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February 12th, 2008
Exhibition Reveals Depth of Local English Pottery Collections

From the time porcelain arrived in the West from China during the 15th century, Europeans fervently sought the expensive Asian ceramic, and even attempted to fashion their own versions in different, less expensive mediums. In England, these attempts quickly evolved to ceramic production on an industrial scale, supplying markets throughout Europe and the Americas. Though many of its creators are long forgotten, English pottery from the 17th through 18th century is today valued for its idiosyncratic potting and often whimsical decoration. More than 50 ceramic works of delftware, salt-glazed stoneware and cream-colored earthenware lent by a handful of local Philadelphia collectors comprise Turned and Thrown: English Pottery, 1660-1820.

“This exhibition offers a glimpse into a revolutionary moment when the evolving industrial landscape fostered astonishing strides in commercial pottery production,” said Donna Corbin, Associate Curator of European Decorative Arts. “It also provides a context in which to view the Museum’s Colonial Philadelphia Porcelain exhibition. At the time Bonnin and Morris’s ceramic enterprise was operating from 1770 to 1772, many Americans were sitting down to dining tables set with English wares, so English pottery to some extent served as Bonnin and Morris’s competition.”

The earliest pieces in the exhibition were created in the style of “Delft” — tin-glazed earthenware named for the Dutch city in which potters first attempted to mimic traditional blue-and-white Chinese porcelain. Some of these delftware works may especially intrigue modern-day visitors. For instance, two spouted objects would have contained posset, a popular beverage that consisted of hot curdled milk with ale and wine, and was sucked through the pot’s long spout and passed from person to person. Other unusual delftware items include a puzzle jug (c. 1755) and a fuddling cup (1644), both of which functioned as “trick” drinking vessels. Used for practical joking during boisterous social gatherings, these vessels were meant to confuse and entertain unsuspecting guests by dousing them when they took a drink.

Despite being the dominant and most fashionable influence, Dutch Delft was not the only source of inspiration for English potters. In fact, one of the most spectacular pieces of tin-glazed earthenware in the exhibition — a large “fecundity” dish (c. 1675) decorated with a representation of fertility in the form of a reclining Venus and cavorting putti — was based on a 16th-century French model.

The English pottery industry continued to expand and evolve in the 18th century, spurred by changes in the market, the emergence of a middle class, and the introduction of three new exotic beverages: coffee, tea and chocolate. Not only did potters need to create ceramic bodies that could withstand the hot temperature of these new beverages —both salt-glazed stoneware and cream-colored earthenware served purpose well — but new shapes from which to serve the beverages were also required. Teapots, in particular, fueled the imagination, and the exhibition includes teapots shaped as a melon, a ship, a shell and an apple. While many such teapots were formed in molds with little handwork, others required much time and skill. There is also a teapot (c. 1765) decorated with the Chinese linglong or guigong (the devil’s work) technique — a reference to the difficult process involved in its creation.

In attempts to appeal to the fashion-conscious public, English potters evoked the high styles of the day. One elegant coffee pot modeled after more expensive English porcelain depicts women and men dancing and playing musical instruments — recalling the imagery of 18th-century French painter Antoine Watteau. England’s fascination with Asian arts and culture at the time is especially exemplified in a large figure of a boy astride a water buffalo.

This pottery, which appealed to people well beyond England’s borders, came with a human cost, and the harsh realities have long been acknowledged. The now anonymous laborers, some of whom were children, often toiled long and hard amid hazards including lead poisoning. “Turned and Thrown celebrates these potters,” Corbin says, “and pays tribute to their inventiveness and their ingenuity.”

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