Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ashes to China, Bones to Beauty

QUESTION: I have a beautiful vase that’s been in my family for years. It seems to be made of delicate porcelain and is decorated with a fish-net type of design that’s raised off its surface. The vase has a green circle with a crown on top and Lotus Ware printed around the outside. Inside are the initials K.T.K. Co. with a crescent and star. Can you tell me more about this piece?

ANSWER: What you have is a piece of Lotus Ware, a short-lived but highly prized type of bone china made by Knowles, Taylor & Knowles of East Liverpool, Ohio. Produced for only a few years in the 1890s, many collectors consider it to be the finest bone china ever made in the United States. The term "Lotus" comes from the translucent pearliness of the glaze, which Isaac Knowles had once observed resembled the glowing sheen of a lotus blossom.

Lotus Ware was a dream of Isaac Knowles. His firm, founded in the 1850s and lasting until the 1930s, consisted of Isaac Knowles, Col. John Taylor, his son-in-law, and his son, Homer Knowles. Isaac Knowles wanted to produce fine bone china that would rival the best imported from England. He had been a longtime producer of Rockingham pottery, yellow Queensware, and ceramic canning jars. So in 1870 he decided it was time for a change and brought his son and son-in-law into the firm. Within 10 years, Knowles, Taylor, & Knowles was not only the largest pottery in East Liverpool, but did all its decorating in-house. .

What is bone china? Literally, it’s fine china ware made from bone ash, which results from burning animal bones that are crushed into a fine white powder. English porcelain makers discovered this combination of ingredients about 1750. Strong hard porcelain chips fairly easily and unless specially treated, is usually tinged with blue or gray. Bone china, on the other hand, is strong, doesn’t chip easily and has an ivory-white appearance, perfect for fine china. The bone ash greatly increases the translucence and whiteness of the porcelain. And though it costs less to make it than porcelain, makers charge a premium for it.

Fortunately, East Liverpool had a stockyard that could supply the needed bones to make the ash. This probably had a lot to do with the decision of Knowles, Taylor, and Knowles to make bone china. And even though the company did well, Isaac Knowles had a vision to create something rare and beautiful—art in porcelain.

Trucks hauled in large quantities of bones from the slaughterhouses and dumped into them into large vats to boil away any meat. Workers dried the remains in kilns, which burned the bones to a powdery ash. They then mixed the powdery ash and the porcelain formula together to form the porcelain composition.

After first casting bases, bowls and other items in the casting shop, workers took the bisque ware to the kilns to be fired for the first time.

After the firing took place, workers transferred the pieces to the decorating shop to be decorated partially or totally by hand. There skilled artists gilded the ware or applied hand-painted designs. Once decorated, workers transported the ware to the kiln room to be fired again to make the design permanent. After cooling, they finally transferred the pieces to the warehouse for shipment.

Knowles employed a type of decorating unique to Lotus Ware which placed flowers, leaves, stems and filigree—open works of elaborate designs—on the pieces of china. The person responsible for this was Heinrich Schmidt, a German artist who had previously worked at the Meissen factory in German. He was a bit of an eccentric and saw himself as an artist, keeping the recipe to make the clay slip he used in his head. He also insisted on working in a room without windows in order to foil pottery industry spies.

Schmidt originated his own floral decorations and open work designs. When he was ready to put his clay flowers on a Lotus bowl, he would first center the bowl on a whirler and then trace out his particular pattern on the bowl with a undulating movement, much like one would trace an imaginary lead pencil around the bowl. His instruments were a rubber bag and copper tube similar to that used in cake decorating. He produced the stems, leaves and flowers of his patterns with remarkable skill, using a small piece of plaster of Paris, a little bit thicker than a lead pencil and shaped like a petal, to give a more realistic impression to his flowers. This was always done after the petals had reached the proper hardness. He sometimes indented the stems of his floral designs, and attached leaves to them, using a sharp tool to give a roughened and more natural effect.

Schmidt first worked out his patterns on a small plaster mold. He would do a quick penciling of his design on the mold and then etch it out slowly with his cornucopia bag. These minute indentations served to support the moist clay while the clay was drying. When the drying process was complete, the open work would be removed from the mold by a slight jolt on the plaster form fro the hand.

He would next take the open work designs into his hand and apply a little fresh slip to its outer edges. Then he would attach the design to the vase or bowl he was working on. If too much pressure was applied, the pattern would be crushed and rendered useless.

Another method Schmidt used, called `jeweling," featured a jewel and swag type decorative chain placed on the item of Lotus Ware making it appear as if the jewel and chain had been hung on the piece. The "fishnet" design was also commonly used on many pieces of Lotus Ware along with the molded patterns of shells and lily pads.

The bodies of Lotus Ware pieces are translucent and fragile with a gloss or matt finish in white or in a light and deep olive green color Most of the Lotus Ware decorating reflects the Art Nouveau influence of the era, with its flowing styles and applied decorations.

Discovering who decorated a piece of Lotus Ware has always been a challenge, even for the most knowledgeable collector. Unless a piece has been signed and the artist is known to have worked at the firm at that time of the decorating and signing, it’s mostly speculation as to who did the decorating. Since the company paid artists by the piece and not by the hour, it’s probably certain that they didn’t mark the pieces they decorated.

Only two marks are known to exist on Lotus Ware. The first shows a circle with a crown on top and the words “Lotus Ware” printed around the outside. The initials K.T.K. Co. with a crescent and star are inside the circle. The second is similar but with the words Knowles, Taylor & Knowles spelled out.

Today, only about 5,000 pieces of Lotus Ware survive.

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