Robert Hunter

The story of world ceramics encompasses thousands of years and vast geographic distances. Ceramics often served as a medium of exchange and were key players in the interaction between the cultures of the East and West. The clay vessels at the intersection of these were powerful transmitters of mythological and symbolic meaning. Learning how to decipher the beliefs, customs, and traditions of a society that are embodied in fired clay both ancient and modern is an ongoing challenge for the student of ceramic history.

The language and symbols of any given culture differ throughout time. Ceramics, too, have crossed social and geographic boundaries with relative frequency. Most interchanges occurred on a local or regional level, but by the eighth century a.d., Arab and Persian caravans and trading ships were making their way to China and bringing home luxury goods, including the distinctive tricolor sancai ware and, later, blue-and-white porcelain.

Global exploration by Western European countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries opened up extensive trade networks that brought the much-coveted Chinese porcelains to a world hungry for the exotic. Kings and queens set the standards for taste that filtered down to commoners, who, ultimately, became mass consumers. For those that could not afford or obtain “true porcelain,” earthenware industries sprang up in Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and England, making rude copies by appropriating the blue-and-white palette and Asian ornamentations.

In the opening article of this volume, Sarah Fayen Scarlett examines the most popular decorative motif—a robed Chinese man among grasses and rocks—used in the last quarter of the seventeenth century by English, Dutch, and German potters. The ubiquity of this pattern cannot be overstated; hundreds of surviving examples and archaeological fragments have been found on virtually every Anglo-American site from this period. Despite its widespread popularity, no period term exists for the motif, and collectors and antique dealers have been content to use a variety of descriptive names, such as Chinaman on a Rock. Using a combination of historiographic and literary techniques, Fayen Scarlett offers a more specific name for the pattern, the Chinese Scholar, which sets the new terminology standard for the field. She further examines the mysterious symbolic content of the Chinese Scholar and the implication of its widespread adoption in England.

The Chinese Scholar pattern is just one example of how the Western world absorbed Chinese art into its own decorative repertoire under the mantle of exoticism and novelty, with little awareness or concern for the Chinese culture and its people. The impact of Chinese ceramics has been immense, yet the potters themselves have remained an anonymous aggregate of peasant artisans. In the late twentieth century, artist Ai Weiwei stormed onto the world stage as an avatar of the long-suppressed artistic voice in China. Garth Clark, the leading writer and thinker on contemporary ceramics, pulls back the curtain on this revolutionary artist and political dissident in his well-considered critique, “Mind Mud: Ai Weiwei’s Conceptual Ceramics.” The article reviews Weiwei’s recent ceramic-based installations, including the widely publicized “Sunflower Seeds” held at the Tate Modern in London—one hundred million sunflower seeds produced and hand-painted by Jingdezhen potters. Clark examines the historical power of ceramics, and whether one views Weiwei as a guru or a gadfly, currently he is the preeminent spokesperson for the plight of the Chinese people, and his life force is a mighty presence in the contemporary discourse of ceramic art.

For archaeologists digging through the forgotten detritus of early American home sites, physical reminders of the Chinese contribution are often just the turn of a spade away. In “Digging Up Salem’s Golden Age: Ceramic Use Among the Merchant Class,” George Schwartz reminds us of the seaport’s central place in the so-called China trade. Schwartz presents a thorough analysis of a huge assemblage of ceramics and glass excavated from the home of Captain Stephen Phillips (1764–1838), one of the many participants in the development of the American trade with China. The Phillips House assemblage is perhaps the best-preserved collection of archaeologically recovered ceramics from a New England context. It offers a remarkable snapshot of ceramic tastes of the mercantile class of the time: more than one-third of the vessels recovered—among English earthenware imports and locally produced coarsewares—were Chinese porcelain.

With the advent of mass-produced transfer printing in the early nineteenth century, the Staffordshire ceramic industry was fully engaged in the race to win potential customers with the latest and most fashionable dishware. Printed sources were often adapted from the popular travel books being printed in England and America. Scenic views from Europe, India, Africa, and even the Arctic found their way onto ceramic dinnerware and tea sets. Period consumers and later collectors have been mesmerized by the assortment of patterns and colors produced by the Staffordshire potters. Dick Henrywood, a leading collector and scholar of these printed patterns, provides new revelations in his article “The States Border Series by Ralph and James Clews.” The States Border series is one of the most recognizable “American” patterns, with rich iconography that includes the printed names of the first fifteen American states. Henrywood has discovered that the central views used in this series, clearly meant to elicit patriotic sentiment, were copied from William Marshall’s Select Views in Great Britain (1825–1828), a popular travel book. Whether American customers knew or cared that these dishes actually contained images of fine British “Great Houses,” it is a somewhat ironic revelation for today’s collectors of historical Staffordshire.

For collectors of American ceramics, the nineteenth-century products of the pottery of the Thompson family in Morgantown, West Virginia, have always had an element of mystique. This distinctive stoneware, remarkable for its diverse and innovative technological and decorative elements, is highly sought. In the 2004 volume of Ceramics in America, authors Don Horvath and Dick Duez discussed the earthenware produced in Morgantown between 1796 and 1854. For this issue, the authors pick up the story of the Thompsons, covering the family’s stoneware production from 1854 to 1890. Particularly important to collectors are the “people pots” attributed to the family patriarch, John Thompson. These pots, whose images of men, women, and animals have an appealing yet primitive aesthetic reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings, reflect a unique regional manifestation of American stoneware decoration.

The next article, by frequent contributors Al Luckenbach and John  Kille, reminds us that much of America’s ceramic history remains hidden in the ground. This is especially true for objects made in the seventeenth century—virtually nothing of our ceramic heritage from that time has survived aboveground. In their excavation of a 1660s cellar at a house site in Providence, Maryland, the authors encountered a number of British and Dutch ceramic forms that, though once common, are now considered decorative arts treasures. Most notable was the recovery of an English delft mid-drip candlestick, perhaps the first documented evidence of this form used in an American context. The continued careful documentation of these specific ceramic forms is crucial to the reconstruction of the material world of these early American inhabitants, both rich and poor. The authors recognize, moreover, that archaeologists and decorative arts curators benefit from shared information of this type and that both fields are best served by collaboration.

The final article, by Ivor Noël Hume, is yet another wonderful example of how diverse sources can be mined to present new insights from seemingly mundane objects. When approached by a curious collector with an odd, cylindrical brown stoneware jar, Noël Hume took on the challenge of deciphering its origins and function. Drawing on historic sources, auction records, and other extant examples, his detective’s tale takes the reader on a journey from the mud flats of Guyana to the early-nineteenth-century industrial landscape of lower Manhattan. In the process, the author reintroduces us to the economic importance of the Virginia oyster as a nineteenth-century foodstuff and the ingenious vessels produced by early New York stoneware potters to ship these perishable delectables far from their source. In addition to reconstituting the biographies of the watermen who used these jars to hold their catches, Noël Hume determines that Manhattan potter and African-American Thomas Commeraw was the maker of these once common but now exceedingly rare objects.

As in previous issues, short submissions on ceramic topics are included in the New Discoveries section edited by Merry Outlaw. New Discoveries offers collectors and researchers an opportunity to publish brief research notes on a latest revelation or a most recent find. In the future, however, many of these contributions will be published on the Chipstone website, Readers are also encouraged to take advantage of today’s social networking resources by posting ceramic news and discoveries on, for example, Ceramics in America’s Facebook page.

For the foreseeable future, printed books will remain the lifeblood of scholarship, and, toward that end, book reviews are crucial to evaluate the advancement of the field. Amy Earls has assembled seven reviews of recent notable publications that covered a diverse range of topics relating to ceramics. Readers are always encouraged to suggest recent publications for review. 

Ceramics in America 2011