Amanda Fielding on Gillian Lowndes

Gillian Lowndes by Amanda Fielding marks the ends of the lives of both women. Lowndes, the radical ceramic artist died from cancer at the age of 74 in 2010. Fielding, known for her work as a writer and critic, died, also from cancer, in 2012 after completing this, her last book at the age of 55. This illustrated volume from the Ruthin Craft Center is a fitting tribute to both women.

Lowndes, who trained as a potter, began her career making coiled pots and wall pieces. She was never interested in domestic ware however, and after an extended stay in Nigeria with her partner Ian Auld, she turned to bricolage. She gathered discarded materials: old bricks, nails, fiberglass tissue, and wire together with luffa, sometimes called the sponge gourd. These finds she subjected to the intense heat of her electric kiln (one wonders how the kiln elements withstood such rigors). The fiberglass tissue and luffa she coated with slip before firing. The other finds she fired on their own before adding to her ceramics. She was one of the first artists working in clay who glued parts together post-firing, rather than having her work emerge whole from the kiln.

Auld, her partner, amassed a large collection of primarily African objects. These pieces, woodcarvings, pottery jars, textiles, jewelry, filled their home and influenced the spirit of Lowndes’ work. She made a series of ‘hooks,” long pieces of slip-coated luffa, fired and wired together, and brick bags, with actual old-bricks fired into distortion. Throughout her career, she taught and exhibited, though critics were not always receptive to her innovations.

Except that her work centered on clay and her kiln, she had little in common with other ceramists. Still, she saw herself and her work, as being part of the ceramic milieu. “I’ve always been involved in the craft world rather than the art world because I work in ceramic,” she told Fielding. “because I put things in the kiln. I always felt I was in a strange area, not one or the other. I was always quite interested in making things in different materials, but because I was so involved with ceramics naturally my understanding of ceramic materials and what would fire in a kiln was something which drove my art more than anything else. And it happened that I cold get exhibited in craft galleries. I’ve never been a great self-promoter, so I didn’t go out and search for fine art galleries. I waited for things to come to me and just made the work.”

I would have liked more photos of Auld’s collection of pots, textiles and carvings because I love these objects, but of course that’s not what the book is about except as inspiration for Lowndes.  As readers know, I am a lover primarily of functional pots and not particularly drawn to Lowndes’ sort of work. But she led an interesting life, took risks in her art, was wiling to explore and experiment. She makes a good subject to read about, regardless of your ceramic bent. And there is something primal about her hooks that resonate, even with a stubborn vessel woman like me.

Walter Keeler

Walter Keeler set up his first pottery in 1965 and moved to his present workshop in 1976. Though he is adamant in calling himself a functional potter, influenced by historical European pottery, his teapots and jugs are unlike those of any other artist.  In Walter Keeler Emmanuel Cooper and Amanda Fielding look at Keeler’s life in clay, his ideas and growth, and, the pots themselves.

“All my pots are functional,” he explained to David Biers in a Ceramic Review interview quoted by Fielding. “”It is a fundamental justification and a challenging starting point. If the pots could not be used, I would rather not make them.”

Fielding notes that his Ideas on functionality are of interest. “The function of a pot, in a practical sense, is a very deep thing…because function goes beyond whether you can pick an object up by the handle or raise it to your mouth, it has other implications too,” Keeling explains. “In certain company you would not drink out of a mug, you’d drink out of something more refined…The fact that you can play with that, if you have a mind to – you encourage people to stick their little finger out – seems too rich and important…I think that if you work in the crafts, then somehow that’s where your heart should be.”

And, most tellingly, he explains, “If you make a very ordinary teapot, people will say, oh that’s just a teapot, and walk away, but if you make a teapot that poses questions – I’m a teapot, but what sort of teapot am I? Would you use me, how would you use me? – then people have to engage with that.”

Fielding describes his work as “mischievous, slightly subversive.” Cooper tells us that the shards he found as a boy first drew Keeling, like seemingly many UK potters, to pottery. He keeps his shard collection to this day. Inspired by metal cans and containers, Whieldon ware, Staffordshire creamware, and German salt-glazed pottery, Keeling works in both earthenware and stoneware. His pieces begin with thrown forms, which he reassembles, with carpenterly skill, adding extruded handles, generous pouring lips, and his signature sprig of concentric circles.

This is a thoughtful look at one of the more celebrated potters of our era and his personal philosophy of pot making. It is published by the Ruthin Craft Center. Sadly, we have lost both authors, thoughtful and important contributors to the ceramics literature. Happily. Keeling is still very much with us, and potting.

Michael Casson

“Function is the prime motivator for me as a vessel maker,” Michael Casson, known to everyone as Mick, explains in Michael Casson with essays by Emmanuel Cooper and Amanda Fielding. He was the quintessential functional potter, spending all his adult years making his own work, teaching, and leading the burgeoning community of potters in the UK. Born in 1925, he was initially attracted to pottery when he saw pots decorated by Picasso. With his brother, he took over a hardware store that his uncle had lost interest in running. His brother operated the hardware business while he ran the Marchmont Street Pottery. “ I couldn’t throw, couldn’t form a glaze and did not understand materials,” he told Cooper of the difficulties he faced.

In time, he and fellow potter and wife, Sheila Wilmott bought an old grocery store where they set up Prestwood Pottery. Here, they had the space they needed to do their work and raise a family. Their electric kiln was housed in a shed in the back yard. One night the shed caught fire and burned, not from the kiln, but from a box of ashes a “well meaning” friend had left for glazes. They built a new shed of bricks and continued to work.

Wanting the freedom to fire with fuel, without alarming their neighbors, in the seventies Mick and Sheila moved to rural Wobage Farm, where Sheila remains today. Here they could expand, fire with wood, and use salt. Sheila focused on the domestic ware, while Mick made larger, one off pieces. His favorite form was the jug. “There are robust jugs, refined jugs, humorous jugs and monumental jugs…” he explained. “A jug is essentially a Western vessel.  It’s about holding liquid, pouring liquid. It’s about picking it up and a jug’s got quite a few human attributes. You can talk about the belly of the pot, the shoulder, the foot, the lip. So the jug embodies all these human characteristics. I think it’s one of the most, for me, one of the most endearing forms that a potter has to make.”

Michael Casson is one of the larger, more ambitious books from the Ruthin Craft Center, generously illustrated with photos, many full page,  of Michael Casson’s pots, wonderful black and whites photos taken through the years, and in-depth text. I would love to have one of Casson’s jugs in my collection, but this book is the next best thing.

Books and Pots and Emmanuel Cooper

Amongst makers, potters, it seems to me, are the wordiest, giving us stacks of books. One of the most prolific and influential was Emmanuel Cooper, the late British potter and author. I have multiple well-read editions of his World History of Pottery, that in later editions became the more lavish 10,000 Years of Pottery. And what potter does not have a copy of one of his glaze books on their reference shelves? He also wrote two of the most important biographies of potters, Bernard Leach: Life and Work, and Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter as well as a number of shorter biographies. In 1970, he founded Ceramic Review, which he edited. Philip Hughes writes, “Ceramic Review was pivotal in Emmanuel’s life and in the evolution of British ceramics.” If he never touched clay himself, he would be lauded as a major influence on 20th &  21st century ceramics.

But he did touch clay. Throughout his life, he was a maker and it is his making that informed his writing. Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938 – 2012, published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre to coincide with a touring exhibition of Cooper’s work, celebrates Cooper the potter with essays by Chris White, Sebastian Blackie, Jeremy James, Josie Walter, Alison Oddey, a forward by Julia Pitts and Philip Hughes, Colophon by Philip Hughes and an introduction by his longtime partner, David Horbury.

We learn that, unlike so many other potters in the UK, he was not intent on a rural life, and worked instead in an urban basement studio. Sebastian Blackie writes, “An interesting aspect of Cooper’s making environment that is not evidenced in the work is the relative chaos of his studio. Cooper’s writing required a very ordered mind so it is surprising to discover this side of his character…a cramped basement littered with precarious stacks of half finished pots and other ceramic detritus.”  His partner David Horbury in describing the three basement rooms where Cooper worked says, “All around on makeshift shelves were hundreds of glaze tests, their colour and textures obscured by dust and debris, and in every space there were pots – fired and un-fired – huge thrown porcelain bowls, jug forms of all sizes and variations, large platters and hand-built work and, in the darker furthest corners, the remains of his production ware – a relish tray, a bread crock, a stack of saucers.” The keeper of a “chaotic” studio myself, in the basement no less, though a walk out basement, I find Cooper’s messiness reassuring.

Potting in an urban studio, he did not have the old barns and sheds that his rural colleagues possessed, and with no place to house large wood burning kilns and stacks of wood, he embraced the electric kiln. His glazes are proof that good glazes can indeed come from an electric kiln.

Cooper was a production potter for his first twenty years, producing tableware and dishes, selling largely to restaurants.  This work informed his later individual pieces. Blackie writes, “Cooper’s individual pots, made in small batches, have an authority and clarity that is the product of years of repetition throwing. It is an apprenticeship few of today’s makers have benefited from. His work always remained domestic in scale and it is interesting that he continued to weigh his clay for all his pieces…”

Throughout his life, he made pots while he wrote and taught and conducted his thousands of glaze tests. The book is illustrated with black and white biographical photos, two-page close-up spreads of glazes, and color photos of the jugs and bowls that were the shapes that defined him.

Long an admirer of Cooper’s research and his books, I was grateful to discover some of the man and his pots here on the page. He deserves as fulsome a biography as he wrote of Lucie Rie, but for now, Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938-2012 is a most welcome addition to ceramic literature.

David Frith and Margaret Frith Potters

It doesn’t get more pottery-romantic than David Frith, Margaret Frith: 50 Years of Brookhouse Pottery by Jane Wilkinson. Published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre in the UK but new to me, the book is a delight. I spent an hour happily turning the pages and poring over the photos, fantasizing, before actually reading a word.

The pots are luscious: David’s stoneware, Margaret’s porcelain, meticulously thrown and glazed, pick-me-up tactile, all evoking pot envy, or at least covetousness. David’s platters are large enough to hang on an exterior wall. Margaret’s teapot invites a brew of Earl Grey. We see jugs, bottles, large jars and a wonderful array of tea bowls expertly made and photographed.

And then there is the pottery itself. Who has not dreamed of restoring a quaint old stone mill by a riverside and making it one’s workplace? Brookhouse is what you imagine when you think of a country pottery. Margaret has planted abundant gardens. There are spacious outbuildings on both sides of the river, and an airy kiln shed that is beautiful. Paths. Bridges. Potted plants. Flowerbeds. Decks. Large windows. Did I say the kiln shed is beautiful?

But a place such as Brookhouse, and such great pots, do not just happen. They take imagination and years of hard work and dedication. David and Margaret Frith began working together more than fifty years ago, starting with a line of slipware. In 1975 they bought a semi-derelict 18th century woolen mill turned brewery called the Malt House and began arduous renovations, converting the property into a home and workshop. They renamed their picturesque North Wales haven Brookhouse Pottery. Here they have raised a family, made pots, entertained guests such as David Leach, Michael Cardew, and Mick Casson, hosted exhibitions and taught workshops. Their work continues today. The book is a nice look at the Friths lives and work together.

Edmund de Waal on Porcelain

Three hundred years ago the Jesuit priest Pére J’Entrecolles wrote letters to his superiors describing in rich detail the manufacture of porcelain. The Catholic priest had been sent to Jingdezhen to proselytize to the local residents of this bustling eighteenth century Chinese city. Many of his potential converts worked with porcelain. His reports described all aspects of porcelain production from digging the special materials to firing. At the time how to make porcelain was a mystery to potters at home. A few years ago, Edmund de Waal, the acclaimed British author and potter, who has had a long obsession with porcelain, “brought” Pére J’Entrecolles along as his initial guide on his pilgrimage to discover the roots of porcelain. He carried and consulted marked up copies of the letters during his trip to Jingdezhen. He tells the story of his search in The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession. “This journey, “ he says, “is a paying of dues to those that have gone before.”

His quest takes him to China, Germany, South Carolina, and through his own England. The book is peopled with fascinating characters. Even if you have read numerous accounts of the alchemist Johann Frederich Böttger and his keeper/overseer Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and how, while desperately trying to make gold, they discovered the secret of porcelain, you will find de Waal’s chapters about them worth reading. In his mind he is there too, with them, trying to understand what they were thinking, feeling what they feel, and he brings the reader along.

I was fascinated with the chapters on William Cookworthy, the Devon pharmacist who also was obsessed with making porcelain, and who succeeded, only to be outwitted by Josiah Wedgewood. And then there is Thomas Griffiths who, after crossing the Atlantic,  travels hundreds of miles into the wilderness of the American south, suffering rain and cold, to obtain “white earth” from the Cherokees and ship it back to England. The Cherokees, it turns out, also valued the clay and preferred he not make holes in it.

De Waal nicely intersperses his personal artistic journey – youthful years making stoneware, his struggles with firing, and thoughts on his studio practice – throughout the narrative. The book is divided into cups so that you feel he is not only making a book but that he is making pots to coincide with each section. The cups symbolize the book. Or perhaps the book follows the cups.

“You drop the lid of the huge lidded jar you have finally made,” he writes, “and it becomes ‘Jar for a Branch’. And you move on.” He shares his philosophies.  “Sets are a way of controlling the world. If you need this mortal world to reflect another kind of order, then things must match.”

I was immersed from the first page of the book. I love history. I am  intrigued by descriptions of how other potters work. He gives us both. The book is episodic, often written in the first person, so you feel immediacy. Towards the end, while he is writing, he is also in the process of moving his studio to a new spacious location. He tells us what he is reading. What he is thinking. How he works. “I sit at my wheel,” he says. “It is low and I am tall. I hunch. There is a ziggurat of balls of porcelain clay to my left, a waiting pile of ware boards to my right, a small bucket of water, a sponge, a knife and a bamboo rib shaped like a hand axe in front of me.” He has a space upstairs where he writes. There are books. Oh dear! Is that jealousy I am feeling?

Two complaints: The book does not have an index. Yes, I am an index junky, but really a book with this much history, so many facts and locations, and such intriguing characters, should have an index. And though de Waal read deeply and did extensive research, the book has neither endnotes nor a bibliography. Instead, the reader is directed to his website, where indeed you can find all that you want to. Still, I found this annoying and hope that other publishers do not go this route in an effort to save money. I suspect these were publisher decisions and not de Waal’s, but who knows.

Wherever you are personally in the pottery world, and whether you admire de Waal’s installations or eschew them, you will want to read The White Road. It is an insightful and deep examination by an artist into his antecedents and the inspiration that sprung from them. The book is rich, multi-layered. Refreshingly, there is no art speak. Instead, it is a personal telling of well-researched history. It is an important book for the field, and the larger world.

Note: Edmund de Waal’s The Pot Book was released in paper late last year. I wrote about that in 2011 (Nov. 6) when it came out in hardcover.

American Studio Ceramics

American Studio Ceramics: Innovation and Identity 1940 to 1979 by independent scholar Martha Drexler Lynn is a carefully researched, monumental book that chronicles and examines a tumultuous and groundbreaking period in American ceramics. By necessity and by choice, Lynn focuses on the segment of potters who were intent on and successful at crossing over into the Fine Arts arena, a movement that was given velocity as returning GI’s took college ceramics classes and then became college teachers themselves.

She was inspired to write the book when she received a “nearly complete run of Craft Horizons magazine from 1941 to the 1980s” as a gift (note to self; it’s ok to save stacks of back editions of ceramics magazines). She relies heavily on Craft Horizons, and Rose Slivka, editor and chief writer for the magazine 1959-1979, for her narrative. She apologizes, “In regard to the thousands of potters who worked during these decades, unless their talent was acknowledged at the time through the written or oral record or is testified to by an accessible body or work, their stories have slipped from the narrative presented here.” She is also influenced by the ceramics historian and critic Garth Clark and credits him for the foundational work he did. This then, is a book largely celebrating what she calls “adventurous” work by Peter Voulkos and those who followed.

The book opens with a discussion of the early mid-twentieth century, largely Bauhaus influenced, and includes such potters as Maija Grotell, Marguerite Wildenhein, Gertrude and Otto Natzler, and Glen Lukens. She discusses Bernard Leach and his influence, and gives great credit to the role his A Potter’s Book played, though she asserts several times that he couldn’t throw very well.

She divides the ensuing movements chronologically as Abstract Expressionism, Funk Ceramics, Fetish Finnish, and Special Objects. With extraordinary detail, Lynn tells us who was doing what kind of work, where they did it, who was teaching where, who were their students, who were their students’ students, who was exhibiting and where, and how the exhibits were received. This is an exhaustive study and I cannot imagine anyone writing about this time period in ceramics without referring to it.

I was especially pleased to see the respect she gives to two books that remain in print all these years and which I agree are and were important. “During the 1960’s,” she writes, “the widely praised Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1964) by M.C. Richards provided philosophical heft to the field, much as Leach’s book had done twenty years earlier…A decade later, another influential book in the same vein was Paulus Berensohn’s popular Finding One’s Way With Clay (1972) which encouraged low-tech, pinch-formed vessels.”

As I pointed out, Lynn warns us in the beginning of the book of its constraints, and though she does touch on the concurrent ceramics scene that was flourishing outside the academy, she does not give it in depth coverage. She makes it clear that much of the information is lost or unknowable, and clearly deems it of lesser importance. “Meanwhile, “ she tells us, “those who were less adventurous strove to reinforce their connections to the traditional (vernacular) crafts, now transformed into a back-to-the-land, antiestablishment sensibility that highlighted concerns about technological progress, the machine, and how to value things that had once been ordinary.” She tells us that in 1979 “375,000 Americans were making a living selling crafts on a regular basis.”

I, as you know, have a predilection for functional pots, the story largely left out of this book. And I am not as certain as Lynn is that much of the history is lost. Nevertheless, I found American Studio Ceramics fascinating.

Pots with Recipes

In her book In the Potter’s Kitchen: Handmade Pots for Home-Cooked Recipes, Colorado potter Sumi von Dassow has taken the unusual step of including recipes for the various types of pots she discusses. Along with directions for making a sauerkraut crock, she tells us that three cabbages, shredded and weighted in brine, will fill a ten-inch crock. In the section on ovenware, she offers directions for making covered casseroles and various baking dishes: round, oval and squared, plus recipes for spinach lasagna, onion quiche, and pumpkin pie. Von Dassow seems especially enthusiastic about baked Brie, showing photos of three quite different bakers and giving us four recipes (oh yum! Baked Brie with Caramelized Onions and Herbs!).

Throughout the book, she exhorts potters to do the same: include recipes with the pots you make.  Writing of butter and cheese dishes she suggests, “You might want to include a recipe for herb butter or cheese balls with these items.” Later, discussing olive trays, she says, “if you have a favorite canapé recipe, you could include that as well.”

The book is written for two audiences: potters who make pots, and cooks who purchase and use pots.  Following chapters on the history of cooking and pottery, and extensive advice for non-potters using pottery, the book is organized by use in the kitchen: ovenware, stovetop ware, ware for the microwave, serving dishes and storage jars.  There are sequential how-to photos for specific pieces such as apple bakers, juicers, and tagines and lots of photos of finished pots. Thirty-eight potters, including von Dasso contributed pots and recipes. I was pleased to see my friend Robbie Lobell’s flameware casseroles and a spread showing how she makes her rectangular baking dishes. I have one of her early rectangular flameware pots that I love to use to roast chopped carrots and onions drizzled with olive oil and topped with sprigs of rosemary.

Flameware by Cook on Clay

Von Dassow’s advice for potters is extensive, practical and often opinionated. Of course she is opinionated – she has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about kitchenware. What’s the point of writing a book like this unless you have opinions?  “It’s important,” she writes, “to keep the intended function in mind when making a baking dish…you can make a dish and sell it and leave it up to the customer to figure out what to do with it, but if you know what your dish is for, it will be easier to sell.” She tells us that putting a foot ring on a baking dish is ok, but not really what works best, or what cooks prefer. Oh dear! I put foot rings on my baking dishes and casseroles with the notion that they will be going directly to the table while still hot from the oven and that, when warm, foot rings are kinder to wood tables than flat bottoms.  Perhaps I need to rethink?

And I never thought to include a recipe with each pot, though I have on occasion included one in my newsletter. I make a lot of round, straight-sided baking dishes that can double as serving dishes or bowls. They are perfect, I think, for bread pudding, cheesy potatoes au gratin, or a baked egg dish with broccoli and mozzarella and chunks of rustic bread, a recipe I cribbed years ago from a chef friend. That’s how I imagine my baking dishes being used when they leave my studio, but I have not actually sent them off with recipes attached. Now I  think I will.

_____________

Fannie Farmer’s Bread Pudding with Alterations

Butter the baking dish. Fill it with:

2 cups dry breadcrumbs. I like to use at least half rye bread with caraway seeds.

4 tablespoons butter

2 cups hot milk (this makes a firm pudding)

Let cool.

When room temperature stir in:

½ cup sugar

2 eggs beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch of salt

½ cup raisins, or more if you like

Place in the middle of the oven and turn on to 325F

Bake for one hour or until firm. Serve slightly warm or chilled.

Six Pots or the Meaning of Objects After Death

Stuff. My mother is gone, my father before her, and what we are left with is stuff. Lot’s of stuff. And it all must be dealt with.

Material things, philosophers and religious leaders tell us, are of lesser importance than the immaterial.  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” Matthew urged his early Christian followers. “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly,” Thoreau wrote. Who would disagree? Yes, of course, love and happiness and character are what matter. “You can’t take it with you,” is oft repeated in conversation when referring to other people’s acquisitions. And yet, the majority of us leave behind a raft of stuff, most of it quite ordinary.

With my mother gone, what we are left with, my siblings and I, like so many other adult children of deceased parents, are the objects and furnishings that they accumulated and in some cases made, over the years. They are gone, but their objects, the material goods in their lives, remain. I am perplexed, confused, troubled when I am confronted with the realization that the pots and pans and blankets and books and furniture and photos are all still here while our mother, a woman of passion and furies and dreams, is not. I am forcefully reminded that the inanimate outlasts the animate.

It’s hard work to understand what is in the house, to decide what to dispose of, what to keep, and who keeps what. We have made spread sheets. We send emails and texts to one another. We walk from room to room with our notes. It’s a small house, 1300 square feet but the task seems overwhelming.

Of course, what I chose for myself was pottery: four jugs, a jar, and a small tureen, all nineteenth century. Two of the jugs are small, one squat with broad shoulders in excellent condition; the other taller, narrow, swelling ever so slightly, with a look-at-me, hands-on-the-hips jaunty handle. Both are glazed in Albany Slip type glaze, so favored by early American potters. The taller jug is dark and glossy, almost black from a hot spot in the kiln. The squat one is a rich brown. I also brought home two two-gallon jugs, salt-glazed with nice cobalt slip trailed floral designs and a two-gallon salt-glaze jar, also with nice cobalt slip trailed floral design. The three salt-glazed pieces are each glazed with Albany slip type glaze on the interiors. And lastly, a small flow blue sauce tureen with ladle from my mother’s fairly large collection of flow blue china.

The smaller jugs are in my kitchen now, on a shelf, visible from almost everywhere in the room. I placed them so that I can easily pick them up, run my hand over the glazes, feel the curves, understand the potter’s moves. I hold the taller glossy one and remind myself that by the time it came into my mother’s possession, it had already outlasted at least several prior owners. The two salt-glazed jugs now sit prettily in my living room, on the floor in front of bookshelves. I set the salt-glazed jar on top of the kitchen cabinets next to a Bartram pot from Guy Wolff.

In their house, the small brown jugs sat one on each end of the large fireplace mantle. The taller glossy one has a crude handmade wooden stopper that has deteriorated. I do not know if the stopper is original to the jug, or if it was made later as a replacement. A spray of bayberries or bittersweet always graced the shorter jug.

My mother’s dream was to live in an old house in Connecticut. Instead, she remained in the 1957 tract house, originally a 900 square foot ranch, identical to thousands built the same time, until her death a year ago. But in that house, she and my father recreated an old house with hand hewn ceiling beams, a large open fireplace where our Dad cooked in iron pots on holidays, paneling made from wide boards, and cupboard doors made from old barn wood boards. The oldest of five children, I had already moved out when they made this room, but came back with my family for gatherings.

For my parents the antiques were objects of beauty, something to surround themselves with (though they did use their iron cookware). For the various antique dealers they dealt with, the pieces were inventory. But at some point before being offered for sale in the antique shops where my parents liked to browse, the jugs and jar and tureen were in other households, bought perhaps from earlier antique dealers or passed down from older family members. My parents began purchasing antiques for the house in a small way in the sixties and more in the seventies and eighties. The earlier twentieth century owners would have also displayed them as decorations, or perhaps stashed them in an attic or barn as no longer useful.

I like the jugs and jar because they are well thrown, because they are beautiful, because jugs and jars are two of my favorite shapes and because I am a potter steeped in pottery history. I like them because they belonged to my parents. When I see them, I think of the brick room and the enormous fireplace. I think of the family gathered around the table. I think of my mother’s love of houses and early Americana. In some way, these objects that have outlasted my parents, give a lingering suggestion of who they were.

That is what families do. We cherish the things our parents or grandparents leave to us. We attach meaning. Yet, the memories and feelings that prior owners attached to the very same objects have vanished. Nothing remains of the place theses pots held in the previous owners’ psyches.  The pots, inanimate objects, are unchanged throughout the centuries; it is the meanings we humans impose that change.

We know that the earliest owners would have used all of these pieces in the preparation, storage and serving of food. These were utilitarian pots. The jar might have held apple butter, pickles, eggs layered in salt, butter or maybe soft soap. The jugs would have held cider or vinegar, water, perhaps homemade wine. The two-gallon jugs would have been heavy when full, and used for long-term storage. The smaller ones would have been refilled from larger jugs for more immediate use.

Fortunately, the pots do yield information about their manufacture. Except for the flow blue sauce tureen, they are all thrown on a potters wheel, wood-fired and American made. The salt-glazed jar and one of the jugs are stamped with the name Edmands & Co. so we know it was made in the shop of Barnabas Edmands. Edmands opened his business in 1812 in the old pottery town of Charleston, Massachusetts (now the part of Boston where the Bunker Hill Monument stands). Here he introduced stoneware, made from clay he had shipped from New Jersey.  He promoted it as being safer than the lead-glazed redware previously made by the numerous potters in this area.

Edmands came from the brass trade and was not a trained potter himself. He relied on Frederick Carpenter, a highly skilled potter from Lebanon, Connecticut who served as the master potter from the shop’s opening days until his death in 1827 at the age of 56. With the loss of Carpenter, Charles Collier, a potter and inventor became the master potter. Though a small operation, with at most five men working in the pottery, Edmands & Company entered “a very large stone jug at the second annual fair of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association” in 1839 and won awards. When Edmands retired at the age of 72 in 1850, he sold the pottery to his sons who ran it in partnership with Charles Collier. At this time they also purchased jugs “by the dozen” from the Norwich, Connecticut potter Sidney Risely. In 1868 the name changed to Powers & Edmands and later it changed to Edmands & Hooper. So, from the stamped name across the fronts of two of my mother’s pots, we know that they were made sometime between 1812 and 1868 but most likely around 1860.

The two smaller Albany slip type jugs are not stamped or signed and there is no decoration so it is difficult to know where they were created. True Albany Slip made from glacial clay dug near Albany, New York was widely used in New York and Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century, the slip clay was mined and shipped to potters all over the United States. At the same time, potters dug and used similar local clays as slip glazes. I have no way of knowing whether it was true Albany or a similar locally dug clay.

You can see the marks of the potters’ hands. When the potter attached the handle on the taller glossy jug, he pressed the clay with his thumbs, harder with his right than his left, making the tail of the handle slightly longer on the left side. I often do this too! I smile to myself at the similarity. The potter who made the shorter jug was more fastidious about his handle, and smoothed it evenly as he attached it. Still, I like the lilt of the first handle best.

My mother loved flow blue china and over the years she added many pieces to her collection: plates of various sizes, a platter, cups, and eggcups. She kept the collection in a particularly beautiful antique oak china cupboard with two small-paned glass doors above three drawers and cabinet. I brought the sauce tureen home and set it next to the Royal Albert bone china teacup with hand painted daffodils from my grandmother’s teacup collection. I like having a single piece from each of their collections next to each other.

The tureen is decorated in the Manilla pattern, with willows and palm trees and a sailing ship in a very dark cobalt blue with heavy bleeding. It was made in the bustling potting town of Staffordshire, England, by Podemore  & Walker sometime between 1845, when the Manilla pattern was first introduced and 1860 when the firm became Wedgewood and Company.

Created by accident when attempting to copy Chinese hand painted blue and white porcelain, the bleeding edges of the cobalt transfer images, a flaw, appealed to the public. It was far less expensive than Chinese porcelain. British factory potteries produced quantities of flow blue for the American market. Though it was called porcelain, it was earthenware. Podemore & Walker formulated a clay body that could be fired to a higher than usual earthenware temperature, making it more durable than other earthenware. Dealers today refer to Podemore & Walker flow blue as ironstone.

Flow blue china, factory-made and imported from England, was more highly valued by homemakers of mid-nineteenth century America than hand thrown, locally made stoneware. Many households could not afford this fancy tableware. Those that could displayed it prominently and used it for special occasions. Very popular, it was produced and exported in large quantities, and in time became more affordable. By the mid-twentieth century, it had become collectable.

I am more drawn to the “folk pottery,” the thrown jugs and jar but I enjoy the fact that together, the jugs and the tureen give a snapshot of a time period in ceramic history and in material culture, the Industrial Revolution, which was changing how people lived and how they perceived the things of everyday life. The tureen, made in a factory where there was a separation of tasks, where whole families were employed for long hours, where smoke polluted the skies for miles around, where there was extraordinary technical innovation and scientific research taking place, was influenced by wares coming from China that British potters had not yet discovered how to replicate. It was transported thousands of miles across the Atlantic in a sailing ship before ending up in someone’s parlor.

The other pieces, masterfully made, using traditional methods represent the end of an era in ceramics history. With the advent of railroads and refrigeration, and the rise of cities and factories, there was no longer a need for the crocks and jars and jugs that potteries like Edmands produced. To survive, they turned to drainage pipes and used jiggers and jollies. The old skills were lost. Kilns fell into disrepair and ruin. Small potteries closed.

There is a seventh pot, a blue colander that my mother made, that I brought home. It is somewhat painful to look at, but it was her favorite amongst her own pots and she kept it by her sink. We took our first pottery lessons together from a woman who taught at her home studio, and then attended Wesleyan Potters together for a while. I was completely smitten. I thought she was too. She bought a Shimpo wheel and set it up in the basement. She fired a few things, including the colander, in the hardbrick kiln I built. But then, inexplicably she stopped. She hated the cellar. She had bursitis. She had too much to do. She wanted the backyard shed for her studio. The reasons were numerous. I worried, I still worry, that somehow my own obsession led her to let go of it. I felt guilty but could not understand why.

Looking at her things now, I realize how many crafts she took an interest in and began – rug braiding, needlepoint, cross stitch, candle making, doll making, stenciling – a compendium of early American activities. And she could draw. But mysteriously, she did not follow any of these pursuits for long, though she appeared ever ready to resume with supplies and books about them at hand. She kept the few pots that she made on display in the living room and kitchen the rest of her life.

My mother lived for 88 years and then she was gone. The six pieces of pottery have already been around twice as long. They will last for many more years, perhaps thousands. I think a lot about ceramics, objects, material culture but I still do not understand what it means that our possessions outlast us. I only know that they do. Perhaps that is why we are so outraged when ISIS destroys ancient temples and artifacts. With this destruction, we lose our connection to people who have gone before us. The only way we can know of them, is through what they left behind. Ceramics, notable for longevity, have always been crucial to understanding history and how people before us lived.

Over the years, the jugs and jar and tureen that I have inherited meant different things to their various owners. They provided an income to those potters who made them and to the antique dealers who sold them. They were important household items for the first families that used them. For my parents and probably the owners immediately preceding them, they were antiques to be enjoyed as decoration. For me, they are objects of beauty and study and a trigger for memories.

Needless to say, there are far more things than the pots that I claimed, for my siblings and me to deal with. We had made progress; searched the house together drawer by drawer for the letter we thought she had written us detailing what to do with her things but could not find, made a spread sheet of the contents of the house, decided who would take what, when one of us, the younger sister nearest to me in age, grew ill unexpectedly and died, leaving her own possessions behind. Now what?

She had a collection of seashells, hundreds, perhaps more, that she gathered herself from the beaches that she loved to roam. Spiraled shells. Scalloped shells. Shells like unicorn horns. Smooth pearly blue shells.  Her daughter, my niece, has shared these shells with all who loved her, letting us each take one at the memorial service, later giving us glass jars filled with assortments of shells.

I think then, what to do myself about what I leave behind. First, I must make a list of everything and what it is so that anyone who must deal with it will know what is here and how it came to be here. I will write down why the flow blue sauce tureen next to the daffodil cup, both so unlike any other ceramics in the house, was important to me. I will try to make suggestions for dispersal, though you can never really know what others want and what would be a burden. And, inspired by my sister’s shells, I wish to leave gifts. Should I throw a quantity of tea bowls that I pack away for that, hopefully, very far off day? Make little clay books wrapped in tissue paper?

Note: I have left bookselling to write and make pots fulltime. I will continue to focus this blog on books about ceramics and hope that publishers will keep me informed of their new titles. However, from time to time, my posts may depart from strictly reviewing books. I also hope to redesign and move my web page and with it this blog, though I approach this task with trepidation. At a later date, I will ask Joe to take pot portraits of my mother’s six pots as only he can do. For now though, these photos will have to serve.

Two books that I have referred to often throughout my potting life that were helpful in researching my mother’s pots for this blog are American Stonewares: The Art and Craft of Utilitarian Potters by Georgeanna H. Greer and Early New England Potters and Their Wares by Lura Woodside Watkins.

The Marks of Potters

A few years ago my son Dan asked me why I don’t sign my name on my pots. He worried no one would know or remember that a particular bowl or jar was made by me from the mark I use to sign them.

In my early pottery years, I did sign my name, at first with manganese dioxide. Soon though, I switched to incising my name on the bottoms of pots with a needle tool: sometimes “Suzy,” sometimes “Staubach,” always printed because my handwriting is so horrible. Later, after turning the narrow attached-garage where I lived at the time, into a studio and the separate double garage into a shop, I began to incise “The Stone House Pottery” in an arc parallel to the foot ring.

But like many potters, I fell in love with the notion of a mark. I thought that marks were beautiful themselves and added to the charm of a handmade piece. I began to experiment with designs and made a few stamps but was not happy with any of them. Around the same time, during a visit to the Minnesota Center for Book Arts I noticed a package of old lead type for sale and bought it. After more experimenting, I began to mark my pots with a small round button of clay that I impress with the lead S from the type collection.

Of course Dan is still correct. One does not automatically know who made a pot from a potter’s’ mark.  Happily, James Hazlewood has edited and updated the classic British Studio Potters’ Marks by Eric Yates-Owen and Robert Fournier so for British ceramics, collectors can easily determine who the maker is from the mark. There are books on the marks of American studio potters available, but unfortunately, nothing as comprehensive and up to date as this.

British Studio Potters’ Marks is not a book to leave on the shelf, however, and use only for reference. It is a pleasure to turn the pages and study the various marks. There are plenty of potters who use a signature, though it is surprising how many are impossible to read. The majority, however use marks, many based on their name or initials.

Potters are listed in alphabetical order with images of their marks plus, and this is especially fun to read, dates and names of the potteries where they worked, birth and death dates if known, and a short description of the types of works made. It’s a wonderful way of looking at the history of British studio ceramics.

The index is organized into three sections, Creatures, Monograms, and Signs and many subsections. So, for instance you could turn to the subsection Triangles in the Signs section and see a two-page spread of marks that incorporate a triangle and the potter who used it. Or take a look at the subsection Birds under Animals and realize how popular bird imagery is for potters’ marks

British Studio Potters’ Marks is an excellent resource and for potters, a delightful read. I have spent many pleasant hours leafing through the pages.