A redware jar featured in our July 11 stoneware and redware auction is both extremely rare and important to the study of American pottery. The jar, stamped, “W. BURCHNELL / LONDON,” is one of the only known vessels signed by William Burchnell of Madison County, Ohio, and, therefore, serves as an important resource for understanding the type of redware manufactured by this potter in particular and early western Ohio earthenware potters in general.
When a collector consigned this redware jar to our auction, we initially searched our library of books on American potters for any information on potters named Burchnell. Finding this potter to be undocumented, we started guessing about the origin of this jar. With only the town name of London listed in the maker’s mark, we assumed that this jar was probably made in a New England town, possibly London, NH. However, we also saw similarities between this vessel and redware jars manufactured in Morgantown, VA (now WV).
An 1883 book, The History of Madison County, Ohio, answered some of our questions about this jar. According to this book, John Dungan, Esq., came to London, OH, in 1835 and recorded information about the town. According to this information, “There were two potteries in the village, one located on South Main street, in the rear of the present residence of Judge Clark, carried on by James M. Thompson, and the other located on the site of the Presbyterian Church carried on by W. W. Burchnell.”
Further research in Ohio Census and Death Records revealed additional information about Burchnell. He was born in the 1790s in Virginia, arrived in London, OH, before 1830 and lived there until at least 1840, judging by Census records. By 1850, William Burchnell had passed away, leaving his widow, Mahala, raising six children.
However, what makes William Burchnell more significant than an obscure, short-lived Ohio earthenware potter is the style of his ware as well as the larger potting community he participated in. As I mentioned, the Burchnell jar featured in our July 11 auction shares a lot of similarities with Morgantown redware (see Horvath and Duez, “The Potters and Pottery of Morgan’s Town, Virginia,” Ceramics in America 2004), notably its form and horizontal tulip decoration.
These similarities are more than coincidental. The other earthenware manufacturer in 1830s London, OH, was James M. Thompson, younger brother to the patriarch of Morgantown’s Thompson family of potters, John W. Thompson. According to Horvath and Duez, James M. Thompson “almost certainly had begun training with [Morgantown earthenware potter] Jacob Foulk Jr. about 1804” (see Horvath and Duez, p. 121).
According to The History of Madison County, Ohio, James M. Thompson took his Morgantown potting training and settled in London, OH, in 1813, at the fairly young age of 27. Among the first settlers of London, Thompson was also undoubtedly one of the first established potters in western OH. He continued operating in London until at least 1850, according to Census records. As one of the region’s first earthenware potters, as well as one of its longest tenured, James M. Thompson’s Morgantown-style of earthenware production could have possibly defined the type of pottery manufactured in early western Ohio’s cultural blank canvas. With hardly any signed examples to draw conclusions from, it is quite possible that some of the unsigned ware attributed to Morgantown actually originated from this overlooked region of pottery production.
When analyzing the Burchnell redware jar in our upcoming auction, it is important to note that it was made in this potting community with roots in Morgantown, VA (now WV). However, Burchnell’s ties to Morgantown may grow deeper still. According to the death records of Burchnell’s children, William Burchnell was born in Virginia. Along with the fact that he established a neighboring pottery to James M. Thompson, this information indicates that William Burchnell very likely began his potting career in Morgantown. Burchnell possibly trained alongside James M. Thompson and followed his footsteps to Western Ohio when the appropriate time came. With more research necessary, the significance of Burchnell to American earthenware potting history is proving to be greater than an unknown potter, who fortunately signed his wares.