Published: July 29, 2003
– Splashy colors and oftentimes unique forms indigenous to the regions of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia have made the utilitarian earthenwares produced in this area highly sought-after specimens for much of the past century. Early collectors of folk art and Americana quickly identified the colorful and distinctive works of “Shenandoah” potters, such as John, Solomon and Samuel Bell, the Eberlys, Anthony Bacher and numerous others, adding prime examples to their personal and museum collections. Today, their wares remain among the most important and most coveted regionally produced examples of Nineteenth Century redware and stoneware.
Three exhibitions — two of which opened recently, the third on permanent display — and a new book offer insight into the wares produced in the Shenandoah Valley and further document the potters who added artistic flair to an otherwise mundane, although essential, part of everyday Nineteenth Century life.
The first of the exhibitions, featuring the private collection of Dr George and Connie Manger, opened recently at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts and is on view through September 14. This exhibition, spotlighting more than 135 examples of regional redware and stoneware, opened to coincide with the release of a book by the Mangers that shares the exhibition’s title, Pottery From The Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys.
A second exhibition is taking place at the Miller House, also in Hagerstown, and a third exhibition is displayed just a few miles north in Waynesboro, at the Renfrew Museum. All three exhibitions can be viewed in a single “pottery-packed” day trip, according to museum sources.
Washington County Museum Exhibition
John Bell, 1800-1880, a popular and prominent potter from Waynesboro, Penn., achieved great status and wealth during his lifetime and is considered by many to be among the premier potters in early American history.
“Like most Nineteenth Century potters, John Bell earned his bread and butter by producing utilitarian pottery,” states Dr Manger. “However, he was not intimidated by the ceramic repertoire of the large city potters. His competitive nature is quite evident in his production of sophisticated rdf_Descriptions not normally made in the back country.”
Such complexity is clearly apparent in Bell’s high style redware coffee pot that displays the mature and refined lines of an Eighteenth Century silver example: a graceful pouring spout and an elegant handle add a touch of class to the form. With the effect produced by finishing the piece in a simple gunmetal glaze, the potter achieved a country ware with a look that screams of big-city social status.
In addition to emulating the high styles of the urban elite, “John Bell was not above pirating forms and traditional glazing techniques from established and highly successful potteries” such as Bennington, according to Dr Manger. While many of the potteries throughout the region also produced “copies” of the sought-after forms of the day, none was as successful as John Bell, especially when it came to glazing.
Several pieces, especially poignant in the Washington County exhibition, point to Bell’s emulation of the Bennington/Rockingham wares, considered by many collectors to be part of his formula for success. Bell produced a variation of the wares that only the social elite could afford to import and made them readily available to all.
A prime example is the pair of covered cider mugs in a classic and sophisticated European bulbous form and sporting domed covers. The glaze, however, resembling a “flint enamel,” might lead one to believe that the piece had come from a Northern factory or even perhaps someplace as refined as England, emulating the wares of Thomas Whieldon.
One example from the exhibition is a large molded pitcher with stag horn-form handle and decorated with mold-relief figures of stag and hound and, on the reverse, a boar and hound in a traditional Bennington/Rockingham style. While the glaze on this particular example is of a simple lead oxide and engobe glaze (white slip), other pieces tell of Bell’s fascination with the mottled brown glazes typical of Rockingham wares and the flint enamel glazes of Bennington.
Another piece that typifies a Northern look from a glaze viewpoint, yet stands tall formwise in Pennsylvania tradition, is a butter tub with applied rope-twist vertical loop handles extending from the rim. The glaze has a strong Bennington look with its mottled exterior and light creamy brown interior, yet the form, handles and the strong “John Bell” impression are clear regional indications of the market savvy and well versed potter.
A redware pitcher, on view at the Renfrew Museum, also points to Bell’s imitation expertise, this one decorated in a seaweed pattern so often seen in the mocha wares of England. The vibrant mug not only attracts the attention of American pottery experts and collectors, but has also been recognized and admired by a host of English scholars.
Among the most desired rdf_Descriptions to come from the John Bell Pottery are the rare examples of slipware and the whimsical pieces he was known to produce. Aside from the Sgraffito plates produced elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Bell and other regional potters are responsible for producing examples of the most elaborate slip decorated plates made in America. Bell’s set of Nunnery bowls, 40 of which are known, were produced for the Snow Hill Nunnery in Quincy, just a few miles north of Waynesboro. The elaborate bowls are decorated with yellow and green slip stars in the bottom, surrounded by a twice-repeated pattern of double bands of green slip and squiggled line of yellow, a decoration that smacks of a Moravian flair.
The whimsical rdf_Descriptions produced in many of the potteries are classic pieces of American folk art and the most widely known creator of these figures is John Bell. A highlight of the exhibition is a redware figure of a dog holding a basket in its mouth with wonderful scratch-decorated fur and a mottled lead oxide and engobe glaze with manganese splotch decoration.
“The magnificent figure of a dog with basket in mouth is awe inspiring,” stated Shenandoah pottery expert Dr Eugene Comstock. “Undoubtedly this is one of America’s most outstanding ceramic animal figures of all times. This John Bell-attributed form is robust and intriguing with its basket full of jugs and provisions. The simple but charming glaze is suited to the animal’s form and inspirational presence.” The piece, measuring more than ten inches in length and over nine inches tall, is mounted on an oval base impressed with elaborate stamped floral decoration.
Figures were not all that uncommon, although relatively few surviving examples are known from the various potters throughout the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys. Solomon and Samuel Bell of Strasburg, Va., the brothers of John, used figures in several phases of their production, such as the classical lion’s head handle mounts affixed to the sides of many of their large Grecian-shaped jardinieres. The potters also produced smaller versions of popular figural cast-iron picture frames in redware with a spread winged eagle perched at the crest, and also figures of whippets that often flanked entranceways.
While the Bell name is the most recognizable among the Shenandoah potters, others, such as Anthony Bacher, who settled in Winchester, Va., in 1854, produced outstanding wares that are equally revered. Bacher brought to the Shenandoah Valley “unadulterated ethnic Germanic ceramic art form,” the likes of which had not been seen since the early German potters settled in Hagerstown, states Dr Manger. Animated in his work, Bacher used pleasing traditional lines in his forms, yet often times accented them with molded and applied birds, dogs and florals.
One of the most striking pieces in the exhibition is by Bacher, a washbowl with tooled strap handles extending from the rim to the elevated back of the basin, a soap dish with two birds perched atop of it applied to the back side of the basin, and a coiled fernlike design rising from the rear. The piece rises artistically to icon status due to its wonderful form and execution and, once again, the simplistic use of a gunmetal glaze lets the piece speak for itself.
Another example of Bacher’s artistic excellence is witnessed in the exhibition with a pair of figural wall vases with scalloped rims and ending with cornucopia-style tailings. The wall pockets, circa 1878, are elaborately decorated with applied grape clusters, leaves and hummingbirds, and are finished with a nice tan and mottled brown glaze.
Bacher, while cruder with his glazing techniques than contemporary John Bell, produced a variety of wares with equally stimulating glazes. His worldliness and exposure to European wares is evident as seen in the variety of pitchers, creamers and mugs in the exhibition with a scrottle ware appearance.
The coloration commonly associated with the glazes of the Shenandoah Valley potteries come to life among the pieces produced at the Eberly Pottery. Jacob Jeremiah and Joseph Eberly purchased the Kiester Pottery in 1875 and ran it with Jacob’s son, Daniel Lechter Eberly, until the early 1900s. Lechter developed a widely received style of polychrome glaze that he dubbed “fancy ware,” with the Eberly group becoming quite prolific in its production of this bright-glazed tableware. Splashed with copper oxide and manganese dioxide over an engobe glaze covering the red-bodied ware, a plethora of colors would appear after firing, ranging from oranges, where the engobe was thinned, to a cream ground with splotches of greens and browns dashing about. These pieces truly represent what is widely referred to as classic Shenandoah Valley pottery.
While numerous lesser-known potters dotted the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys, it would be remiss not to recognize the works of J.E. Simons of Mechanicstown, Md., and W.A. Lynn of Thurmont, Md. Two of the most stellar objects from the Mangers’ collection are by these potters, with an extraordinary covered sugar bowl in a brown, tan and orange scrottled glaze with applied floral decoration on the sides and a molded bird and flower serving as the handle on the lid. The piece is simply marked “J.S.” under the lid and is believed to have been produced at the Simons Pottery, circa 1881-1883.
A highlight from the Lynn Pottery, marked “W.A. Lynn” on the neck, is a rustic form redware pitcher in a pleasing engobe glaze with orange showing through and splotches of manganese. The rare pitcher was deeply incised, or scratch decorated, to resemble the bark of a tree, complete with applied knots and trimmed branches.
The Renfrew House boasts the largest public collection of John Bell pottery in existence and is located little more than a mile from Bell’s original workshop. The museum is actually part of a historic home/farm/park complex that encompasses 107 acres in historic Waynesboro with the pottery collection housed in the 1840s stone farmhouse. The collection of pottery at the museum was bequeathed by Emma Nicodimus, who amassed her collection of American ceramics from the 1930s to the early 1950s. The collection was given to the Miller House in the 1970s by Nicodimus in an effort to preserve the history of Waynesboro and it remains on permanent display.
While the collection of more than 100 pieces is stellar in many rights, the most significant pieces in the collection are the two iconic standing redware lions attributed to John Bell that capture the naïve interpretations of a back-country pottery along with the sophistication of a skilled artist. These rare figures measure some 20 inches in length and stand 14 inches high.
The collection is also filled with numerous other figures of animals, prime slipware examples, along with other various utilitarian pieces typical of the Bell Pottery. Additionally the pottery of D.M. Baker, a contemporary of John Bell who also potted in Waynesboro, is on display. Few examples are known, with the most concentrated grouping being on display at the Renfrew House.
The Miller House
The Washington County Historical Society, headquartered in the Miller House, is also hosting an exhibition with 125 pieces from its collection and subsequent additions from the private collection of Dr H.E. Comstock, guest curator for the exhibit. The Miller House is located on the original site of the pottery shop of Peter Bell, the father of John, Solomon and Samuel. The exhibition was originally scheduled to close August 30; however, according to the museum, dates will extend into September.
Another of the standouts is a John Bell mug decorated in a seaweed pattern, once again pointing to the potter’s ability to produce variations of socially desirable imported wares.
The exhibition is peppered with prime examples from the Comstock collection, including a recumbent lamb in a rare polychrome glaze that is one of four known examples. The last one to be offered at auction sold at Green Valley Auctions in excess of $50,000.
Another stellar piece from the Comstock collection is a deep-dish slip decorated plate by an unknown Hagerstown potter who applied slip extending from the center of the plate in a robin’s-egg blue, yellow, green and brown.
The Miller House collection also holds a number of rdf_Descriptions given to the museum by the grandson of John Bell, including the family silhouettes, a family owned tall-case clock, walking stick and a reverse painted mirror that was presented to Bell as a wedding present.
Pottery From The Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys, a hardcover book with 111 full color illustrations, is available for $55 (shipping and handling included) from Dr George Manger, 235 Mill Street, Suite 1, Hagerstown, MD 21740, or by calling 301-797-0363.
For further information contact the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, 91 Key Street, Hagerstown, MD 21741, 301-739-5727; The Miller House, 135 West Washington Street, Hagerstown, MD 21740, 301-797-8782; and The Renfrew House, 1010 East Main Street, Waynesboro, PA 17268, 717-762-4723.
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