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A Book Review: Ceramics in America 2012

Lita Solis-Cohen | October 13th, 2013

A Book Review


Ceramics in America

Edited by Robert Hunter

Chipstone Foundation, distributed by University Press of New England, 2012, 196 pages, hardbound, $65 plus S/H from University Press of New England, (800) 421-1561 or (

Ceramics in America, the scholarly journal edited by Robert Hunter and published by the Chipstone Foundation, widens our perspectives with articles by archeologists, economic historians, and collectors who enjoy research.

In the introduction, Hunter begins the 2012 journal with a discussion of late 19th- and early 20th-century Japanese domestic wares exported to British Columbia. The initial essay is by archeologist Douglas Ross, who writes about crudely decorated Japanese porcelain found on domestic sites in North America. The manufacturing history of these wares previously had been ignored, possibly because of their limited aesthetic appeal. Ross tells the story of the industrialization of Japan’s ceramic centers and their global marketing strategy by using an assemblage of these cheap and cheerful ceramics that had been used in a fishing camp associated with a salmon cannery, which was founded by a Japanese entrepreneur 12 miles southeast of Vancouver, where 70-100 Japanese bachelors and families lived from 1901 to 1930. The site was excavated in 2005 and 2006. Ross’s study provides a Rosetta stone for archeologists working on other sites in North America and includes a history of Japanese domestic porcelain largely hand-painted in under-glaze blue and some celadon green and over-glazed with enameled colors.

Linda Rosenfeld Pomper writes a fascinating paper about early Chinese porcelain found in Panamá la Vieja, located on the narrowest part of the Isthmus of Panama on the Pacific side. This early port city played an important role in a complex trade route that facilitated the export of silver from the New World by the Spanish. She reminds us that Ferdinand Magellan had claimed the Philippine Islands for Spain and that since the Tang Dynasty there had been a market for Chinese ceramics in Manila. Pomper writes that the first Spanish galleons with Chinese porcelains arrived in Acapulco, Mexico from Manila in 1565, but large shipments of porcelain began to arrive in 1573.

Pomper compares motifs found on shards from an archeological site of a slave infirmary with intact pieces in museums. One piece, currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a porcelain bowl, decorated in blue and with silver-gilt mounts, that was made during the Wanli period (1563-1619). It was once owned by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was one of the backers of Sir Francis Drake’s voyages. Since there was no direct China trade with England at the time, Chinese porcelains got to England through privateers. The shards from Panama are somewhat debased versions of the underglaze blue decorations on the Burghley bowl, but in Panama, Chinese porcelains were serviceable commodities. Pomper’s essay thus documents the early use of Chinese ceramics in Spanish colonies before the China trade flourished in Europe.

Barbara and Ken Beem’s article on Baltimore porcelain in the later part of the 19th century chronicles the lives of two men, Edwin Bennett and David Francis Haynes, and their role in ­Baltimore’s production of ceramics. The authors illustrate examples of their work, along with catalog pages showing pitchers, vases, plaques, and flowers, mostly in museum storerooms and private collections. Because Baltimore porcelain is never marked, identifying was difficult. Moreover, when Edwin Bennett purchased the Chesapeake Pottery in 1887, he assumed ownership of the entire inventory of unsold wares. As a result, some pieces made by Haynes were donated to museums by the Bennett family, making it hard to tell which factory produced them.

Leslie and Peter Warwick consider “New Perspectives on Chinese Export Blue-and-White Canton Porcelain.” Canton was much cheaper than Chinese porcelain with custom-painted arms or blue and white Nanking porcelain with a different border. In 1850, a 50-piece Canton tea service cost the American consumer only about $3, the equivalent of about $40 today. The distribution of shards suggests that Canton was used in greater quantity than any other porcelain. The peak years of importation were 1817 and 1818, after which it declined sharply, probably because of declining quality and also because of the falling prices of English pottery and porcelain.

Because the scene depicted on Canton remained fixed for more than 100 years, the Warwicks believe the artist/decorators worked from a fixed template. These traditional Chinese images came from The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (1679-1701), a compilation of earlier books on landscape painting that had been preserved for many generations and then had been collected by a family in China. The landscape pattern on Canton portrays the harmony of nature. When you cross the fence in the border pattern, you enter the garden where everything is symbolic: the rock symbolizes endurance, for example, and the entwined trees (the yin evergreen and yang deciduous) symbolize survival and rebirth. Pointing out that Canton blue and white porcelain illustrated ancient Chinese scholars’ belief that all forms of life are interconnected and their appreciation of beauty and balance of nature, the authors wonder if Westerners who used Canton understood the imagery.

The cargoes retrieved from the ocean floor were big news when Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctioned them in New York, Amsterdam, and London in the 1990’s. Those once-new products bound for markets gave us a fresh look at another time. Sean Kings-ley, Ellen Gerth, and Michael Hughes write about the “Ceramics from the Tortugas Shipwreck: a Spanish-Operated Navio from the 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet,” which had been destroyed by a hurricane off the Florida Keys. Remarkable ceramic assemblages have been found at the bottom of the sea, and this time the authors used robotic technology and the latest forensic science to find the source of the tin-glazed earthenware produced in the Andalusian region of Spain.

Another paper on a ship’s cargo by George L. Miller focuses on the sale of “Ceramics from the 1813 Prize Brig Ann, Auctioned in Salem, Massachusetts.” He begins, “On April 13, 1813, 250 crates of ‘Liverpool Ware’ and 7 cases of ‘Irish Linens’” were taken from an English merchant ship by an American privateer during the War of 1812. The auction of the goods in Salem provides an itemized list of plain creamware (indicated by CC on the original bills of lading), earthenware edged in blue and green, painted wares, and fancy ware, which Miller says is dipped ware. The ceramics were not nearly as valuable as the textiles on board. The fact that there were more than 100,000 pieces of ceramics headed for retailers in Bermuda shows the huge volume of tableware exported from England in the early 19th century.

The last three articles are about American utilitarian stoneware made in the early 19th century for the storage of foods of all kinds. Alexandria, Virginia, was a regional potting center. Much pottery made there is stamped with the makers’ marks. Barbara Magid, in her first installment of a two-part history, tells about the work of John Swann, who started his potting career in 1803 as a 14-year-old orphan apprentice. Soon after his seven-year apprenticeship Swann bought the Wilkes Street Pottery. He was successful for some years but ran into hard times and had to sell out to Hugh Smith, a prominent Alexandria merchant. By 1825 “Hugh Smith & Co.” was stamped on Alexandria stoneware. The Hugh Smith & Co. mark was used from 1821 to 1825 and “H. Smith & Co.” from 1825 to 1831. Magid identifies two additional (beyond his kinsmen) employees at the pottery in the 1820’s. David Jarbour worked there from 1826 to 1833 and in 1841. A free black man, Jarbour decorated his work with distinctive cobalt leaves and flowers. Michael Morris was there at about the same time. Swann appears to have remained an employee (perhaps intermittently) but left the pottery in 1831 and was replaced by potter B.C. Milburn, who eventually established Milburn’s Pottery at the site, the subject of the author’s next paper.

The last three papers are on Albany, New York, stoneware. Warren F. Hartmann claims it took 20 years of research to attribute a group of Albany unmarked storage pots decorated with birds or flowers to William Capron (1763-1823). When examples of Capron’s marked vessels are compared with unmarked pieces, their ovoid form, firing irregularities, incised lines at the rim, handles rolled and round and placed unevenly, sometimes touched with cobalt where they are attached to the body, and an incised rim at the bottom above a slightly raised footed base make it possible to assign pots of various shades of beige, brown, and gray (some marked “Albany/Ware”) to William Capron. Given the large number of marked Cushman pots that resemble these early unmarked pieces, Hartmann believes that William Capron was one of the potters who worked at the Cushman factory.

Paul Cushman, a Manhattan physician and the Albany potter’s great-grandson, writes about “Paul Cushman: The Premier Albany Potter and His Stoneware.” He has traced some 200 pieces of Cushman stoneware including pots, jars, crocks, coolers, a chamber pot, and a milk pail. Many remain in the family, some are at the Albany Institute of History and Art, and some are in Warren Hartmann’s collection. Cushman thinks Capron may have taught Cushman the business. His most distinctive mark is “1809 PAUL CUSHMAN’S STONE WARE FACTORY/ HALF A MILE WEST OF ALBANYGOAL.” Some of his wares are misshapen, some have firing defects, and some have primitive cobalt embellishments. Cushman’s widow sold the business in 1833. His two sons became wine merchants in Albany. An advertising jug, with their names and the address of the wine shop in cobalt, survives. Their wine business operated for 50 years.

The book reviews are full of nuggets of information. Robert Hunter reviews Aileen Dawson’s English and Irish Delftware, 1570-1840, London: British Museum Press (2010). It pictures 143 of the 480 pieces of delft in the British Museum’s collection. The author selected dated examples and those associated with notable persons or events. The examples include extreme rarities including a Stamp Act punch bowl. Stamp Act creamware is known, but this is the only delft example. An appendix documents 28 objects destroyed by German bombs. Dawson also includes a history of collecting delft from Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill through the early 20th century, when serious academic research was published by J.W.L. Glaisher, F.H. Garner, Louis Lipski, and Robert Hall Warren. Hunter praises the book’s square format and calls the book a visual treat and a bargain at $70.

There is a review of Robert Finlay’s The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History, Berkeley: University of California Press (2010) by Professor Emeritus Christiaan J.A. Jörg of Leiden University, The Netherlands. It appears to be a survey of the journey of Chinese porcelain across the world from the time of the Tang Dynasty—the earliest example of globalization. Written by an economic historian, it shows how porcelain from China influenced material culture all over the world.

The third of the Occasional Papers published by the ­Medieval Pottery Research Group concerns the Harlow Pottery Industries on the western edge of Essex in the U.K. It contains a description of metropolitan slipwares produced by the Harlow potters from the 13th through the 17th centuries. The reviewer, Silas D. Hurry of Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland, points out that these red-bodied slip wares have been misidentified as southeastern Pennsylvania. This study seems like a must for archeologists working on early Colonial sites.

Gordon Elliott’s Aspects of Ceramic History is a collection of papers written over a long period of time by a scholar who became the keeper of the Potteries Museum at Stoke on Trent in Staffordshire. The reviewer, Mark Shapiro of Worthington, Massachusetts, points out that Elliott writes about the stream of French immigrants who brought technical advances to the potteries beginning in the second half of the 18th century and had a significant effect through the 19th century. Wedgwood did not single-handedly transform British pottery into a sophisticated industry.

Lois Roberts’s Dated in Blue:Underglazed Blue Painted Earthenware, 1776 to 1800, Wales: Gomer Press (2011) gives “visual and documentary information on 194 blue-painted refined earthenware vessels, painted with dates...prior to...firing,” writes the reviewer, Jillian Galle of Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia. Most (92%) are hollowware; 7% are flatware (plates and dishes); one is a pearlware birdfeeder; and another is a screw-top tobacco box. Galle was charged with applying Roberts’s data as an archeologist, and “the first question is whether the distinction between creamware and pearlware has temporal significance….” Roberts makes a plea to go back to using the term “pearlware” not “China glaze,” as suggested by George Miller and Robert Hunter in Ceramics in America in 2001. Galle writes, “The vessels contained in the book confirm her [Roberts] hunch in a stunning fashion.” Then she explains why. The data show the steady decline of creamware over pearlware and that pearlware eclipses creamware in 1780 and blue-painted creamware disappeared by 1800. Moreover, these dated vessels show how difficult it is to define the Chinese style in a period where there is little stylistic change. “It is striking that for a quarter-century consumers did not tire of the blue-painted craze and, when they did, they selected radically different decorations including polychrome painted wares, slipwares, and transfer-printed wares,” notes Galle.

This year the journal discontinued the New Discoveries section because of the immediacy of electronic communication. They are posted on the Ceramics in America Facebook page. In this Internet age, when scholars share information so readily, one wonders how much longer we will have a hardcover journal about esoteric research in American ceramics.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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