Wm. Kelly Young Collection: Anatomy of a Bell Redware Dog

An important large-sized redware dog by the Bell family will cross the block in our January 30th auction of the William Kelly Young collection. Measuring 8 3/4″ long by 8 5/8″ tall, the figure is one of a small number of this size known to have been produced by members of the Bell family in Strasburg, VA and Waynesboro, PA. The standing pose and robust body form, finished with a curled tail and large flattened ears, are characteristic of the Bells’ work. Examples of this general style by various members of the Bell family are documented in The Shenandoah Pottery by Alvin H. Rice and John Baer Stoudt, Folk Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley by William Wiltshire, III, and The Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley Region

Large-Sized Standing Redware Dog by the Bell Family. To be sold in the Wm. Kelly Young Collection on 1/30/10.
Large-Sized Standing Redware Dog by the Bell Family. To be sold in the Wm. Kelly Young Collection on 1/30/10.

by H.E. Comstock. These pieces include a few by John Bell and his son, Charles Frederick Bell, of Waynesboro, a pair by Samuel Bell of Strasburg, which descended to his son, Ashby, and a pair by Samuel’s son, Charles Forrest Bell, now in the Henry Ford Museum. An oustanding punch-decorated dog with monkey rider, attributed to one of Samuel’s sons, also bears similarities in form and size. Interestingly, the dog selling in our January 30th auction is pictured on p. 264 of The Shenandoah Pottery, catalog-numbered 157, indicating that it was collected by Alvin Rice in the Shenandoah Valley prior to 1929. The damage visible in the photo, including an area where a basket was once connected to its neck, has since been restored.

The dog is constructed from two conjoined, wheel-thrown cylinders, one forming the body and the other forming the neck. (Many of the animals produced by various Pennsylvania makers have a similar hollow-bodied construction.) Several balls of clay were placed inside the dog’s body prior to firing, causing the figure to rattle when shaken. To prevent damage during the firing, vent holes were bored into the corners of the dog’s mouth, the lower breast, and between the back legs. The famous Solomon Bell redware lion in the MESDA collection, as well as a John Bell stoneware lion, are also vented through the breast and mouth, as noted by Shenandoah pottery authority, H.E. Comstock (Comstock, pp. 151, 232).

    As noted by authority, H.E. Comstock, the Bells used a distinctive stamp, composed of an oval with an inner arching line, to produce the eyes and decorated the bases of many of their animals.
As noted by authority, H.E. Comstock, the Bells used a distinctive stamp, composed of an oval with an inner arching line, to produce the eyes and decorated the bases of many of their animals.

The animal’s fur is produced from numerous diagonally-incised lines. The toes with incised demarcations and unusual incised toe nails are also visible on two of the feet. One of the most distinctive “Bell” features of the dog is its impressed eyes, composed of an oval with an inner arching line. This decorative stamp is used to create the eyes and embellish the bases of several animals produced by the Strasburg and Waynesboro Bells (Comstock, p. 155).

The surface is decorated in daubs of manganese and cream-colored slip and coated in a clear lead glaze. The use of a simple lead and manganese glaze is typical of Bell animals, as well as most animals produced by various other 19th century potters. However, the addition of cream slip spotting is unusual for animals made by the Bells (or those by any potter for that matter). The overall color is remarkably similar to a pair of cats and a seated dog attributed to Solomon Bell and pictured on pp. 232 and 233 of The Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley Region.

True Bell animals are quite rare and have been increasingly difficult to find in the antiques market. The family’s notoriety for producing figural pieces, coupled with the desirability of Bell pottery in general, has led to numerous erroneous Bell attributions. (A look at the Sotheby’s catalog for the auction of the Pauline Heilman collection, held way back in 1982, will give you an idea of these frequent errors.) This dog is a different story. With a firm attribution and Rice provenance, this example is the first of its size and origin to sell at auction in some time, with many of the “BELLS” and whistles one looks for in a quality American redware dog.



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Big Tulips: John Bell Stoneware

    Extraordinary early three-gallon John Bell stoneware jug, to be sold October 31 by Crocker Farm, Inc.
Extraordinary early three-gallon John Bell stoneware jug, to be sold October 31 by Crocker Farm, Inc.

Many agree that John Bell was one of the most creative American potters of the 19th century, with a highly diverse product line unlike most of his contemporaries. His career spanned over fifty years in Hagerstown, MD, Winchester, VA, and Waynesboro, PA, and during that time his products included cobalt-decorated utilitarian stoneware, simple and high-styled redware in a wide variety of forms and glazes, various molded household objects, and molded and hand-modeled animal figures. Bell’s works are included in some of the nation’s finest private folk art and museum collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Henry Ford Museum, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, and Winterthur. This icon of American folk pottery is perhaps best known for his distinctive dotted tulip decoration, usually consisting of circular or oval petal flanked by thinner petals and accented with a series of brushed cobalt dots lining the top edge of the blossom.

The dotted tulip motif is commonly found on Bell’s salt-glazed stoneware, often applied over a kaolin slip to improve the color of the clay and decoration. The design is also frequently found applied in manganese on the unglazed exteriors of some of his redware jar forms. It is also seen, albeit very rarely, applied in cobalt on Bell’s redware over a glazed surface, most notably on his celadon-glazed redware jugs and pitchers. One such jug bears the initials “C F B,” indicating it was likely made by Bell’s son, Charles Frederick Bell. Two other examples of this style can be seen on p. 31 of George and Connie Manger’s Pottery of the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys.

Opposite side of John Bell jug.
Opposite side of John Bell jug, to be sold October 31.

Two early examples of John Bell redware pictured in H.E. Comstock’s The Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley Region are decorated with a tulip design, which can be viewed as a precursor to his dotted tulip motif. Both were made before 1845, when he began producing stoneware.  A very rare large-sized redware jar, pictured on page 116, plate 4.96, is decorated with an extensive cobalt tulip design over a whitish slip. A phenomenal tin-glazed teapot, pictured on page 126, plate 4.132, is decorated with a similar, vertical design in brown and green slip. Both of these early examples feature a ball-shaped petal flanked on each side by two very thin petals. Neither exhibits the dotted embellishment known on pieces produced years later.

As is the case with most stoneware decorators, it is unknown what inspired Bell to make this his trademark decoration, though it bears a resemblance to PA toleware decoration of the period (Comstock, p. 117). It appears that Bell’s tulips did not go unnoticed. Dotted brushwork on the floral designs of stoneware produced by John Young from Harrisburg, PA, circa 1854, and Samuel Irvine  of Newville, PA, circa 1865,  indicate that Bell’s style was probably being emulated by competitors in the state.

Front of John Bell jug.
Front of John Bell jug to be sold October 31.

We have been consigned a very fine example of tulip-decorated John Bell stoneware for our October 31 auction, a three-gallon jug marked simply “JOHN BELL,” which descended in a Hagerstown, MD family. Its taller, thinner  spout and shapely form, which is slightly more ovoid than most of Bell’s stoneware jugs, suggests it may have been produced in the very early years of his stoneware production in Waynesboro, PA, circa 1845 to 1850. The form closely relates to an extremely rare early Bell stoneware jug sold through Crocker Farm in May 2008, which bears the abbreviated mark “J. BELL.” It is pictured below. That jug is the only example of Bell stoneware we have seen bearing this early mark, usually found on redware pieces made before 1850. The clay color and cobalt band around the spout are also noticeably similar to the jug we will be offering in October, further supporting the notion that both jugs were made early into Bell’s stoneware venture.

Very Rare Early Stoneware Jug, Stamped Simply "J. BELL," circa 1845-1850. Sold by Crocker Farm, Inc., May 2008.
Very Rare Early Stoneware Jug, Stamped Simply "J. BELL," circa 1845-1850. Sold by Crocker Farm, Inc., in May 2008.

Most noteworthy about the jug is its elaborate cobalt slip decoration extending vertically from base to shoulder on each side. The design consists of two long stems bearing two smaller tulips, swags, and stylized dashed brushwork, each culminating in a very large dot-embellished tulip at the shoulder. These tulips are two of the largest I have observed on a piece of John Bell pottery, measuring about five inches wide each. Such profuse decoration is rarely seen on Bell’s jugs, suggesting this piece may have been made for a special client. The decoration on a standard Bell jug of this size is usually relegated to the shoulder area, typically having a tulip on each side and a third design on the front. An example of a fairly typical Bell jug, made circa 1860-1875, is pictured below.

Typical John Bell stoneware jug, showing different form, decoration, and spout treatment, circa 1860-1875.
Typical John Bell two-gallon stoneware jug, circa 1860-1875, showing standard form, decoration, and spout style. Sold by Crocker Farm, Inc., in May 2008.

Another interesting feature of the jug to be sold on October 31 is a small incised design, composed of two leaves connected by a stem, which underscores the three-gallon capacity mark. It may have been impressed rather than incised, made as part of the jug’s three-gallon capacity stamp.  I do not recall seeing this treatment on another piece of Bell pottery.

Since handling nearly four-hundred pieces of Bell pottery from Waynesboro, PA, the work of this master craftsman never ceases to amaze me in its variety, quality, and artistry. It is clear that Bell’s purpose for this jug was two-fold, as was the case for so many 19th century potters. While designed to be used as a household good, the jug’s highly decorative nature  reveals Bell’s intent to impress its owner with a thing of beauty.



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