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Colonial Philadelphia Porcelain: The Art of Bonnin and Morris (March–May 2008)
In Spring 2008 the Philadelphia Museum of Art will open a landmark exhibition featuring the rare surviving works of art from the first commercially produced porcelain made in America. Between 1770 and 1772, the city of Philadelphia was home to an ambitious and complex commercial and artistic undertaking that mirrored attitudes of American independence that were flowering throughout the city and the colonies at the time. Two partners - Gousse Bonnin, an Antiguan-born émigré from England, and George Anthony Morris, a native Philadelphian - launched the American China Manufactory, located in the city’s Southwark section, now the site of the Navy Yard. During its two years of operation the firm produced tablewares that were based on stylish English prototypes that, because of the difficulties and expense required to produce the fine wares, are characterized by their diminutive size and slight flaws in the soft-paste porcelain body and glaze. Wares surviving from the factory’s production are referred to today as “Bonnin and Morris” in honor of the two proprietors. Colonial Philadelphia Porcelain: The Art of Bonnin and Morris will bring together for the first time the nineteen known surviving examples of their porcelain and some large-scale shards unearthed in archeological digs.
The exhibition will highlight the artistic and technological merits of the objects on view, including direct comparison to the specific English blue-and-white wares that served as precedents. Also on display will be important archaeological remains from the American China Manufactory kiln site, which will help place the work of Bonnin and Morris within Philadelphia’s artistic, intellectual, and economic landscape of the late colonial era.
Various factors made Philadelphia the natural setting for the establishment of this commercial venture. Its vibrant intellectual community, and institutions such as the Library Company and the American Philosophical Society played a key role in promoting American manufacturing, scientific, and trade interests. Recent scholarship by Glenn Adamson, a contributing scholar to this project, suggests that Bonnin and Morris’s experiments with porcelain actually evolved from the late 18th century’s continued interest in the pseudoscience of alchemy.
Visitors to the exhibition will for the first time ever enjoy the opportunity to see the surviving wares together and compare the forms and the variety of decoration on them. The pieces include: woven fruit baskets (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Detroit Institute of Arts, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and 2 from private collections (Noah and Kaufman); sweetmeat (or pickle) stands (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and a private collection; a single pickle dish (Philadelphia Museum of Art); and sauce boats (Brooklyn Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—Bayou Bend). Select shards will be on display from the archaeological dig of the factory site (owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and from archaeological sites from house sites along Market Street (owned by Independence National Historic Park). The display and interpretation of advertisements, invoices, and shards will provide insight into the full array of wares made at the American China Manufactory, including polychrome enameled decoration suggested by advertisements and evidenced in one shard.
Eminent Philadelphians active in scientific, social and cultural enterprise patronized Bonnin and Morris’s factory, including Thomas Wharton, John Cadwalader and Dr. Benjamin Rush, the physician and patriot, who had called urged colonists to launch and support domestic industries as a means of overcoming economic dependence on Britain. Benjamin Franklin’s wife Deborah procured examples of the firm’s work, including sauceboats, and had them shipped to London, where Franklin was serving in 1771, for his inspection. Franklin responded in a letter to his wife: “… I am pleased to find so good progress made in the China Manufactory. I wish it Success most heartily.”
Research indicates that Bonnin and Morris employed European-trained craftsmen in their manufactory along with indentured servants and apprentices. While there were notable similarities between some of the firm’s wares and those of their trans-Atlantic competitors, individual forms such as two examples of a covered basket reveal an originality that set Bonnin and Morris apart from their English contemporaries.
The cost and difficulty of securing and maintaining skilled and experienced artisans, many of whom had to be lured to the colonies from England with promises of paid passage and higher wages, proved ultimately too great for the firm to sustain. After Britain repealed the unpopular and largely unsuccessful Townshend Acts imposing taxes on luxury consumer goods, support among colonists for continuing the boycott gradually waned and further damaged domestic business prospects. Bonnin and Morris ultimately were forced to terminate operations. Although it was forced to terminate operations after only two years, the Bonnin and Morris experiment demonstrated that not only were colonial Americans capable of producing high quality domestic goods, they were committed to economic independence from England.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Chipstone Foundation will publish a new book on Bonnin and Morris, written by a team of leading decorative arts scholars and makers. The Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art will also sponsor a symposium on Bonnin and Morris while the exhibition is on view.