Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Genteel Fad of Painting on Pottery

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, painting on china pottery became a huge fad, akin to knitting macramé in a later day.  Once painted, the ceramic was fired again to set the overglaze.  Probably fueled by the beauty of Limoge vases like the one shown here,  tens of thousands of American women and girls took up the pursuit as a respectable avocation, some for pocket money, others to pass the time. 

Who can say what starts a fad?  It may have been a book by James Carter Beard in 1882 entitled “Painting on China: What to Paint and How to Paint it: A Hand-Book of Practical Instruction in Overglaze Painting for Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain.”  Or it may have been the thousands of “blanks,” unpainted white, china forms shipped to the U.S. from France.  Entire local stores were established to sell the blanks and appropriate paints and brushes.  Many featured small kilns to fire and seal the decoration.

It did not take long for a prominent Ohio pottery, Knowles, Taylor & Knowles (KT&K),  to realize that there was a large and expanding market for plain white bottles.  Its East Liverpool factory is shown here as it looked in 1887.  While American china may not have competed with France in its fine qualities, it took paint equally well and moreover was less expensive and more durable.

As a result, KT&K made a major line of merchandise a jug shape that it also sold with decorated labels to whiskey dealers.  These ceramics were notable for their bulbous shape, their extended lip and, most of all, their handle that appeared to be a snake swallowing his tail.  KT&K sold thousands of these jugs throughout the United States to artists of varied talents, all eager to grab a paint brush and make their mark.

Not all such jugs, however, were the necessarily the product of talented (or not so) amateurs.  Timothy J. Kearns in his informative book, “Knowles, Taylor & Knowles:  American Bone China,” points out that the company itself employed artists who used the jug to produce items of beauty.  The subject matter for both professional and amateur generally were similar, commonly portraits, flowers, foliage,and fruit.

One way to make the distinction between pro and amateur is if the artist signed the artifact at the pottery itself.  Here is shown a highly sophisticated design of maroon flowers with a gilded handle, next, and lip.  It almost certainly was factory-produced and has been marked by the artist “McCutcheon.”  KT&K probably sold these jugs among its line of ceramics for home decoration and may also have used them as demonstration pieces for advertising purposes.   As in: “See ladies, what lovely objects can be made with our blanks!”

The next example, with pink flowers, bears a strong resemblance to the McCutcheon jug.  It is, however, unsigned.  Kearns speculates that most factory artists did not mark their pieces because they were paid by each completed item and that it was not worth the cost to the artist in time and money to sign and date each piece.  The jug with the portrait of a woman appears to be a transfer printed image. It would have been virtually impossible to accomplish at home so almost certainly was produced by KT&K artisans.

The next jug, depicting leaves and berries, is not so easily identified.  It well could have been the product of a talented young mother working in on her kitchen table in Keokuk, Iowa.   The distinction between professional and amateur also blurs when it comes to present value.  The key here is good design and good artistry, as those shown above.  Clearly amateur efforts, however, are regularly offered on Internet auction sites for substantial sums.  One such example is a thistle-decor jug where the design is interesting but clearly overwhelms the jug and handle has turned a dreary mud color.   The horse jug that follows is also a poor subject for the jug shape and, in this case, awkwardly drawn.

More intriguing are the homegrown artists who have taken a KT&K whiskey jug and overlaid it with their own designs, sometimes letting the part of the original label show.  This is evident in the jug with roses.  Note that in the lower left corner the mark of the Klein Bros. Cincinnati liquor dealership is still evident  The next jug is truly bizarre.  Amidst that those black streaks one can still make out the label of a Meredith Diamond Club Rye bottle.  That whiskey was a product of East Liverpool itself.

The passion for painting jugs ebbed sharply during the 1920s and KT&K went into bankruptcy in East Liverpool about 1923.  Nonetheless, the jug with the snake swallowing his tail goes on and on in professional, amateur and commercial guises, actively auctioned virtually every day.   KT&K may have thought they were “firing blanks” but they clearly hit the target at least for a brief time in history.















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