Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Pitcher Full of Beauty

QUESTION: I’m trying to learn more about a pitcher that I have. Through Internet research, I h/ave learned the story of Paul & Virginia, the decorative relief on the pitcher, but I’m trying to identify when and where my piece was made. The only marking on the bottom is a hand inscribed “BS.” Can you tell me anything about it?

ANSWER: You have what’s known as a Parian ware pitcher, most likely made after 1850 in the United States. While pottery factories produced thousands of Parian pieces, most of them were sculptures. However, here in the U.S., pitchers like this gained popular use as water pitchers.

English potters developed the formula for Parian ware porcelain in the 1840s, at the start of the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of steam power, it became possible to produce molds with which to make duplicate copies of ceramic products. Named after the Parian marble quarried in Greece that its originators intended to replicate using the same ingredients as porcelain—white china clay, feldspar, kaolin, and flint, Parian became popular with middle and upper middle class Victorian women who desired to own the marble statuary and china of the upper classes but couldn’t afford them. That’s where Parian came in. It filled this need at an affordable price.

Because Parian had a higher proportion of feldspar than porcelain, makers fired it at a lower temperature. The increased amount of feldspar caused the finished body to be more highly vitrified, thus possessing an ivory color and having a marble-like texture that’s smoother than that of biscuit, or unglazed, porcelain. Potters either made relief ornamentation by hand or in a mold. They left most Parian in its natural, creamy white state, but applied background colors, usually shades of blue, to contrast with the relief motifs.

Since the matte surface of Parian ware attracted dirt, which was difficult to remove, makers protected  much of the Parian made here and abroad with a smear glaze, which they achieved by adding chemicals to the kiln in much the same way that they would add salt to a kiln of stoneware. The matt or satin sheen of the smear glaze also preserved the Parian’s crisply molded details, which would have blurred under a glossy glaze finish. However, potters fully glazed the interiors of vases and pitchers intended to hold liquids.

In its Victorian heyday, potteries produced hundreds of thousands of pieces of Parian ware annually. Though it soon went out of popularity in England, American firms, notably one run by Christopher Fenton, which produced Parian from 1847 to 1849 as Fenton Works of Bennington, Vermont, and then from 1849 to 1858 as the United States Pottery Company, began making all sorts of items, but especially water pitchers. These potteries produced Parian ware using British manufacturing techniques brought over to America by English potters. Fenton’s companies made  at least 16 different pitchers.

Christopher Webber Fenton and his brother-in-law Julius Norton first made Parian in America at their pottery in Bennington, Vermont. Bennington had been a center for the production of utilitarian salt-glazed stoneware since the early part of the century. After Norton left the company in 1849, Fenton used the mark "Fenton's Works; Bennington, Vermont." When he acquired a new partner, a local businessman named Alanson Potter Lyman, also in 1849, Fenton changed the factory's name to the United States Pottery Company.

Daniel Greatbach, a Staffordshire potter who arrived in Bennington after beginning his American career in Jersey City, New Jersey, did much of the firm’s designing. Consistent with English counterparts of the mid-1840s through the 1850s, relief molding on Bennington pitchers usually consisted of the naturalistically rendered plant forms of the Rococo-revival style. Unfortunately, the factory closed in the Spring of 1858 due to the high cost of labor, the high losses by breakage, and the rough competition posed by cheaper imported articles. 

While the English potters marked their pieces, the Bennington firm for the most part did not, leaving nearly 80 percent unmarked which makes identifying Bennington pieces difficult without expert assistance. There’s a misconception that any unmarked Parian pieces from New England had to have been made by the United States Potter Company of Bennington. This myth seems to have originated in the 1920s with Dr. Charles Green, a New York physician and ceramics enthusiast, who amassed a large collection of Parian trinket boxes and vases during his antiquing forays throughout New England. Without knowledge of imported English ceramics into New England, he reasoned that anything found there must have been manufactured there. Since the Bennington pottery was known to have made some Parian, Green reasoned that all his unmarked Parian must have been made there as well. 

"Fenton's Works/Bennington,/Vermont," the mark used by Fenton’s Bennington firm,  clearly identifies the pitchers made prior to 1853, the year in which the pottery changed its name to the United States Pottery Company. The earlier of the two is a raised or applied mark impressed "UNITED STATES/ POTTERY CO./ BENNINGTON, VT.," which appears on four of their pitcher patterns–Cascade, Climbing Ivy, Tulip and Sunflower, and Paul and Virginia. A raised ribbon mark with the initials "U.S.P." was the last mark used on Parian by this firm. The ribbon also features two numbers denoting the pattern number and the capacity of the pitcher.

Victorians liked pitchers and vases of various sizes and shapes, including those shaped like hands holding receptacles for flowers or ears of corn or shells. Some had white relief decoration of grapes and vines, oak leaves, or climbing roses against a blue stippled background while others had relief illustrations from a novel called Paul & Virginia.

Jacques-Henri Bernardin de St. Pierre wrote the story of Paul and Virginia and first published it in 1788. The novel of naive love became an instant world-wide best seller, captivating audiences with the tale of two youngsters who grow up on a paradise island according to nature's law. In adolescence, the pair fall in love, but a shipwreck leads to their untimely deaths.

It’s a known fact that English immigrant potters brought with them a supply of English plaster casts and design molds to use in America. A pitcher can resemble an English one so closely as to suggest that it was cast in a mold made from the original piece. Therefore, it can be extremely hard for a beginning collector to tell the difference between unmarked English and American Parian ware.

Though Bennington Parian is considered the best Parian produced in America, other factories in Cincinnati, New York City, and Baltimore had begun production by the 1870s. So this pitcher could have been produced by one of those potteries.  Similar pitchers are selling for as much as $365 online.

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