Finding Some Oldies But Goodies

I was prowling around Powell’s with a close knit group of independent booksellers and supposed to be looking at things like signage and displays and floor coverings, when I slipped into the room with the ceramics books and did a bit of private browsing and yes, shopping. After years of obsessive-compulsive ceramic book buying, it was no surprise that many of the tomes on their shelves were back home on my shelves too. I already own most of the books this world famous City of Books offered. But not all.

Years ago I took Dennis Park’s A Potter’s Guide to Raw Glazing and Oil Firing out of the library and read it carefully, but could not afford to buy it at that time. I do own his delightful memoir, Living in the Country Growing Weird: A Deep Rural Adventure. Powell’s copy was in excellent shape, and since I have single-fired all these years, I thought it would be fun and maybe useful to reread.

It was fun to reread. What a different world we lived in then. There’s innocence to the book and a refreshing sense of optimism. To my surprise, I don’t raw glaze at all the way Parks does (or did then). I glaze my pots in the leather hard or green stage by pouring. I always pour the inside first and wait a day or two before glazing the exterior. For my glazes and my clay, this has been problem free. He advocates glazing pots when they are bone dry, which works for him, but is disastrous for me.

I also found a beautiful hardcover 1886 edition of The Art of the Old English Potter by L. M. Solon. It is a wonderful object in and of itself, with a gold stamped cloth cover, sewn binding, and smooth creamy paper. Solon, whom I know nothing about, except what can be gleaned from reading the book, made detailed etchings of the pots he discusses. He was a very close observer.

He loves the old English country pottery, and collects slipware himself. Relishing in the old names for pots, he tells us that a cruske, cruskyn or cruche is a jug; that a gallipot is a small mug; and a costeril is a flask to be slung over the shoulder.

Here is his description of a typical seventeenth century pottery in the Moorlands cribbed, he confesses, from Miss Meteyard’s biography of Wedgwood:

“The oven – only one – was eight feet high and six feet wide. It was surrounded by a wall of broken saggers to keep the heat in, and this wall, later on became the hovel. It stood in a secluded spot, most often at the crossing of two roads, near a little stream of water. Round the oven clustered the open sheds where the different operations necessary to complete each piece were performed, and the family dwelling, a small thatched cottage. The thrower worked in one place; the contrivance he used was of the simplest description, being rather a ‘whirler’ than a potter’s wheel. The potter’s wheel is kept in rotation, while the hand that fashions the clay into shape remains fixed; the whirler differs from the wheel in this respect, that one hand turns it at intervals, bringing successively before the other hand the parts that have to be rounded. Next to the thrower sat the handler, sticking on the handles and spouts; what tools he used were certainly very primitive, being nothing more than a pointed bit of iron and a flattened strop of wood. In another shed were the man who traced upon the best pieces fanciful scrolls and lines of slip, and he who through a course cloth dusted upon them the pulverized galena for glazing. Very often the same man performed all these different tasks. Close by, the diluted clay was evaporated in the sun-pan, until it became thick enough to be conveniently worked, or else the moistened clay was thrown against a dry wall, from which, the water becoming evaporated, the lumps fell upon the ground, ready to be stored in a damp place for further use. Isolated from the rest of the world the potter worked there, attended by his sons and his wife. Sometimes a labourer or two completed the staff, which never seems to have numbered more than eight people. When the stock was ready for sale, the wife took it to the nearest fair, leading, pipe in mouth, the double-panniered asses, and there either sold her goods to the cratemen, or exchanged them at the town shops for such articles as she wanted to take back home.”

Solon gives his history in chronological order, beginning with the Roman occupation and ending with the ornate molded pots made in Industrial age potworks. Though he likes the early pots, he clearly thinks the fancy pots are superior, an opinion with which many of us today, including myself, would vehemently disagree.

Curiously, both Parks and Solon show the heartbreaking sculpture the 17th century potter John Dwight made of Lydia, his baby daughter while grieving her death. Parks has a photo in his book and does not comment except to say in the caption that Dwight was credited with introducing salt glaze to England. Solon made an etching of the piece and tells us that the sorrowing father also made a cast of his baby girl’s hand.

The third book I found was John Spargo’s Early American Pottery and China, published in 1926. Also written for collectors, it is illustrated with nice black and white photos of some truly wonderful pots. Like Solon, Spargo believes that the fancy molded pots of later years were a step forward in the potter’s art, but he spends considerable time on early American redware and stoneware and the potters who made it. He has done extensive work researching potters and offers several charts such as one titled, “A Chronological List of Potters Known or Believed to Have Made Slip-Decorated and Sgraffito Wares” with potters’ names, locations, the dates they worked, and any marks if any.

No one would mistake any of these books as being written today, but I think they were each a good find, and the perfect prelude to reading The Last Sane Man, the biography of Michael Cardew which just landed in American bookstores and of course, my own reading pile.

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