Pottery shards shed new light on the history of American ceramics and the Antique Dealers’ Fair promises something to suit every taste
Huon Mallalieu picks up the pieces of America’s porcelain history
Three weeks ago, at the annual New York ceramics and glass fair, archaeologists and scientists unveiled the reassembled fragments of an ordinary-looking but actually very remarkable white bowl (Fig 2). ‘One of the most intriguing stories in the world of ceramic history is the search for the secrets of making hard-paste porcelain,’ said robert hunter, editor of Ceramics in America and an author and archaeologist. ‘The search, however, for physical evidence of making true porcelain in 18th-century America has been frustratingly unsuccessful—until now. The discovery of this bowl is like finding the holy grail of American ceramics and is a thrilling addition to the history of the American effort to produce this coveted material.’
The shards were not found among nearly 85,000 artifacts on the site of the new Museum of the American revolution and were initially thought to be stoneware. however, subsequent material analysis by Dr J. Victor Owen, an expert on the geochemistry of archaeological ceramics and glass, and his colleagues revealed that the 18th-century bowl is true porcelain and had most likely been manufactured in Philadelphia in 1771 or 1772.
The finds were uncovered on the site of the city’s short-lived first pottery, Bonnin and Morris, where soft-paste porcelain was known to have been made, but one that had been occupied from the settlement’s founding and most were in brick-lined lavatory and well shafts. Bonnin and Morris’s site in what is now Navy Yard, a little to the south, could also tell a confused archaeological story, as the pottery was succeeded by a brass-cannon foundry and then, according to a local history: ‘This long row of wooden houses afterwards became famous as a sailor’s brothel and riot house on a large scale.’
While the Western search for the recipe of true porcelain was under way, many european factories produced soft paste, a substitute generally made from white clay and ground glass fired at a much lower temperature than required for the real thing. This hard paste was made from kaolin and a feldspathic rock called chinastone. Whether or not Böttger was the first european to discover it—in 1708 for Meissen —the first commercially produced in england was at Cookworthy’s Plymouth Porcelain Factory in 1768.
Prior to that, Bow in east London and others had been making soft-paste, especially after 1748, when Thomas Frye of Bow patented a mixture of china clay imported from Virginia and Carolina and bone ash, which gave much needed strength. The material was not the only link between Frye, Bow and Bonnin and Morris.
Frye (about 1710–62) was an Irish painter and mezzotinter, whose two series of life-sized heads are greatly prized by print collectors and who ran the Bow factory from the early 1740s to 1759. he decorated some of the products himself, as did his daughters, one of whom later worked for Wedgwood. White and coloured wares were produced, including bowls, ink wells
and figures. After his retirement and death, Bow continued, although less successfully, until 1775, when it was bought by the owner of the Derby factory.
In December 1769, Gousse Bonnin, a recent English immigrant, and his local partner George Anthony Morris, a Philadelphia Quaker, announced their project to make first indigenous porcelain. The demand was there because the much-resented Townshend Acts taxing tea and other imports had provoked a boycott of British goods, and it is possible that there was an understanding between the factories in order to avoid the imposts. It is also possible that the English potters hired by Bonnin and Morris were brought over from Bow.
Unfortunately for them, the Acts were repealed before production began in 1771, but for a while they did well among the city’s rich ‘Patriots’, including Mrs Benjamin Franklin. It did not last; by 1774, Bonnin was bankrupt and Morris dead. The fragility of the wares ensured that very few examples survive.
A further link between Bonnin and Bow is a notice in the Pennsylvania Journal of October 10, 1771, seeking the apprehension of a runaway apprentice, ‘about sixteen years of age… five feet five inches high, [with] short light brown hair, [and] of a fair complexion’. This was Thomas Frye’s nephew and namesake.
The ceramics and glass fair seems to have gone quite well, despite having to contend with opening on the evening of what was said to be a record-breaking blizzard for New York. It is to be hoped that the long-promised but elusive hard winter does not arrive in England for the opening of the Antique Dealers’ Fair at The Mere Golf Resort, Knutsford, on February 24. Last year, the fair did not take place because the location was otherwise occupied, but in previous visits, it had proved a popular event.
In the past, pictures offered at provincial fairs have mostly been by traditional 19th- and 20th-century artists, but now increasing numbers of exhibitors are showing work by important British artists from the 1960s and later. Among them at Mere will be Richwood from Lancashire with Bridget Riley and Patrick Caulfield and Holland Murray from London with a striking John Hoyland, Hope Morning, a 20in by 24in acrylic abstract priced at £24,000 (Fig 3).
In other fields, Odyssey of Southport has a most elegant lekanis (Fig 1), a 4th-century bc lidded red-figure make-up bowl from Campania at £895 and Anderson Jones of London comes with a perfect gold brooch for a golf widow at £1,000 (Fig 4).
The fair offers a platform for three scholars of the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, one being Jenny Pickford, an artist-blacksmith, whose garden piece Unfurl in forged steel and blown glass is at £3,200 (Fig 5). The fair runs to February 26.
Next week TEFAF and BADA
Fig 1: Lidded lekanis from the 4th century
bc. With Odyssey of Southport
Fig 2: True-porcelain bowl made in 1771 in Philadelphia
Fig 3: John Hoyland’s Hope Morning. With Holland Murray
Fig 5: Unfurl by artist-blacksmith Jenny Pickford at £3,200
Fig 4: Gold golf-bag brooch. With Anderson Jones of London