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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Kelly Young Collection: Moravian Animal Bottles

Two exciting redware (or earthenware) animal bottles will cross the block in our January 30th auction of the William Kelly Young Collection. Both were purchased by Mr. Young in 1993 at Christie’s in New York City, in a sale that included several other fine examples of American redware and some stoneware. Both of these bottles were produced in Salem, North Carolina, sometime during the early part of the 19th century, by German-born potter, Rudolph Christ (1755-1833). Christ took control of the shop of deceased potter, Gottfried Aust, in Salem in 1789 and continued to work there until 1821 (Bivins, p. 30). He is most well-known for producing a variety of wonderful molded animal forms (along with a line of wheel-thrown vessels), including squirrels, owls, turkeys, crayfish, chickens, bear, sheep, foxes, and several sizes of fish.

Moravian Redware Squirrel Bottle by Rudolph Christ, Salem, NC. To be sold in the Wm. Kelly Young Collection on 1/30/10.
Moravian Redware Squirrel Bottle by Rudolph Christ, Salem, NC. To be sold in the Wm. Kelly Young Collection on 1/30/10.

The first redware bottle of the two to be sold, in the form of a standing squirrel holding a nut, is decorated with daubs of manganese and copper over a yellow slip and covered in a clear lead glaze. The reddish-orange color of the underlying clay is visible on the underside of the bottle’s recessed foot. Interestingly, manganese is brushed in a figure 8 pattern on one leg. Whether this treatment was implied to mean the number 8 or whether it was merely the haphazard brushwork of the potter, we will never know. The glaze is remarkably similar to the “multi-glaze” or “polychrome glaze” used by the Bells and Eberlys of Strasburg, Virginia, several decades later. In fact, I have seen a few Moravian pieces misattributed to the Shenandoah Valley for this reason. In actuality, this glaze was meant to mimic a glaze popularized by the English potter, Thomas Whieldon, during the mid 1700’s (Bivins, p. 209). The second Moravian bottle is more stylized, in the form of a portly bear. The figure’s small mouth reveals a few tiny sharp teeth, and its right foot rests upon a slain animal, possibly a sheep or pig. Its surface is covered in a dark brown glaze composed of lead and manganese.

Until recently, the most exhaustive study of North Carolina’s Moravian redware was John Bivins, Jr.’s book, The Moravian Potters in North Carolina, which was written in 1972. This book is an excellent source of information, and I encourage anyone interested in this fascinating school of pottery to take a

Recessed base of the squirrel bottle, revealing the iron-rich clay underlying the bottle's slip coating.
Recessed base of the squirrel bottle, revealing the iron-rich clay underlying the bottle's slip coating.

look at it. However, new information has come to light since then, particularly in the last three years. At the time the book was printed, for example, the author’s knowledge of some of Christ’s rarest forms could only be gleaned from period inventory lists and the existence of the objects’ original molds. Regarding an owl form, Bivins notes “since no finished examples are available, we do not know for what use the owls were intended (Bivins, p. 204).” The same is mentioned regarding a fox mold. However, both finished forms have surfaced since that time, adding to our knowledge of this potter’s work.

The 2009 edition of Ceramics in America, published by the Chipstone Foundation, is dedicated entirely to the Moravian potters of North Carolina, offering a current look at their work with several new discoveries.  Edited by Robert Hunter and Luke Beckerdite, the book includes the following articles:

Eighteenth-Century Earthenware from North Carolina:
The Moravian Tradition Reconsidered

Luke Beckerdite and Johanna Brown

Staffordshire in America: The Wares of John Bartlam at
Cain Hoy, 1765–1770

Moravian Redware Bear Bottle made by Rudolph, Christ, Salem, NC.
Moravian Redware Bear Bottle made by Rudolph, Christ, Salem, NC.

Lisa Hudgins

Staffordshire Ceramics in Wachovia

Robert Hunter

Tradition and Adaptation in Moravian Press-Molded Earthenware
Johanna Brown

Salem Pottery after 1834: Henry Schavner and Daniel Krause
Michael O. Hartley

The Mount Shepherd Pottery Site, Randolph County, North Carolina
Alain C. Outlaw

Making a Moravian Faience Ring Bottle
Robert Hunter and Michelle Erickson

Making a Moravian Squirrel Bottle
Michelle Erickson, Robert Hunter, and Caroline M. Hannah

The front cover of this edition pictures an incredible copper-glazed figure of a fox clutching a chicken (which in my opinion is one of the finest examples of early American pottery I’ve seen in some time). Looking at this piece, it is easy to understand why there is such great interest in Moravian pottery among historians and folk art collectors alike. I recommend anyone interested in the charming and useful objects created by Christ and others from this tradition to take a look at Ceramics in America‘s latest installment, a great contribution to our knowledge of Southern decorative arts.

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