Diana Stradling, curator. “‘Fancy Rockingham’ Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth-Century America.” Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature, University of Richmond Museums, Richmond, Virginia. September 9, 2004–June 26, 2005.
Robert Hunter, Kurt C. Russ, and Marshall Goodman, curators. “Stoneware Pottery of Eastern Virginia, 1720–1865.” Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia. September 11, 2004–February 1, 2005.
These two exhibits, which opened in Richmond, Virginia, in September 2004, dealt with American-made, predominantly nineteenth-century utilitarian ceramics. The visual impact of the exhibitions and the approaches taken by their respective curators, however, were as different as the press-molded fancy Rockingham and wheel-thrown salt-glazed stoneware pitchers and jugs on display.
A show of approximately seventy pieces of pottery from private New York–area collections, “‘Fancy Rockingham’ Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth-Century America,” curated by independent scholar and dealer Diana Stradling, was set in the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature at the University of Richmond. This space has permanent collections of shells, fossils, minerals, and gemstones. The juxtaposition of the Rockingham wares against these collections was intriguing, reminiscent of the tension between industrialization and naturalism that was such an integral part of nineteenth-century history.
Given the unusual setting of the exhibition, it is likely that many who saw the show were not necessarily ceramics enthusiasts. A good exhibition will draw the nonspecialist as well as offer something extra for the well-schooled scholar. Finding that balance is difficult, but this show was successful in its approach. Stradling’s show was predominantly an exhibit of beautiful objects organized in a traditional manner and geared toward a general audience. The overall organizational structure of the exhibition was fairly straightforward, centering on such general categories as discovering the maker, naturalism, utilitarian wares, and English sources. The label text dealt with overarching themes rather than details of attribution and manufacture.
The “something extra” for ceramics scholars consisted of an attempt to redefine the term Rockingham, which can be confusing to the uninitiated. The Rockingham pottery, situated in Yorkshire, England, and named for the marquis of Rockingham, was active from the mid-1700s through the 1830s. When applied to American-made pieces, Rockingham generally refers to “inexpensive, mass-produced, brown-glazed, often pictorially embossed earthenware of the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.” For scholars of ceramics in America, Rockingham usually refers to the mottled brown glaze on nineteenth-century wares—earthenware, stoneware, or, in rare cases, porcelain. Stradling abandoned these traditional definitions, instead using Rockingham “as a metaphor for the whole range of American ware which, when relief-molded with decorative or ornamental or narrative patterns, was called ‘fancy goods’ in its day, whatever the color.” Even though many of these objects bear the same molded designs, whether covered with brown, yellow, white, or even blue glazes, most scholars would not classify all of them as Rockingham. Yet redefining Rockingham gave the curator freedom to include a broader range of interesting and beautiful objects not usually considered Rockingham ware.
Perhaps it is time that the narrow characterization of Rockingham as only brown-glazed pieces be expanded to include other types of molded wares, but it is odd that Stradling did so with only one sentence devoted to the subject. Presumably the forthcoming catalog will more substantially address her views on why “fancy Rockingham” should be used as a metaphor for such relief-molded wares, no matter what the color of the glaze.
“Stoneware Pottery of Eastern Virginia, 1720–1865,” curated by Robert Hunter, Kurt C. Russ, and Marshall Goodman, was aimed at ceramics enthusiasts, particularly those with a passion for stoneware. Comprising some sixty objects on loan from private collections and several Virginia institutions, “Stoneware Pottery of Eastern Virginia” was shown at the Virginia Historical Society. Although visitors to this location are accustomed to seeing ceramics exhibits that focus on the who, what, and where of manufacture and attribution, little scholarly attention has been paid to stoneware produced in eastern Virginia, making this exhibition the first to address comprehensively the types of wares made in this region and the networks of potters and their influences.
The exhibition was divided into areas of production, with Yorktown, Petersburg, Richmond, Charles City County, and Alexandria receiving detailed attention. Not surprisingly, given the background of the three curators, archaeology played a major role in the show. Some of the potteries discussed exist only in the archaeological record; no known examples of their work survive. While most of the pottery included in the exhibition was produced during the nineteenth century, the earliest stoneware made in eastern Virginia was manufactured by the William Rogers Pottery in Yorktown, active from 1720 until 1745. Archaeological investigation of the Rogers site between 1966 and 1982 revealed the kiln complex, workshop, and thousands of waster fragments documented from archaeological evidence alone. Like the potters producing American-made Rockingham wares in the nineteenth century, the potters working for Rogers closely based their pots on English examples, making it difficult to distinguish pieces made in England from those manufactured in Yorktown.
Archaeological investigation of another type, perhaps best called “salvage archaeology,” was also highlighted in the exhibition. Commercial development in 2002 led to the unearthing of Benjamin DuVal’s stoneware manufactory in Richmond, and the fragments recovered from the site led to attributions that previously were not possible and an expansion of what is known about an important stoneware pottery in nineteenth-century Virginia. Like Rogers, Benjamin DuVal was a merchant who operated a stoneware manufactory, but in the case of DuVal and Co., the names of some of the potters who worked there are known, as are some of their subsequent potting efforts. Pieces by one such potter, John P. Schermerhorn, a New York maker who relocated to Richmond, were on view.
“Stoneware Pottery of Eastern Virginia” is an in-depth investigation that speaks most directly to those who want to know more about stoneware rather than to those who are seeking an introduction to the subject. Visitors to the exhibition who were not already steeped in a love of American-made stoneware likely left exactly as they had arrived—uninterested. This was the result more of unimaginative exhibit design (probably due to limited finances) than to any failure of the curatorial team. The exhibition ultimately was a success because the curators were able to attribute many previously unidentified objects through comparison with archaeological wasters.
Both “‘Fancy Rockingham’ Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth-Century America” and “Stoneware Pottery of Eastern Virginia, 1720–1865” were interesting exhibitions that deepened our appreciation of utilitarian ceramic forms. Churns, jugs, spittoons, and water coolers were transformed by their makers from utilitarian objects to decorative ones through the addition of molded designs or cobalt embellishments. Perhaps their decorative nature is what helped them survive the years, so that they can help us understand more fully the face of nineteenth-century pottery production in America.
Suzanne R. Findlen
Assistant Curator of Ceramics and Glass
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
This review was written before publication of Robert Hunter, Kurt C. Russ, and Marshall Goodman, “Stoneware of Eastern Virginia,” Antiques 167 (April 2005): 126–33.
Jane Perkins Claney, Rockingham Ware in American Culture, 1830–1930: Reading Historical Artifacts (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2004), p. xiii.