Pottery & Porcelain

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An early 20th century Ohio Statue of Liberty sewer tile bust. Dated 1918 with original black pigment on crown.Since the dawn of time, as long as there have been people, there has been…sewage. And for almost as long, we’ve apparently been concerned with it. There is concrete (or clay, at least) evidence of this dating back as far as 4000 B.C.E. Babylon, known for many things – gardens, law, sin…., was also known as the birthplace of pipe, pipe that was formed of clay and baked.

Nearly six thousand years later, we still hadn’t changed pipe all that much. In the 19th century, sewer pipes were still typically fashioned by hand, glazed inside and out with a salt glazing, and then fired to the point of vitrification (when temperature fluctuations break molecular bonds and change the molecular structure). They held up well too, with examples of clay pipes being in active use for 100-150 years!

This type of pipe, sewer pipe, was actually used for a number of applications, including garden furniture and urns, chimney caps, planters, birdhouses and more. The most popular however are perhaps the pieces known as “end of day” objects, things the potters in the tile and pipe factories would hand-model from small amounts of leftover clay at hand as they were wrapping up their work for the day.

These pieces, which reflect the very essence of folk art – defined at least one way as pieces made by untrained artists without profit in mind, are often unique and highly prized by collectors. With the popularity of Staffordshire pottery dogs, seated spaniels molded in sewer tile are very common. Animals in general are very popular with lions, frogs, cats, pigs and squirrels appearing fairly regularly. Most pieces are unsigned, although even those with signatures are usually from unknown artists. The collectible value of sewer tile end of day pieces is influenced, like all pottery, by the condition, but the most significant factors are the originality of the piece and the detail with which it is rendered. More common forms like banks and planters can start at as little as $50, but unique pieces, like the Statue of Liberty pictured here (which, along with the garden furniture link are interesting records because they show what we try to do – linking items that have sold multiple times so you can see the sale history), can bring $4,000 or more. Dogs by George Bagnall, who operated in Newcomerstown, Ohio and is one of the few known sewer tile artists, can also be an exception, fetching several thousand dollars at auction.

EnameCloisonne enamel phoenix candlesticks on standsl (sometimes known as porcelain enamel, most properly termed vitreous enamel) is a very old technique, one which was used among the ancient Persians, Greeks, Celts, and Chinese, and refers to the process of fusing powdered glass to a base (normally metal, but also quite frequently a ceramic base, sometimes even a glass one, is used) by firing it to temperatures between 1,380-1,560 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the glass powder melts and vitrifies. (Vitreous has multiple meanings, at least two of which apply in this sense – glass-like and a shiny nonporous surface.) The powdered glass is either grounded colored glass or ground glass with pigments, normally metallic oxides, added.

For most of its history, enamel has been used for decorative purposes – decorative objects like vases, urns, boxes, etc., and for jewelry. In the 19th century, manufacturers began producing industrial and household items that have also come to be referred to as enameled: bathtubs, sinks, washing machines, cookware.

There are a number of distinct techniques for applying enamel, but some of the most common decorative methods are painted, cloisonné, plique-à-jour, champlevé, and basse-taille. Painted enamel is exactly what it sounds like – painted onto a flat metal surface. Cloisonné enamel is enameled with the same material, but in cloisonné, a surface design is prepared with a design in a metal framework – not unlike a stained glass window – that is soldered to the surface and enamel is filled into those spaces. Cloisonné was originally a technique of inlaying precious and semi-precious stones into the surface of an object and enamel eventually replaced the stones but the concept of metal framing remained. Plique-à-jour is when a stained-glass-like frame is used, but not applied to a solid metal surface, leaving the back exposed and allowing light to shine through. Champlevé is a more cost-effective method and more suitable for larger works, where instead of applying enamel freehand to a surface or creating the framework cloisonné requires, the design is stamped, pressed, or etched into the surface of the metal and then the resulting compartments are filled with color. (Limoges enamel, in the earliest days, during the 12th century, were champlevé, with a later transition to the more straightforward technique of painted enamel.)  Basse-taille, the one that is perhaps superior in artistry, is where the relief design is accomplished by the kind of craftsmanship that forms fine silver – engraving and chasing work to create relief designs and voids that are then filled with enamel.

Enamel is wonderfully durable and can be applied to virtually any metal. The finished product is scratch-resistant and, unlike paint, it’s won’t fade from exposure to light. Enamel works owe most of their vulnerability to the metal on which they are applied, because if the metal bends, the enamel surface will, of course, crack.

Enameling has been done for so long on so many surfaces and with such varying levels of skill that it’s difficult to make generalizations about the value of enamel-decorated pieces. Age is a significant factor, with older pieces typically having greater value, particularly if they are from high points in the art’s history – ancient China, early Limoges, etc. The subject or style of the decoration and the degree of detail and design in the work (cloisonné pieces often command large prices for these reasons as well) can also play a significant role in value.

Grisaille, from the French word gris meaning grey, is a term used to describe works of art painted entirely in a monochromatic palette. Technically speaking, there are other terms that apply when the monochromatic palette used is of a different color (brunaille for brown, verdaille for green, for instance), but grisaille is often misused to cover all monochrome works, regardless of hue. There are also plenty of works that are considered grisaille that are not perfectly, strictly speaking, in just one color, but the palette is severely curtailed.

Works “en grisaille” as they are usually referred to can be done as finished works, but they are also used to mimic the three-dimensional effect of sculpture in a tromp l’oeil style, to provide a basis for adaptation by engravers or illustrators, or to “rough in” an oil painting’s structure.

In the world of antiques, grisaille is often seen in connection with the decoration on Chinese export porcelain (sometimes the entire work is decorated en grisaille, sometimes only a portion), and the value there is derived from age and condition, but works executed completely en grisaille do frequently see a bump in value. In terms of fine art, the highest prices are reserved for early artists like Van Dyck who were known for their use of the technique, but grisaille works are, in general, popular and appealing because it’s generally conceded that working with a full palette can hide some weakness in skill and execution, whereas such a limited palette requires a more skillful hand.

A Conrad Mumbauer, attributed (1761 to 1845), Haycock Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, glazed sgraffito redware plate dated "1810"Sgraffito derives from graffiare (Italian for “to scratch”) and graphein (Greek for “to write”) and is yet another example of a term that has been slowly adapted (or corrupted, some might say) for use in the American marketplace. Technically and historically speaking, sgraffito is used to describe a method of fresco used on walls (amazing examples still survive on even the exteriors of old buildings throughout Europe) and a means for decorating ceramics. In terms of both fresco wall decoration and ceramics, it means applying multiple layers – plaster for walls, slip for ceramics – and then scratching the upper layer away to reveal the contrasting color.

Perhaps it is the multicolor nature of sgraffito as traditionally performed or simply the incising, scraping away an upper layer of, say, cream to reveal the layer, perhaps red, beneath, that allowed it to become tangled up with the decoration of redware pieces. Redware objects – plates, bowls, chargers, even hollow ware pieces like jars, were frequently decorated with multiple colors of slip and glaze, most commonly cream, yellow, red, and green. The technique in American redware is most frequently associated with the Germanic populations known as Pennsylvania Dutch (more appropriately Pennsylvania Germans and more accurately of the general mid-Atlantic region) and the Moravians who settled in Pennsylvania and the southeastern United States. Both populations used traditional Germanic decorative motifs: birds, tulips, hearts and animals. In this version of sgraffito, designs are incised into “leather-hard” clay, clay that has hardened but can still be worked in limited ways, and then the pieces are fired. While there is an element of “scratching” and the surface often has multiple colors, one layer of color is not removed to expose another, but rather the slip is scratched away to reveal the clay body.

American sgraffito-decorated redware has great appeal among collectors, interesting pottery collectors as well as folk art buyers and is exponentially more popular than European redware. As with all pottery, desirability has to do with form and condition, but sgraffito is, in and of itself, very rare. While sales of large collections like the Shelley collection can skew the perception of availability, in reality, very few pieces appear on the market each year. Meanwhile, however, folks like Lester Breininger offer incredible reproduction pieces!

A Chinese Export porcelain blue and white monteith, circa 1690A monteith is a large center bowl (usually silver, occasionally porcelain, rarely glass) designed to be filled with ice and with a scalloped, shaped rim to allow a set of wine glasses to be suspended around the rim by the foot of the glass, so the bowl of the glass can be chilled. While extant silver monteiths can be dated to as early as 1666, the more “modern” version of the form, which is essentially a punch bowl with a removable rim, saw the height of its popularity from the 1680s to the 1720s. Obviously, the silver forms were often reworked as they lost popularity and the porcelain versions would of course have been quite vulnerable to damage, so as a result, the form is relatively rare.

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