Wow! A book person obsessed with functional studio pottery! We are talking about W.A. Ismay (1910-2001) the noted Yorkshire collector of post-war British studio pottery. Eccentric perhaps. Deeply knowledgeable. Passionate, passionate, passionate about pots.
Helen Walsh brings Ismay to life in her vivid biography, The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony: W.A. Ismay and his Collection of British Studio Pottery. Though the book began as her doctoral dissertation, it succeeds as a lively read as well as scholarship. I like that Walsh actually tells us what was going on in Ismay’s life as well has the story of his extraordinary collection.
Ismay brought his librarian’s training and sensibilities to his collections and thus kept careful records of his acquisitions. Alas, his handwriting is notoriously difficult to read and Walsh tells us it was a challenge. He typed some records but he could only type with one finger as he had poor eyesight and needed to hold a magnifying glass in his other hand. In addition to written records, he learned photography and photographed the pots and sometimes the potters.
Over a collecting life of 46 years, Ismay gathered 3,600 pots from more than 500 potters. He filled his house with these pieces. More importantly, he used them every day.
He often visited potters in their workshops. Michael Cardew became a friend and correspondent. He visited Lucie Rie. Potters and other collectors angled to visit him and see his collection. Notoriously, he covered with pottery except for a band at the end which he kept clear for eating and writing. Here he served visitors tea, which friends affectionately called The Yorkshire Tea, hence the title of the book.
There are photos of the collection and historic photos of Ismay and various potters throughout the book. My one complaint is that there are several two-page spreads with pots split in half between two pages. What was the designer thinking? But if you are interested in British studio pottery, this book is a must, and lots of fun.
Today, Ismay’s collection – all of it intact – is held by the Yorkshire Museum. There is an exhibit at the York Art Gallery through April 30, 2023
The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony, 978-1-913645-15-1York Museum Trust, Paul Holberton Publishing
Fayoum Pottery: Ceramic Arts and Crafts in an Egyptian Oasis by R. Neil Hewison celebrates three pottery villages in the Fayoum, a fertile depression in Egypt’s northwestern desert. After discussing Egypt’s rich and ancient ceramic history, Hewison takes us to Al-Nazla. Here, outside the busy village itself, we come to “the potteries – a jumble of simple workshop huts and brick kilns that seem to rise organically out of the earth, interspersed with ranks of hundreds of raw pots, dark brown or gray-black, set out on the ground to dry before firing, and stacks of finished ones, light pink or rust-red ready for sale…” The potters who work here are all related. They produce fat, spherical water jars using techniques passed down through generations. You can see the kilns and pots in a video promoting the 2019 hit, “Bint akaabir” by the popular Syrian artist Asala. Worth a look whether the music is to your taste or not.
Next, we travel to Kom Oshim. Here too, skills have been passed down through generations, but the potters now make enormous garden pots rather than traditional water jars. They make the largest pots in Egypt, some over six feet tall! They are sold throughout the country and internationally including “Belgium, France, Italy and Cyprus, where it is said that one enterprising importer … re-exports them for sale in Greece, marked “Made in Cyprus.'” Who knows? Surely, a Kom Oshim pot would look wonderful in my garden, but alas, I am thousands of miles away in a too cold climate.
Tunis, the last potters’ village Hewison shares with us, became a lively center for pottery after an idealistic Swiss couple set up the Pottery School in 1990 and offered free classes to local children. Today there are more than twenty-five workshops and show rooms. The pottery is dazzling with glazed plates, bowls, animals and tiles. Shops in Cairo and faraway London and New York sell pots from Tunis.
The book then turns to profiles of individual potters and their work. Fayoum Pottery is profusely illustrated with color photos of the kilns, potters at work, and many pots. It is impossible to read it without wishing to hop a plane immediately and visit the potteries for oneself. With all that ails the world right now, few, if any of us, can do so. The book is a gift then, giving us a close look at such an important pottery center.
Fayoum Pottery by R. Neil Hewison, Published by The American University in Cairo Press. 978-1-649-03132-7
Note: I have read a number of interesting books on pottery in the past year, but somehow have not shared them with you here. What is it about the Pandemic that makes everything so crazy? My plan is to share at least the best with you in the next few weeks, but omicron rages and I have a long list of pots to make, so, well, we will see. Happy New Year though. Good Health to us all.
I think I have more books by Emmanuel Cooper in my ceramic book collection than by any other writer on pottery. I have read and re-read the various editions of his book on ceramic history, culminating with the magnificently illustrated tour de force, 10,000 Years of Pottery. I pored over his books on glaze making. I have his very early Handbook on Pottery Making and of course his biography on Bernard Leach. And then, his last book, his opus, the thoughtful biography, Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter.
In Making Emmanuel Cooper: Life and Work from his Memoirs, Letters, Diaries and Interviews, edited by his longtime partner David Horbury, we learn that in his last days – he died in 2012 of prostate cancer at the age of 74 – Cooper was thinking of such projects as a biography of Hans Coper, this memoir, and was “fired” about writing a book on Josiah Wedgewood “from a maker’s perspective.” Oh, how I would love to read the Wedgewood book. The Coper too. What we do have, thanks to Horbury, is this fascinating memoir.
Cooper was first a potter. There were challenges. Gwyn Hanssen gave him an early position in her studio, then “let him go.” When he applied to become a member of the Craftsmen Potters Association (CPA), he was rejected because his work did not form a “coherent group” Fortunately, six months later he reapplied and was accepted. His studios were always in urban spaces, necessitating electric kilns which he decided to embrace. He became a skilled production potter, making tableware for London restaurants, including relish dishes for the Hard Rock Café. The trays were eight and a half inches across with a rim to keep the five individual relish pots from slipping and a central thrown handle for carrying. “The staff – or the customers – broke them all the time so they regularly reordered and it was a very good earner,” he tells us. In his later years, after the recession when the restaurant business dried up, he reinvented his work and focused on one of a kind bowls and mugs in series of nine at most. Towards the end of his life, he made coiled goblets.
In 1969, Cooper proposed that the CPA publish a magazine on ceramics. He tells us, “it seemed to me that the craft pottery world was expanding and changing at an extraordinary rate…and nothing was being written down or recorded.” Despite the CPA’s skepticism, Cooper founded Ceramic Review with fellow member Eileen Lowenstein, publishing the first edition in 1970. He served as editor until 2010. He writes, ” …we nurtured relatively new writers such as makers Claudia Clare and Emma Clegg and managed to persuade more established voices such as Edmund de Waal, Alison Britton, Martina Margetts and Tanya Harrod.” From the beginning, Cooper and Lowenstein were committed to including “strong practical content” and “developed the idea of using a sequence of photographs to demonstrate a particular process or technique,” a feature which continues to this day.
The book chronicles Cooper’s life as a gay man. Though at first closeted (homosexuality was illegal), he came to be a leading voice for Gay Liberation, and with a group of friends launched the journal Gay Left. He wrote The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West and Male Bodies: A Photographic History of the Nude, both groundbreaking at the time, and highly acclaimed.
Cooper was a potter, a writer, an editor, and an activist. He taught throughout his life, and served as visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art. He championed and curated exhibits such as People’s Art: Working Class from 1750 to the Present Day. A scholar, thinker and maker, his contributions to ceramics were enormous and long lasting.
Making Emmanuel Cooper is intensely personal, describing Cooper’s mining family roots, the butcher shop his parents ran, and his years in the RAF and in theater. It is also a social and cultural history. Cooper deserves a biography such as the one he wrote of Rie or Tonya Harrod’s biography of Michael Cardew. Meanwhile, read this book. It is a treasure.
How could a potter with such a perfect name as Don Potter have left my consciousness? I know I had read briefly about Don Potter in Phil Rogers’ book Ash Glazes because I have two well-read editions the book on my shelves. Yet but despite his perfect name, he slipped my mind completely, until I read about him in Mike Dodd’s autobiography. Dodd not only praised Potter profusely, but recommended Vivienne Light’s book about him, Don Potter: an inspiring centurypublished by Canterton Books in 2002. Only a thousand copies were printed, but I was able to get a nice clean copy.
The man was a genius. He was a master of many crafts: metalwork, woodcarving, stone carving, lettering, and pottery. In addition, he was a talented cellist and expert lassoist. And an inspiring teacher.
He had studied direct carving with the great sculptor Eric Gill but knew nothing of pottery when he accepted a teaching position at Bryanston School where he would be teaching ceramics as well metal and wood. He turned first to Amy Krauss for instruction, so that he could stay ahead of the pottery students. Once the first year was over, he sought out Michael Cardew and Ray Finch quickly becoming highly skilled and a master of form. He dug clay and mixed glazes for himself and the students and became a fierce advocate of using local materials. The only thing he purchased was sand!
The pottery workshop at Bryanston was in the dark and dusty basement. Potter tore down the old coal fired earthenware kiln, and built a wood-fired stoneware kiln. Students recalled that he “lugged a great oxygen cylinder from the metalwork department” (which he also taught) and the “temperature soared.” Indeed, more than once the walls of the stairwell glowed when the he was firing the kiln!
Potter would take small groups of students to visit Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie where they could watch her work and look at her collection of pots. He invited Ladi Kwali to come to the school and demonstrate. He encouraged his students to look at pots wherever they went. In each of the disciplines he taught, there were students who went on to make it their life’s work and who achieved greatness. In pottery, in addition to Mike Dodd, Richard Batterham credits him as the inspiration for his career in clay. Other of his pottery students who went on to great success include Rodney Lawrence, Kit Opie, Michael Gill, and Terrance Conran who made a career in design and as a tastemaker.
Of course, I wished there were more pages devoted to Potter’s pottery – and more photos – but the chapters on metal, wood, stone and lettering are interesting also, if not quite as engrossing to me personally as the clay chapter. By the end of the book though, I was glad to have met this man, if only on the printed page: a man who could do almost anything with his hands. He was a maker and an artist, yet, as Light makes clear, he also thought deeply about the work he was doing.
I love the books and videos the Goldmark Gallery creates for their pottery exhibits. I very much love Mike Dodd by David Whiting which they published to coincide with last fall’s exhibit.
The book, like all Goldmark’s books, has elegant French flaps and is printed on satiny paper. It is an object of beauty, a pleasure to hold in your hands.
The cover, a photo of Dodd in his workshop, viewed through an open door is enticing. We see a tall vase on an old woodstove, a workbench, clay spattered chairs and a row of ladles (for glazing?) hung across the top of a window. Dodd is holding a vase. Immediately, you want to visit. Does every potter who shows at Goldmark live surrounded by pastural countryside and work in an enchanting, rustic shop? Feeling a tinge of envy…
Whiting’s essay, an appreciation, touches on Dodd’s life, his thoughts on potting, and, of course, his pots. Like all of Goldmark’s’ books, many of which Whiting has written, it is refreshingly jargon free. Jay Goldmark’s luscious photos show Dodd’s work in situ – in the garden, surrounded by grasses and ivy, on old wooden boards, by a pond. The photos and essay bring us into momentarily inside Dodd’s world.
Dodd, a potter’s potter, is known for his deep understanding of local materials. He makes glazes of ash and granite and iron that he gathers and processes. His pots are robust, known for the strength of their forms.
I read Mike Doddwith Dodd’s own book, An Autobiography of Sorts, also available from Goldmark though not published by them. This is a longer, more
in depth look at Dodd’s potting life. It includes articles that he has written and published over the years, essays and interviews that others have written, in addition to some material that he wrote specifically for this volume. He describes the various workshops and studios that he has inhabited, the kilns he has built, and his thoughts about pot-making. There are many pages of formal photos of his work, allowing us to study them closely.
An Autobiography of Sortsis not as beautifully designed as Mike Dodd, but the two books taken together give us a nice look at Dodd and his work. They are the next best thing to owning one of his pots.
“First experiments involved rolling mothballs down a slide into the saggar, and also inserting oily rags at the ends of sticks, but neither were successful, with Caiger-Smith nearly losing his eyebrows in the process. Then he had a brainwave and inserted pieces of fudge on a long metal rod, these melted as soon as they started to burn, enabling more fudge to be immediately inserted, so keeping up the reduction without the risk of being gassed. At last there was success,” Jane White writes in her brilliant new book, Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of Aldermaston Potter
Caiger-Smith spent years perfecting his highly prized lustreware inspired by the luminous pots made in 800 CE in what is now Iraq and later in Spain and
Italy during the Middle Ages. By the twentieth century though fine examples of lustreware could be seen in museums and mosques, knowledge of how to achieve this effect were forgotten.
From his earliest potting years, Caiger-Smith was intrigued with the beauty of
lustre, preferring it to the Chinese and Japanese inspired pots of Leach and his followers. Through trial and error, (at times disastrous), extensive research, and by translating Ciprian Piccolpasso’sThe Three Books of the Potter’s Art,published in 1557, he at last mastered lustre and gained a wide audience for his work.
Caiger-Smith also specialized in tin-glazed maiolica and is known for his brushwork. He wrote two definitive books, Tin-Glaze Pottery in Europe and the Islamic World: The Tradition of 1000 Years in Maiolica, Faience and DelftwareandLustre Pottery: Technique, Tradition and Innovation in Islam and the Western Worldas well as numerous essays and articles.
White’s approach is particularly interesting and lively. Rather than write a conventional biography of Caiger-Smith, or a typical monograph with appreciative essays by various authors, she focusses on his workshop, Aldermaston Pottery, and the potters who worked there. At Aldermaston, individual potters saw their pots from start to finish; throwing, glazing, decorating and firing, to the shop’s standard designs. Other workshops operating at the time separated tasks with different people working as throwers, glazers, decorators or kiln men and women. Caiger-Smith also believed that it was crucial to bring in people who fit well with one another and after that, everything would follow. Sometimes he took on potters with no skills whatsoever because he liked them and then taught them all they needed to know to take a pot from start to finish.
White tracked down numerous potters who worked at Aldermaston Pottery and sprinkles quotes and old photos from them throughout the book, giving us vivid descriptions of life in the workshop. Caiger-Smith not only trained and paid his potters but provided them with housing in the village. They had parties, worked together, took on difficult challenges such as making very large exhibition pots, and became friends. Many went on to open their own potteries after they left.
The book concludes with a warm postscript from Alan Caiger-Smith, now almost 90, in which he shares a few memories and gives generous thanks to the many involved in the book and in his life and work. Those who read this blog, know I have a fondness for biographies and profiles of potters (and wrote a couple myself including Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden). Alan Caiger-Smith and the Legacy of Aldermaston Potteryranks amongst the best.
Before the holidays, my good friend NIkki Mutch gave me a copy of Leonard Everett Fisher’s The Pottersthat she rediscovered amidst the many children’s books in her collection. Lucky for me, she thought it belonged in my book collection. And belong it does. What a little treasure!
During the sixties and seventies Fisher wrote and illustrated a series of books on colonial American crafts for Franklin Watts. The Pottersis part of that series. It is illustrated with detailed, powerful scratchboard illustrations, a technique for which he became famous. We see a potter digging clay, wedging, throwing at the wheel. Best of all, there are images of pots–a beautiful slip trailed plate, jugs and crocks.
This is a children’s book meant for the middle grades. Nevertheless, it is clear Fisher did considerable research. He includes a map of New York showing the location of the (now revered) Remney-Crolius Pottery as well as Pott Baker’s Hill and the Corselius Pottery. He discusses Andrew Duché, the Savannah potter who learned from the Cherokees of a pure white clay which he (correctly) thought could be used for porcelain. Unfortunately, this enterprise failed due to a lack of funding. Most of all, Fisher celebrates the many redware potters making sturdy domestic pots before the Revolutionary War. To me, reading it as an adult, I see the book as an appreciation.
Fisher, born in 1924, has illustrated over 250 children’s books, 88 of which he wrote. He studied with such luminaries as Reginald Marsh and Serge Chermayeff, and has won numerous awards. After the series on American crafts workers, he illustrated most of his books with vibrant paintings yet his scratch board illustrations, even in this age of color, still speak to us.
During my bookselling and Connecticut Children’s Book Fair years, I had the honor of meeting and hosting Fisher, and even tried to convince his publisher to make a Cyclops costume based on his book of that name. Nevertheless, somehow, I knew nothing of this delightful early book, The Potters. How wonderful to have it in my hands now.
Reissued a few times by various publishers, The Pottersis now out of print. If you are seeking a copy, look for the original Franklin Watts edition from 1969.
Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery is both an exhibit and a book that if you are in any way involved with clay, you must not miss. The exhibit is currently at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT where it remains through December 3. It moves to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK where it can be seen March 20 through June 18, 2018. Really, you must go see this.
The book, a hefty tome, edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding contains thoughtful and provocative essays, splendid photos of the works on exhibit, a timeline, and, of particular delight, photos of potters by Ben Boswell. No, you cannot curl up with Things of Beauty Growing. It is too heavy and too large. Find yourself a comfortable chair where you can open it across both your thighs, or read it at a table. And you probably shouldn’t eat or drink while you are reading because if you spill on one of the pages, you will cry.
Glenn Adamson tells us that the title Things of Beauty Growing is taken from a Michael Cardew quote: “If you are lucky, and if you live long enough, and if you trust your materials and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you, without you having anything to do with it.” He explains that the curators wanted to show “the sense that pottery has a life of its own.” He goes on to say that the “exhibition takes typologies of the vessel as its organizing structure. It shows that archetypal ceramic forms mark out their own internal chronology, as well as stages in trajectory thinking.” The focus is on the twentieth-century.
The first half of the book includes essays on such topics as exhibits, the factory, pottery in popular culture (love the record album covers!), origins, and what Edward S Cooke, Jr. calls “The Ideology of the Wheel.” This is followed by the catalog itself which is divided into thematic sections: Moon Jar, Vase, Bowl, Charger, Set, Vessel, Pot, and Monument. This is also how the exhibit itself is arranged.
Neither the exhibit nor the book is a survey of British studio ceramics or a history, or even a “best of.” Potters you love and admire, potters I love and admire, are missing. Nevertheless, collectors and potters will recognize all the names, and will be familiar with most if not all of the works, if only from years of looking at photos in books and magazines. I was glad that I had read the book before attending the exhibit. Still, I was not prepared to see “in person” pots I had seen as images all my potting life. Even after looking at them portrayed in highly professional photographs in the book, I was stunned.
We begin with the story of the 18th century Korean moon jar that Bernard Leach shipped home to England in 1935 and which eventually became Lucie’ Rie’s and now resides in the British Museum in London. There are two photos of this legendary jar in the book: the jar itself, and a photograph of Lucie Rie seated next to it in her London studio. The exhibit opens with Adam Buick’s interpretation of the moon jar followed by the moon jars of Akiko Hirai and Gareth Mason. From the moon jars we move onto Vase. We see not only Bernard Leach’s interpretations, but also a few of the Song Dynasty vases that inspired him.
These were under glass, but the two-handled jar made by Edwin Beer Fishley in Devon about 1900 was out in the open on a pedestal. I had all I could do to keep from running my hands up the walls to feel Fishley’s throwing. Of course, I knew better, and the guard, probably reading my body language as I peered inside the pot, kept her eyes on me. This pot is beautifully photographed in the book but no photograph can completely convey the power of the volume of this pot, the strength and rigor of the throwing lines, and the incredible dark green glaze breaking to deep purple.
I will not list all the names – Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew, Alison Britton, William Staite Murray, Hans Coper, Lady Kwali, Magdalene Odundo – and on and on, that you encounter walking through the exhibit or turning the pages of the book, as that is not the point, though it was dazzling to see their works all together. No the point is to see the sets made by Lucie Rie and Ruth Duckworth and the chargers made by Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew and Ralph Toft and the bowls, and vessels and pots. Topology!
My bias is towards traditional, functional wares but that is not the bias of the book or the exhibit. We see Julian Stair’s monumental jars that can hold a person’s body, and Grayson Perry’s decaled and gilded urns. We see Edmund de Waal’s a place made fast (dare I say it? – I love his books but was disappointed in his installation but glad to see it for myself after seeing photos of it). The exhibit and book close with Halima Cassell’s installation of vessels made from clay she has collected from around the world.
And then there is Clare Twomey’s Made in China installation, which includes 80 vases, 79 made in Jingdezhen, China and one in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England. The 79 are decorated with decals and identical. The one from England is hand-decorated with eighteen-karat-gold. Of course, you must find the one, not an easy task when they are all the same size and shape and red and gold. Happily, I did find it, and immediately realized that one of the amusements for the guards is watching people search for the 80th jar. The guard knew as soon as I had found it, and came over and chatted, a light-hearted way to end a museum tour, though I realize Twomey’s installation is political and not light-hearted.
Exhibits are ephemeral but books last. With Things of Beauty Growing, the book/catalog brings depth, discussion, and insight. The essayists do not all share a point of view; they have different opinions and outlooks, which is enriching. This is a book you might talk back to. Even if you can’t get to the exhibit, though I strongly urge you to see it if at all possible, the book is an excellent addition to a potter’s library and education, a book to return to again and again.
I knew that even if I hadn’t spent eight hundred plus dollars to fix my truck (it failed emissions), I would not be able to afford to participate in the Crocker Farm March auction. Still, I indulged myself and ordered the print edition of the catalog. Oh what a lovely thing it is. There are over five hundred pieces of early American stoneware and redware pots, all beautifully photographed, and described.
Crocker Farm was founded in 1983 by Anthony and Barbara Zipp and now includes their sons Brandt, Luke and Mark. They have made themselves experts on early American ceramics by studying eighteenth and nineteenth century census records, newspapers, city directories, books, local lore and the pots themselves. They deeply research each of the pots they auction and share that information in their online and print catalogs, in videos and lectures.
The pages of the March 2017 catalog are filled with wonderful pieces. There are lead glazed redware dishes and jars, splashed with manganese or copper; salt-glazed stoneware vessels with cobalt decorations – incised, stamped, brushed; Albany slip and alkaline glazed stoneware. Jars. Jugs. Pitchers. Churns. Inkwells. Oyster jars. Plates. Impressive big ware – a ten-gallon pitcher thought to be for a showroom window. Miniatures, perfectly thrown.
I especially loved the signed and dated stoneware jar by Dave, the famous slave potter. It holds about eight gallons, a testament to his legendary skill on the wheel. It is covered in a lovely tan, alkaline glaze. There are pieces from the well-known Crolius family, one a particularly wonderful ovoid jug, the elegant swelling form they perfected, plus pots from the Remmey family of Manhattan.
Most remarkable and interesting to me are the pots made by Thomas Commeraw, who was a Manhattan contemporary of Crolius and Remmey. The catalog includes several fine examples. There’s an ovoid jug with an especially nice form, swelling gracefully from a narrow base to a curved shoulder. It features a “heavily-tooled spout, decorated with an impressed and cobalt-highlighted drape-and-tassel motif resembling clamshells.” There’s a stoneware jar with an “impressed Federal Drape Design.” This does not have quite the swell that the jug has, but it does call out to a potter’s soul.
Commeraw’s work has been known and recognized for years, but he was incorrectly assumed to be of French descent. Poring over the census records, Brandt Zipp discovered that Commeraw was a free African American potter with a shop in Coerlears Hook on the Lower East Side from around 1796-1819. Commeraw has become a passion for Brandt Zipp. He has devoted himself to extensive research and now, for the past several years he has been writing a biography of him. Hurry, Mr. Zipp! I want to read it! Surely, once published, the book will give Commeraw his rightful place in not only ceramics history, but American history.
Covering Brandt’s research for the New York Times, Eve M. Kahn wrote in Oct. 13, 2011. “Mr. Zipp has uncovered details about Commeraw’s clients, including black church leaders and abolitionists, and tantalizing hints that the ceramist helped soldiers protect New York forts during the War of 1812. Around 1820, the American Colonization Society sent Commeraw to Sierra Leone to govern a new colony of free blacks. He sent back copious letters about conditions there.”
You can view all of the Crocker Farm catalogs online. If you are interested in early American ceramics, it is worth spending the time to view the catalogs and watch the videos. They are a treasure. Of particular interest are the videos in which Brandt Zipp talks about Commeraw. Plus, he has created a website dedicated to Commeraw. Crocker Farm’s next auction is in July, so we can look forward to that catalog (or bidding if one has the funds), while we await the biography of Thomas Commeraw.
At a recent show, a tall middle-aged man came into my booth and, picking up one of my dome covered Brie bakers asked, “Is this a Canadian butter dish?” I had no idea what he meant by a Canadian butter dish, but assured him that he could use it however he wished. He explained that in Canada, butter comes in round discs, not sticks as in the U.S.
In Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova, Khosrova tells us that during the Middle Ages and later, butter was often shaped into long tubes by the dairy maids who were responsible for butter making. Purchasers would bring a tube home, and slice it into rounds as needed. So, my Brie maker would have made a perfect butter dish not only for Canadians but also for fifteenth century peasants. The book is full of similar fascinating tidbits and facts. Though it is not specifically for potters – I exaggerated a bit in the title – if you are a potter interested in food and food history and the relationship of particular foods to pottery, it will be a fun read for you.
Khosrova, a former pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America, takes us on a world tour as well as a historical tour. The first butter, she tells us, was made from the milk of sheep, yak and goats. To make butter, she explains, the milk, or if it has been separated, cream, is agitated until it thickens and clumps. She writes, “The Sumerians of 2500 B.C.E. used special terra cotta jugs for holding the milk and a plunger-type tool (called the dash or dasher in English) for churning.”
Early churns were made of animal skins. Khosroba traveled to Bhutan and describes the making of Yak butter in similar leather bags. But, as with the Sumerians, pottery has always had a place in butter making. Pottery jugs and pancheons were also important. Pancheons, which are one of the most beautiful pottery shapes that I can think of, were large, wide mouthed pans, with flaring straight sides, used for settling the milk so that the cream could be skimmed off the top. Churns were commonly made of wood, but glazed stoneware churns kept the cream cooler than other materials, which helped with the process, and was cleaner.
Curiously, Khosrova does not discuss butter dishes, French, which preserve the butter’s freshness with a water seal, or the various lidded ceramic dishes popular today. She does, however, conclude her book with a wonderful collection of recipes for pastries and sauces, each of which cries out for a pretty handmade serving dish. Or so it seems to me.