Thanks to the American Ceramic Circle and MESDA!

Thomas Commeraw Lecture, Nov. 2019I just wanted to quickly thank the American Ceramic Circle and Old Salem / Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts for having me over the weekend. It was my privilege to present my latest talk on Thomas W. Commeraw, the free African-American potter of federal era New York City. All of the folks at both organizations made this one of the best ceramics-related events I have ever attended.



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Some Quick Notes About New York City Stoneware in Our 11/2/2013 Auction

If you’ve gone through our November 2, 2013 Stoneware & Redware Auction catalog, you might have seen a couple of references to museum pieces and how they relate to two examples of early Manhattan stoneware we are offering this time around:

Lot 8 in our 11/2/2013 Stoneware & Redware Auction, an early Thomas Commeraw jar--related to an example at the Smithsonian.
An outstanding Thomas Commeraw jar from his early period of production (during which he was incising his work with elaborate designs as opposed to his later stamped decorations) is closely related to an example currently in the collection of the Smithsonian. You can view that Smithsonian example by clicking here. I was, needless to say, very happy to receive this for our Fall sale, and that particular group of Commeraw’s stoneware (bearing, I might add, one of the earliest documented maker’s marks ever employed on American stoneware) is perhaps my absolute favorite of all American pottery.

Lot 12 in our 11/2/2013 auction: A jug made by a mystery potter, related to one of the greatest surviving stoneware vessels, currently at The Met.
An important New York City jug belongs to a group of stoneware by a mysterious maker, responsible for what is considered one of the very greatest examples of American stoneware, the “Elizabeth Crane” punch bowl currently on display at the Met (part of the collection of American Folk Art Museum). You can view that punchbowl here. The interior features a great incised and cobalt-highlight fish, and if you own Georgianna Greer’s American Stonewares, you can see a photo of the fish there. This bowl has been attributed to the shop of John Crolius, Jr. If you don’t know much about early Manhattan stoneware, some of the following may be a little “inside baseball,” but if you are interested in this sort of thing, feel free to read on:

John Crolius, Jr. was the older brother of who may be the most famous American stoneware potter of all, Clarkson Crolius. Clarkson would eventually take over his father’s shop, which was apparently the very same pottery established by his grandfather, William Crolius [the 1st], who had emigrated from Germany circa 1720. During the Revolutionary period, John, Jr. would inherit the shop of his uncle, William Crolius [the 2nd], which was basically located down the block from his father’s / Clarkson’s shop. John, Jr.’s manufactory operated for many years (and this is not an indictment at all of whoever performed that initial attribution of the punch bowl decades ago; he or she could be correct) but there is a problem with that attribution–there are no signed extant examples from John Jr.’s shop to use as a basis for an attribution. There is a larger body of work known for the maker of the punchbowl and the jug, and determining who that maker was is of extreme interest to me. Hopefully we are able to get to the bottom of it before too long!

Anyway, I just thought it would be fun to share links to the museum pieces we referenced in the catalog, and put these two examples of Manhattan stoneware into a better context.



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Two April 2013 Stoneware Lectures

April 14, Harrisburg, PA: Harrisburg and Central PA Stoneware. April 27, Old Greenwich, CT: Manhattan Stoneware, 1795-1820.
Mark, Luke, and I will be giving a couple of stoneware lectures to be held next month:

On Sunday, April 14, at 2:30pm, Luke and I will be giving a new talk, Excellent Ware: The Harrisburg Stoneware Potters and Their Contemporaries, at the Historical Society of Dauphin County in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Afterwards we will be holding an appraisal event, during which we will evaluate attendees’ stoneware and redware. Admission is by donation at the door, but is free to members. The HSDC will also be charging a small fee for appraisals to help support their important organization. For more information, please visit the HSDC website, or call 717-233-3462.

On Saturday, April 27, at 2pm, Mark and I will again be delivering our lecture, Manhattan Stoneware, 1795-1820, as a special program during the Westchester Glass Show in Old Greenwich, Connecticut (at the Greenwich Civic Center). A well-respected event, the Westchester Glass Show is for the very first time encouraging exhibitors to offer ceramics for sale, as well, so this should be a fun time for stoneware collectors. Our talk will be essentially the same one we gave at the Gunn Memorial Library and Museum back in October, so if you missed that event, this is an opportunity to get an incisive look at the big three Manhattan stoneware makers–Clarkson Crolius, John Remmey III and Thomas Commeraw–as well as the former Manhattan potter who completely revolutionized Mid-Atlantic stoneware production–Henry Remmey, Sr. Our talk is free with admission to the show ($7). Here’s a link to a show circular with the important details.

We have really enjoyed sharing our love of this great American art form with you, and look forward to doing so many times this year!



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African-American History, Literally Set in Stone

(From left): Thomas W. Commeraw stoneware jar, Lower East Side, Manhattan, circa 1805. Dave Drake stoneware jar, signed and dated March 19, 1857, Edgefield, SC.
As Black History Month 2013 winds down and we approach our March 2, 2013 Auction of American Stoneware & Redware, I thought this was an opportune time to briefly comment on two of the most important antebellum African-American artisans, who just so happened to be potters: Thomas W. Commeraw and David Drake (sometimes called “Dave the Slave” or “Dave the Potter”). Our March 2 sale is a special one, in that we are privileged to be able to offer two fine jars by these celebrated craftsmen under the umbrella of one auction. (The Commeraw example. The Dave example.)

It may go without saying that Thomas Commeraw is my favorite potter, and I count some of my discoveries about his life–including the day I figured out he was a free black man–as high points of my research life. As far as Dave is concerned, I remember well the day my family and I went to Winterthur for their Dave exhibit back in 2000, and I was bowled over by the massive vessels and, particularly, the couplets. I being a writing major at JHU–and one particularly interested in formal poetry–the synthesis of pottery and poetry in these objects crafted by an enslaved human being really did speak to me.

Thomas Commeraw vertical-handled jar with 'compass' decoration.
The number of African Americans–whether free or enslaved–actually throwing and decorating salt-glazed stoneware during Commeraw’s day (and beyond, for that matter) was apparently a pretty low one. I have seen it claimed that a hidden workforce of enslaved potters was responsible for huge numbers of the vessels that have come down to us, but based on any serious study of the American stoneware industry, this was quite clearly not the case. While free blacks and, where applicable, slaves were certainly employed in many shops, it seems these people were most often performing more menial tasks involved with running a pottery: general odd jobs around the shop, disposing of waste, transporting ware, handling clay, making bricks, or any number of tasks that did not require the intense skill of wheel throwing attained only through long-term training. Commeraw is remarkable in many ways, but purely as an American stoneware potter, he was a true master whom we are able to document as an African American–and one who left behind a huge body of work.

Dave, of course, was not making blue-decorated, salt-glazed stoneware, but was instead working in alkaline glazes in the Southern American tradition. While in the Edgefield District Dave lived under a true slave society–a place where an enslaved workforce was the order of things–he was likewise set apart as a true master of his craft, and one whose work was extremely deft–to be celebrated apart from his extraordinary life story.

Five-gallon signed and dated 'Dave' jar, made at Lewis Miles' manufactory.
These were two very different men, in terms of freedom status, socio-economic status, level of education, and living environment. Their chosen mediums, through which their names were literally forever set in stone, have elevated both to a level of recognition never to be achieved by thousands of others whose work was destined from the outset to decay–or whose products were deemed unworthy of a signature. But it was not this good fortune alone by which we know their names today–it was their vast skill, as well as their ability to persevere and–to the extent possible–break through the strictures of a society that had stacked the deck against them. Deft on the wheel and a gifted businessman, Thomas Commeraw went from an impoverished young man in New York’s slave society to a businessman known throughout the entire country, in direct competition with prominent whites like Clarkson Crolius. Living under a brutal slave system, Dave found his way to literacy and leveraged what was clearly a God-given talent to literally make his mark on the history of American material culture; in a place where reading and writing were not the norm for someone like Dave, he managed to throw beautiful pots and inscribe them with songs that transcended his circumstances.

This is what I find most remarkable about people like Commeraw and Dave. They both happened to share the same skin color, but perseverance and dignity under incredibly difficult circumstances are character traits human beings the world over–regardless of ethnicity or background–can realize in their own lives. The names “Commeraw” and “Dave,” stamped and carved into stoneware clay a very long time ago, are persistent, permanent reminders of this.



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