The Chinese Scholar and Oyster Jars and Such

He sits alone in the wilderness, surrounded by rock outcroppings and bushes. He is dressed in a loose fitting robe. He is the Chinese Scholar, widely depicted by English potters on blue and white tin-glazed earthenware during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. He was inspired by images on expensive porcelain imported from China and Japan and transformed into something quite different.

The new edition of Ceramics in America edited by Robert Hunter, opens with a wonderful essay by Sarah Fayan Scarlett on the Chinese Scholar pattern, tracing the various cultural filters that affected this interpretation of life in distant China before the image reached England and became a staple exotic of the ceramic export business to the Americas. She suggests that the original Chinese Scholar may have been the eighth century poet Wang Wei “whose most famous verse reads, ‘ I walk to the place where the water ends/ and sit and watch the time when clouds rise.’” I love reading this kind of ceramic history. Knowing these stories adds so much to the experience of looking at one of these antique dishes.

Another wonderful essay, this one by Ivor Noël Hume describes the detective work he and others did to discover the makers and use for a strange, brown stoneware jar found in the mud surrounding an old Dutch fort in Guyana. It turns out the mystery jar was for storing pickled oysters and made in the first years of the nineteenth century by a black potter who was a freeman in New York city for an oyster dealer, also a black freeman in New York City. As he did his research, he came upon other examples of these straight-sided, salt-glazed “cap-hole” jars for the same enterprise. So in a few short, well illustrated pages, we have African American history, early American history, a look at international trade, a mystery, and best of all, a little known ceramic form.

There’s a wonderful section on “The Stoneware Years of the Thompson Potters of Morgantown, West Virginia, 1854-1890.” The photos of the Thompson ribs, coggles, stamps and master stamp molds are worth the price of the book. We read about a “Whately Teapot in the Western Catskills,” “A Seventeenth Century West Virginia Indian Basket Rendered in Clay,” “Planting Pots from Gore Place, Waltham, Massachusetts,” and an “Unusual Drabware Strainer.”

Included with this collection of essays about archaeological and historical research on ceramics in America, is a major essay by critic Garth Clark on Ai Weiwie. Call me provincial, but I am not agog over Weiwei’s art. I actually thought the Sunflower Seeds installation was a fiasco when the 100 million porcelain seeds began exploding oxide dust.  However, he is internationally revered as a visionary, a human rights activist, an architect, a competitive cook, a hairdresser, and a great artist. His blog rants were published in April to great acclaim. So I was glad to read the assessment of so well informed a critic as Garth Clark who is also known for championing risk in ceramics. Clark’s title sums it up: “Mind Mud: Ai Weiwei’s Conceptual Ceramics”. I did come to a better understanding and appreciation of Weiwei, though I am still not agog. Informed, cautiously appreciative, but no, not agog.

The Chipstone Foundation, which publishes Ceramics in America, considers it a journal. I suppose it is, as it comes out annually. But it is deservedly dressed as an art book. This year’s edition is hardcover with a dust jacket and a bound-in satin ribbon to mark your place. Lovely. Put it on your wish list. It would look oh so nice wrapped in tissue and tied with a satin bow, coordinated, of course, with the ribbon in the book.

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