The Quintessential Anthropomorphic Pot

I have never understood the wide appeal of Toby jugs but they are one of the most collected ceramic forms today. First made in eighteenth century Staffordshire, they typically feature the jovial head of a man of that era, usually in a tri-corner hat (called more specifically a character jug), or a seated figure of such a man, holding a tankard in one hand and a long stemmed pipe in the other. There is a handle attached to the back. The contained beverage (beer of course) is poured from the hat.

A quick look at eBay shows almost three thousand Toby and character jugs up for bid, with Buy It Now prices ranging from $2,000.00 for a Royal Doulton Simeon Toby to a penny for a Royal Doulton Toby Aramis jug. I cannot say that I have ever personally met anyone with a collection, but my mom had one small character jug that intrigued me as a child. She also had a creamer shaped like a purple cow! Hmm, I wonder where they are today? I wouldn’t mind having another look.

The urge to turn a vessel into a depiction of a person’s head has been with potters across cultures and for millennia. One thinks of the finely made Moche heads of ancient Peru; of Roman cinerary urns; of the German bellarmine; and of the face jugs of the American south. Pots, it seems, are irresistibly anthropomorphic.

In Toby and Character Jugs, Graham McLaren, who taught the history of ceramics and glass at Staffordshire University and has written several books on the topic, gives us a good overview of the development of these whimsical pieces. We see jugs based on characters in Dickens novels, political figures, jugs of satire, and a few women. He includes photos of potters working in the factories and takes us from the early press molded jugs to the later, more intricate slip molded jugs.

Delightfully, this is not a price guide for collectors, but a book for those of us interested in ceramic history, particularly 18th – early 20th century British ceramic history.

Guy Wolff and Isaac Button on Throwing

Some place in this house is a copy of Making Pottery by John Anderson. It should be on the shelves with all the other books on ceramics that crowd my living room, but if it is, my eyes are passing it by. I hope I am not becoming like my now deceased friend Francelia who in her later years, had to keep buying copies of the same books because she was never able to find her copy when she needed it. Sigh.

I am looking for it because, as I recall, it had a bit on Isaac Button. Button, sometimes called the “last true country potter” in England, operated Soil Hill, near Halifax England. He could and did throw a half ton of clay a day, swiftly making hundreds of repeat shapes – jugs, flowerpots, crocks, cider jars and so on. His ability to throw fast and large is astonishing to us today, but was typical of the way old time country potters worked. Fortunately for us, a few years before he died, John Anderson and Robert Fournier filmed him.

I drove out to Guy Wolff’s pottery on Friday to interview him some more for the book project. Wolff is also a repeat thrower and throws fast and large. Toward the end of the interview, he mentioned how much he liked the Button video. So, before beginning work on the chapter I am writing, I watched the video again myself (thanks YouTube) and then searched futilely for the book.

The film is over 40 minutes in its entirety, but here is an extract of Button throwing.

And here’s Guy Wolff.

Playing with Fire

Raku potters play with fire in ways that the rest of us do not. The notion of opening a hot, burning kiln and reaching inside with long tongs to pluck out a pot, glaze still molten, and then dashing with that glowing pot to a bin of combustibles is very appealing. But I am a woman who makes sturdy, functional pots for the most part, so, though pyromaniac that I am, I do not do anything as dramatic as pull my pots glowing from the flames. Raku, often breathtakingly beautiful, is not meant for everyday use. Raku is meant to behold.

Once, in my younger, less careful days, the bricked up front of my catenary arch kiln blew out on the way to Cone 9 (I think it was around Cone 4 at the time), nearly causing dreadful havoc, such as my fiery death, an event that would indeed be dramatic – potter immolates self and surrounding countryside –but not welcome. No, I fire long and slow, though I do like it when the flames curl out of the spy holes. And every now and then, I do a pit firing.

But like most potters, I like seeing what others are doing and how they are doing it, even if, or perhaps especially if, it is very different from what I do. Looking through 500 Raku: Bold Explorations of a Dynamic Ceramics Technique juried by Jim Romberg (who studied with Paul Soldner) it is apparent that the process has expanded considerably in the hundred years since Bernard Leach famously attended a garden party in Japan and discovered raku for the west. The Japanese first made raku in the sixteenth century. Tea bowls fired this way, though not as sturdy as stoneware, were porous and cooled the tea quickly. Fragile, often asymmetrical, magically blessed by the fire, raku tea bowls became a celebrated element of the tea ceremony.

There are only four tea bowls shown in 500 Raku, two by the highly accomplished Steven Branfman (see pot above). Birds, fish, jars, bottles, bowls, horses, and women predominate. Colors range from smoked white crackle to iridescent purples, golds and blues. Pieces have been masked with tape, sprayed with oxides, fumed, covered in slip that cracks off to reveal a design, glazed, smoked in newspapers and sawdust, and plunged into cold water and painted with acrylics. The sculptures are humorous, political, and personal.

The variety is stunning. I couldn’t help but think that these ceramicists not only play with fire, they play with clay. And playing with clay is always a good thing. Even though I do not do raku myself, I found the book stimulating.


Potato Salad and Inca Pots

It being the celebration of Independence Day and the birth of the US, I suppose I should have been reading about the Revolutionary War, much of which took place here in New England. However, I really don’t like reading about fighting and killing and the strategies of generals. I rather read about food and houses and domestic sorts of things from our past. So, in honor of the Fourth of July, I read Potato: A Global History by Andrew F. Smith. What is a Fourth of July celebration without potato salad? Indeed, what is summer without potato salad?

Read a book on almost any topic in history, and sooner or later you will come to a reference to ceramics. And sure enough, Andrews gets to it in the very first chapter of his book.

Potatoes originated in South America. Seven species were grown and eaten by Andean farmers probably as early as 10,000 BCE. They were easy to grow, nutritious, tasty and suitable to the rugged terrain. “Depictions of potatoes have been found on pottery,” Andrews writes, “including pieces from the Moche, Chimú, Nazca and other pre-Columbian civilizations that flourished and disappeared before the advent of the Inca.” It’s amazing how much archaeologists and historians have learned about ancient cultures from the images that potters put on their pots!

Later, writing about the Inca, Andrews tells us that, “some {of their} pottery resembled potatoes, while others showed potatoes with human faces.” What? The first Mr. Potato Head was made by an Inca potter?

The images in the book are not the best, but there are two Andean potato pots. One, from the Proto-Chimu period is of two potatoes one atop the other, with a spout and stirrup handle. The other, shown here, is an Inca pot made to look like a potato with many eyes. It has a slightly flared neck. Sadly, he does not credit these two photos, so I can’t tell where the pots are today.

I will serve my potato salad in one of my simple baking dishes. I have never made a bowl or jar shaped like a potato (at least not on purpose). But for a few fleeting moments, I imagine myself going into the studio and making a potato bowl with eyes and lumps and glazing it brown on the outside and white on the inside. But no, that would be tacky. At least anything I attempted would look tacky. Maybe, though, in honor of the Andean farmers who domesticated the potato, and the Andean potters who depicted them in their art, I will make just one. For fun.