Those were the days. The days when Trenton made and the world took. And, when it came to making in Trenton, pottery was at the top of the list.
At one time more than 150 potteries were hard at work in the capital city. Much of this country ate off dishes made in Trenton, decorated their homes with fine porcelains produced in Trenton factories from local clay, and washed their hands and faces in sinks and tubs that were Trenton-made.
A lavish sampling of Trenton pottery — the best of the best according to exhibition curator Robert Cunningham — can be seen at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park. “This is the finest ever done,” Cunningham says, “the best made in America. And it was made right here. Nobody else in this country could do what they were doing.” The exhibition continues through Sunday, May 8.
The rich and varied sampling of opulent vessels assembled for artists and decorators of the Trenton pottery industry functions as a virtuoso demonstration of the china painter’s art. Portraits, landscapes, floral studies, and still life by artists and artisans, known and anonymous, who worked in Trenton’s premier potteries from 1882 into the 1920s, are among the exquisite ornament that transforms functional vases, bowls, tea sets, mugs, and tankards into important works of art — a collection of images often as eloquently rendered as those on museum walls.
Ellarslie is an especially apt setting for this exhibition. Looking at the assembled works becomes an even more telling experience when considered within the context of the museum’s permanent collection — an extensive and comprehensive display of pottery, supportive materials, and instructive labels that tells the story of the Trenton ceramic industry from its earliest days.
There is no other collection like this according to Museum Director Brian O. Hill. “At this point we are the definitive destination for Trenton ceramics,” he says. “Our holdings also function as a definitive collection of American decorative arts from that time.”
In addition to the stunning range of clay wares — fine porcelains, bathtubs, electrical equipment, everyday dishes, doll house tea sets, and lavish works that won prizes at international expositions — a small display in the permanent collection documents the ceramic process step by step. Examples of various materials used to make fine porcelain objects — plaster molds, cast clay bodies, brushes, glazes, a work in process, and the final work — tell the story beginning with raw clay and ending with the final ware, in this case a fledgling mockingbird by Boehm that looks almost ready to fly.
And to make looking at the featured exhibition even richer and more entertaining, Bits and Pieces of Trenton, a small but charming display of Trentoniana — photographs, industrial materials, art, and ancient objects — places the pottery industry in a regional context, allowing it to take its proper position as part of an historic narrative.
What is more, the current focus on fine pottery at Ellarslie also celebrates the museum’s latest acquisition — a collector’s coup that makes their unique holdings even more notable. The star of the show is an enormous vessel — over four feet tall — called “the Woodland Vase,” that was one of only four made in Trenton for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.
According to Cunningham, the lavishly decorated, monumental vase disappeared when the exposition closed and hadn’t been heard of until 2009. The long-lost vessel surfaced in an estate sale on the west coast, was acquired at auction for almost $20,000 including commission, and is now back in the city where it first saw the light of day. Shown with another, on loan from the Brooklyn Museum (the Rose Vase), the ornament, scale, and European-style gilt work make the pair of giant urns alone well worth a visit.
The lid from the Woodland Vase was missing and Trenton City Museum is in the process of raising the necessary funds to have Boehm Porcelains in Trenton manufacture the lid. As part of the fundraising, a museum trip to visit the other two vessels — one at the Newark Museum (the Grecian Vase) and one at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton (the Washington vase) — is in the works.
In the featured exhibition, some 175 vessels and supporting materials — vintage photographs, tools, catalogs, correspondence, and other related ephemera — materially document the Trenton pottery industry’s salad days. The collection also marks an era when the local pottery industry was one of the most significant anywhere — a meaningful slice of local history.
“You’re looking at a piece of the 1890s industrial age,” says Cunningham. “This country was booming and Trenton was part of it.”
At the time Trenton potteries broke new ground in the development of American art porcelain. “Belleek,” a thin fine china body, made its first American appearance in Trenton in 1882. Using techniques developed in Ireland, with the help of ceramists brought from that country, the city became the national center for Belleek and the largest American producer of high quality art porcelains, works that form a significant portion of the display.
Over the years, other European and British potters also came to work in Trenton, bringing with them fine traditions and a level of skill that allowed Trenton-made works to rival those of the great European potteries; a place in the sun that continued well into the 20th century.
“My grandfather, David Lees, came from Staffordshire to Trenton to work in the potteries,” says John Burkhalter, a Princeton collector and independent scholar. “Trenton was already known as the Staffordshire of America. There was a significant body of British ceramists already living and working in Trenton. He came bringing the skills of a glaze man and a designer, and he understood how to calibrate kiln firing. That’s an art.”
While a fair sampling of various potteries and a long list of artists and designers are represented in the collection, the exhibition concentrates on works made by Ott and Brewer, Willets, and Ceramic Arts Company (CAC), which became Lenox in 1906. Unique, hand decorated works are often signed by the artist. Even those produced in sets that were turned out in quantity are each decorated with unique images that tell slightly different versions of the same story.
According to Cunningham there was a good deal of mobility among the potteries at the time and ideas, processes, and potters travelled from one pottery to another. As an example he cites Walter Scott Lenox, saying “Lenox, trained at Ott and Brewer, then went to Willetts as art and design director. When he was able, he and a partner opened a firm called the Ceramic Art Company.”
First CAC, then Lenox, became the major producer of the finest china. Cunningham says that even though works by Ott and Brewer and Willets were among the best, those companies were actually more concerned with making practical, workaday ceramics, and that they made these graceful vessels to prove that they could.
“It was case of ‘We want to show that we could do it as well as anybody,’” says Cunningham.
According to Cunningham much of the featured china was the sole province of the very rich. He says, for example, a vase made for Tiffany, decorated with orchids by George Morley, sold in the neighborhood of $1,000 at the time. “You couldn’t buy pottery like this unless you were a Roebling, a Rockefeller, or someone like former governor Franklin Murphy. They were sold in fine stores like Tiffany, Marshall Field, Gumps, and Shreve, Crump and Low. The cost was also the reason we can see so many of them today.” He says so many survived because “they were so expensive that people didn’t use them.”
Works such as these were often made on commission for the very rich. As an example Cunningham singles out a series of four plates made for a Virginia horse breeder. Each is decorated with a picture of a different horse and inscribed with that horse’s record on the back of the plate. In a similar vein he describes a set of dishes commissioned by John Roebling and another for his daughter, Helen, when she married. “They were very expensive. They cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 for each place setting.”
Not, as they say, for the likes of you and me.
Decorating ceramics in Trenton is also the subject of “Skin Deep: Trenton’s Decorating Trade,” a public symposium, sponsored by the Potteries of Trenton Society, on Saturday, April 2. The symposium will begin at the Auditorium of the New Jersey State Museum and conclude with lunch and afternoon events at Ellarslie.
“Ceramics was a vital industry for the city of Trenton,” say Patty Madrigal, the society’s president. “And the decorating industry was an important aspect. There were some very talented people at work.”
“Artists and Decorators of the Trenton Pottery Industry,” Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park. An exhibit of hand painted pieces from 1882 through the 1920s from Ott and Brewer, Willets Manufacturing Company, and the Ceramic Art Company, which later became Lenox Creations. On view through Sunday, May 8. 609-989-3632 or www.ellarslie.org.
Also, “Skin Deep: Trenton’s Decorating Trade,” Potteries of Trenton Society, Saturday, April 2, 10 a.m to 4 p.m. Keynote address by historian and author Regina Lee Blaszczyk. $40 at the door. Registration includes all lectures, lunch, and the show-and-tell session. A mail-in registration form may be downloaded and printed at www.potteriesoftrenton.org or call Madrigal at 609-695-0122 or E-mail email@example.com.