished by his absence,” Rickard says simply.
In 1979, Rickard met C. John Smith when the latter came to the United States on a lecture tour. A teacher of ceramics at the College of Art and Technology in Stourbridge, England, Smith was gathering material for a book, still incomplete when he died. The encounter was the beginning of Rickard’s scholarly interest in dipped wares.
Not much had been written on mocha when Rickard took up thesubject. In 1903, Edwin AtLee Barber published “Mocha Ware” in themonthly periodical Old China. The piece was followed byarticles by others on banded creamware in The MagazineAntiques in 1945 and 1966. Rickard also found helpful KatherineMorrison McClinton’s 1951 book, Antique Collecting forEveryone, which included a chapter on mocha.
“I met other Americans attending Keele and formed lasting friendships,” writes Rickard, who, beginning in 1986, attended ceramics summer school at the Staffordshire university. Through the British and American experts whose acquaintances he began to make, Rickard gained access to important archives and archaeological sites on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps the most productive of these friendships was with Don Carpentier, a self-styled jack of all Nineteenth Century trades. Trained as an architect, Carpentier in 1971 began moving antique buildings to the Upstate New York farm where he created Eastfield Village, the setting for workshops and seminars on an array of early American crafts, including ceramics. Carpentier taught himself to pot, recreated period recipes and techniques, and, with the help of an engine-turning lathe, mastered the art of mocha decoration.
“We’ve bullied our way into most of the remaining Nineteenth Century factories in the Potteries,” writes Rickard, who traveled to England and Wales with Carpentier on several occasions. Rickard’s incorporation of new archaeological discoveries and technical analysis based on Carpentier’s actual practice is what makes Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939 so valuable, writes David Barker, senior archaeologist for the City of Stoke-on-Trent, England.
“Trying to match the general appearance of period pots, Dondiscovered many things, principally that nearly all the techniquescan and should be accomplished while the pot remains on the latheand that the simplest possible techniques always produce the mostsatisfactory results,” says Rickard. Demonstrating his point, hepicks up a creamware porringer whose tripartite fan decoration wasneatly achieved by dropping a dollop of colored slip on a pot, thenletting gravity do its work.
The man who is mad about mocha has made a career of it. Rickard – who has written for The Magazine Antiques, Maine Antiques Digest and Ceramics in America, among other publications – served as guest curator of the 1993-1994 exhibition “Mocha Mania” at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg and the 1995 display “Slipped, Dipped, Turned and Wormed” at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Penn. The author, who after a serious illness sold portions of his collection at Skinner in 2001, has even designed reproduction mocha that is both microwaveable and dishwasher-safe.
“It hasn’t been commercially viable to mass-produce it because of the strength the British pound,” says Rickard, who has not abandoned his project.
Of his many satisfactions, none surpasses the camaraderie of collecting, a joy Rickard conveys time and again with the apt turn of phrase. He concludes, “I cannot emphasize enough the pleasure I have derived through meeting so many people who share a fascination with pots…..Collectors, curators, dealers, potters and historical archaeologists alike are alive with healthy curiosity about the appearance and history of these objects.”
Mocha and Related Dipped Wares, 1770-1939 is available for $65 from University Press of New England, One Court Street, Lebanon, NH 03766, or on the web at www.upne.com.
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