Published: April 8, 2008
Ceramics experts had long suspected that soft-paste porcelains were produced in Philadelphia prior to the Revolutionary War. Early histories of the city mention the “American China Manufactory,” owned and operated by Gousse Bonnin and George Anthony Morris from 1770 to 1772; but with scattered documentation and few surviving examples, the manufacturers were but a footnote in the annals of American ceramics until 1972.
It was then that Graham Hood of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation published a slim but definitive volume of research he had conducted on the 12 known examples of wares produced by Bonnin and Morris. His conclusions proved once and for all that the American-made table wares had been delicate and desirous enough to rival the soft-paste porcelains produced by the English †which had all but monopolized the American market.
In the years since, several high profile ceramics exhibits have included Bonnin and Morris items. Six more pieces have surfaced, bringing the known total to 19. Yet there have been few opportunities to view the items and even less to acquire one of the rare pieces of blue and white with the underglaze blue “P.”
While nothing can be done to change the latter, the former is getting its day. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, under the curatorial direction of Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, has brought together for the first time under one roof all of the remaining known examples of Bonnin and Morris porcelains. “Colonial Philadelphia Porcelain: The Art of Bonnin and Morris,” on view through June 1, also displays large-scale shards unearthed in excavations of the factory site, now hidden under the shadow of Interstate 95, as well as original orders and receipts, financial documents, ads and letters.
To support this landmark event, the Chipstone Society has devoted its annual publication, Ceramics in America, to the subject of Bonnin and Morris. The 314-page volume, which includes the “Catalogue Raisonné of Bonnin and Morris Porcelain,” brings to light new evidence about the factory and the pivotal role it played in reducing this country’s reliance on imported goods. Essays include a discussion of the parallels in porcelain production and alchemy, as well as an experiment in constructing a pickle dish as would have occurred at the American China Manufactory.
In 1770, Philadelphia was the second wealthiest city in the British Empire. Its inhabitants’ taste for luxury can be seen in the silver work of Joseph Richardson and the cabinetry of Thomas Affleck. The desire for fine porcelain was equally as strong, conjuring, as it did, associations with cultural refinement and status.
The English producers Bow, Worcester and Wedgwood had by this time captured much of the American market. So it is easy to see how two astute businessmen could envision the potential for a luxury market in domestic porcelain wares. Additionally, the Nonimportation Agreement, which was established to support American industry during the postwar depression of the late 1760s, made the local business climate favorable for start-ups.
Other than having once applied for a London patent to manufacture black-lead crucibles made from “a species of clay hitherto only discovered near the city of Philadelphia,” Bonnin seems to have had no previous experience with pottery or porcelain manufacture. He did have an interest, though, having written in the patent specifications, that “the crucibles are formed upon a potter’s wheel in the same manner as glazed or other pots, and undergo the same operation of heat to harden them. It is as easy to discover any flaw in the crucibles by sounding them, as is customary in china.”
Morris, who, documents indicate, was the financial partner in the venture, knew less. Yet the pre-revolutionary fervor for independence from English goods and a strong economy were on their side.
The partners built a three-story frame factory on a parcel of land that is now known as the Navy Yard. They transported white clay from a site in Delaware, ran ads for the shank and knucklebones that would yield ash for the china and hired nine master workers from England.
To compete with the brilliantly colored delft, polychromed Chinese Export porcelain, Staffordshire stoneware and English blue and white, Bonnin and Morris decorated their wares with underglaze blue. Shards showing red enamel also point to the creation of enameled ware, though no known specimens exist.
In 1771, the American China Manufactory produced its first emission of “compleat sets for the dining and tea table together, or dining singly.”
These sets included pickle stands, open weave fruit baskets, sauceboats in two sizes, pint bowls and plates. The second series, produced in 1771, included plain cups, handled cups, quilted cups, sugar dishes in two sizes, cream ewers and teapots in two sizes. Both runs were a sellout despite high prices. Benjamin Franklin’s wife, Deborah, had Bonnin and Morris porcelain shipped to her husband in London.
To put Bonnin and Morris’ pricing in context with imports, sauceboats cost as much as three shillings and ninepence. More elaborate Worcester two-handled sauce boats cost between two shillings and two shillings and fourpence. Plain Wedgwood queen’s ware sauceboats cost fivepence.
Despite the wares’ perceived success, Kirtley writes in Ceramics in America that she has found the group’s most striking attribute to be its wide range of quality. Bodies vary in color from pure white to gray. Glazes run from clear and even applications to thick and opaque, greenish to mottled.
Whether inconsistency was a factor in the demise of the organization is unknown.
More likely, the failure of America’s first manufacturer of ceramics was due to a combination of factors. The cost of importing labor was enormous. Additionally, when the Townshend Acts were repealed, consumers of imported goods were no longer taxed, dampening enthusiasm for a boycott. Finally, the workers rebelled, walking out in protest, further humiliating the owners by soliciting public charity.
Interestingly, the event garnered media attention in the form of a newspaper article written by Josiah Wedgwood’s nephew, Thomas Byerley, neither of whom had an overwhelming fondness for the fledgling American industry.
By all accounts, the factory continued to operate until at least 1772. Bonnin put the facility, the kilns, furnaces, mills, clay vaults, cisterns, engines and treading room on the auction block while still in the black, though barely. When no buyers came forward, a second attempt was made to sell at auction. Again, there were no takers.
In 1774, Morris’s father bought the works, an indication that he may have been one of the factory’s chief financial backers all along. Within a month he had divided and sold the factory. The new owners dismantled the works and sold the equipment bit by bit. Bonnin retreated to England, where he became a race horse owner. Morris died at his home in North Carolina in 1773.
Over the years, the wares of Bonnin and Morris that were held by influential families were divided among heirs, otherwise dispersed and eventually all but disappeared. Experts were left to debate the quality of the output.
While donating a documented Bonnin and Morris example of porcelain to the Franklin Institute in 1841, Dr James Mease wrote, “&⁷ith the aid of £500 loaned him by my father, [Bonnin] erected a long frame building on Prime Street&⁵nable to withstand the competition with manufacturers in Europe, Mr Bonnin ceased his labors. The dinner set of his China was all that my father got for his £500…”
In 1943, the Philadelphia Museum’s Fiske Kimball orchestrated an exchange with the Franklin Institute for the single remaining piece, an openwork “porcelain” basket. Mease’s letter and a label on the bottom confirmed the item’s provenance.
It became the Rosetta Stone for Bonnin and Morris wares. Because the body was not translucent and the glaze thick, many scholars believed that Bonnin and Morris had not successfully produced fine porcelain, only earthenware that imitated English design and decoration.
All that changed in 1951, however, when Arthur Clement, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (now the Brooklyn Museum), was shown a diminutive sauceboat. Its collector, suspecting that the item was Bonnin and Morris, had eagerly scooped it up at a rummage sale for the princely sum of ten cents. Clement vetted it and, on noting that light passed through the sides, proclaimed that Bonnin and Morris had succeeded in producing porcelain of the soft-paste variety.
There followed a series of “finds,” with the majority of Bonnin and Morris items making their way into the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Despite the heavy reliance on English motifs and designs, Bonnin and Morris introduced a few unique characteristics into their work. Openwork baskets carry a five petal rosette at the interstices of the overlapping circles and the horizontal struts that link them. A sauce boat shows two houses under the lip; no similar design can be found in English prototypes.
Two small covered baskets similar to but much smaller than a “pierced chestnut or orange basket” have led experts to believe that their function was that of a reliquary.
The tiered pickle stands, of which six remain, differ from their English counterparts in an extraordinary way. The shells from which the molds were cast were taken from life. A recent experiment in the recreation of a pickle stand, by Michelle Erickson and Robert Hunter and included in Ceramics in America , indicates that the large clam shells on the bottom are those of the great scallop (pecten maximus). Smaller shells are molds of the common cockle (cerrastoderma edule) and the common limpet (patella vulgate). Calcareous tube worms are fashioned from members of the Serpulida family, the organisms that encrust dinghies, pilings and rocks.
To have created such biologically accurate pieces shows not only ambition in design, but remarkable artistic and technical prowess. The pickle stands had to be configured to a size larger than the finished product, as they suffered a 15 percent loss in size during the firings, a fact that demonstrates the thorough understanding of porcelain chemistry at work in the Bonnin and Morris manufactory. The aesthetic, with its quixotic bent and whimsical appeal, is purely Philadelphian.
Putting Bonnin and Morris in context with the advances in technology that were occurring at the time in England is the adjunct exhibition, “Turned and Thrown: English Pottery, 1660‱820,” curated by Donna Corbin, associate curator of European decorative arts.
The more than 50 imported period ceramic items on display have been lent by Philadelphia collectors.
There are some amusing surprises among the earliest items, such as the delft-style vessels with two spouts. Designed to hold posset, a party drink of hot curdled milk with ale or wine, the pots were passed around from person to person, explaining, perhaps, why not very many still exist.
There is also a puzzle jug, circa 1755, as well a fuddling cup, 1644, “trick” vessels that were used to enliven social occasions by dousing unsuspecting guests in liquid when they took a drink.
Spurred by changes in the market and the emergence of a middle class, English pottery had to be designed to meet new needs, including the introduction of such exotic beverages as hot chocolate, tea and coffee. Producing wares to withstand high temperatures required new techniques. Salt glazed earthenware met the requirements.
New shapes were needed as well. Designers met the challenge with teapots in the shape of melons, ships, shells and fruit. While such teapots were made from molds that lent themselves to easy duplication and speeded up the production process, others required more skill. For instance, there is a circa 1765 teapot decorated in the Chinese linglong (or guigong) technique. Literally translated “the devil’s work,” the name alludes to the difficult manufacturing process.
“Colonial Philadelphia Porcelain: The Art of Bonnin and Morris” remains on view through June 1. The accompanying volume, Ceramics In America , edited by Robert Hunter and published by the Chipstone Foundation, is available for $65. It may be ordered through the Antique Collectors’ Club at www.antique-acc.com .
“Turned and Thrown: English Pottery, 1660 †1820” is open through July 27.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is at 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. For information, 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org .
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