Trenton led the way in porcelain boom after the centennial
By Karla Klein Albertson – For Antique Trader
While Americans produced their own utilitarian redwares and stonewares, fine porcelain for decoration and dining was imported from the Far East, British Isles and Europe throughout the 18th and much of the 19th century. Even an all-American legend like Andrew Jackson set the presidential table with elegant china from Paris. In spite of the presence of raw materials, experiments in porcelain-making, such as the factory begun by William Ellis Tucker of Philadelphia in 1826, are fascinating to collectors but were commercially unsuccessful in their day.
American industry — fueled by a productive supply of highly skilled immigrant craftsman — made enormous progress during the 19th century.
By the centennial celebration of 1876, the United States could produce decorated porcelain that rivaled the best products of England, Ireland and Europe. There were potteries in Brooklyn, New York and East Liverpool, Ohio, but Trenton, N.J., was the hub of artistic production for many of the best wares.
In the late 1800s, dozens of firms such as Ott & Brewer, Greenwood Pottery and the Ceramic Art Co. turned out porcelain tableware, sculptures in marble-like Parian, and thin-walled Belleek vases. In their book, A History of American Art Porcelain, Marvin D. Schwartz and Richard Wolfe noted, “An article in Harper’s Magazine in 1881 described Trenton as the ‘Staffordshire of America.’ The high quality of the artistic work done there was cited as proof, and the author put particular emphasis on work that can be attributed to Professor Isaac Broome, a sculptor, who was in the employ of Ott & Brewer.”
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized the important 1989 exhibition, “American Porcelain 1770-1920,” which was accompanied by an informative, well-illustrated catalog. In a recent interview, she talked about the market for the wares. “They were sold at Tiffany & Co., Caldwell’s in Philadelphia — the best retailers were selling top-of-the-line Trenton ceramics. In terms of fine ceramic ware, this was the one time in America’s history when American products were equal if not superior to those being made abroad.”
In recent years, however, collectors have paid more attention to folky American redware and decorated stoneware than to porcelain. Many of the best porcelain examples are being acquired for museum collections with other furniture and decorative arts from the Aesthetic Movement of the 1880s. Older private collections rarely come on the market, so it was a major event when the final section of the March 11-12 Craftsman auction in Lambertville, N.J. ,was devoted to art porcelain from the collection of David and Barbara Goldberg.
Frelinghuysen had included exquisite loans from the collection in her exhibition, and several Goldberg pieces have recently entered the Metropolitan’s permanent holdings. She paid this tribute: “David was a serious collector — a thoughtful man with a great sense of humor, a good friend to other collectors, and passionate about his subject. He had been president of the American Ceramic Circle and one of the founders of POTS (Potteries of Trenton Society).”
A lawyer accustomed to research, Goldberg worked on sorting out the complex relationships between various Trenton factories and their ownership as well as the movement of workers between them. For example, Walter Scott Lenox (1859-1920), once head of the decorating department at Ott & Brewer, went on to work at the Willets Manufacturing Co., and later founded the Ceramic Art Co. in 1889, which eventually incorporated simply as Lenox.
In her catalog of the 1989 exhibition, Frelinghuysen wrote: “The Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park in 1876, was perhaps the single most important event in the development of American porcelain, for through the technical and artistic stimulus it provided, a national identity was forged. The objects produced by American factories for the exhibition at the national celebration resurrected styles from the past and revitalized them in dynamic and adventurous ways. The ceramics of foreign exhibitors on view in Philadelphia were to influence the manner in which American porcelain would be designed and decorated throughout the remainder of the century.”
One result of this influence was a new enthusiasm among consumers for decorative objects in the Japanese taste, and such “Japanesque” elements became an important part of Aesthetic Movement style in England and America. Frelinghuysen explored this theme in her chapter on “Aesthetic Forms in Ceramics and Glass,” which she contributed to the Metropolitan’s 1987 exhibition catalog, In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement.
The recent Craftsman sale offered elegant examples of American Japanesque porcelain: a bottle-shaped Ott & Brewer form with gilded bird and branch on matte green realized $7,200 (with 20 percent buyer’s premium), a Greenwood vase in very dark blue with gilded flower spray brought $3,240, and an early Lenox ivory pitcher $2,760. The latter is decorated with gilded wading birds and floral sprays; the circular handle is in the form of a gilded branch.
Sculptor Isaac Broome, hired in 1873 by Ott & Brewer, created fine Parian portraits for the firm’s Philadelphia Centennial Exposition display, which attracted much public admiration. Broome is best known for his beautiful and exotic portrait of Cleopatra — a colored and gilded version is in the New Jersey State Museum at Trenton — and for his spirited interpretations of early baseball players.
Four of his Parian works collected by the Goldbergs were sold at the March 12 auction: the bust of a child brought $1,560, a portrait of Benjamin Franklin $2,520, and busts of the Virgin Mary and Christ, $3,600 each. The latter pair — incised with Broome’s name and the date 1876 — may have been made for the Centennial. These prices do not compete with the five-figure sums paid for later American Arts & Crafts Pottery at the sale, nor do current values reflect the quality of American art porcelain and its reputation among scholars.
Ceramics expert David Rago, one of the presenters of the Craftsman auction, offers this explanation, “The problem with this stuff is that it’s so rare it’s hard to generate collecting interest in it. How do you build a new collector base for things when examples aren’t readily available?” Before the sale, he gave an accurate prediction of the actual results: “There are going to be some really good prices and some bargains. At the very least, buyers will have a chance to see a major collection, handle it, get up close and personal — it’s a learning experience.”
The auctioneer knows his subject — he began his career as a porcelain dealer. He says, “If you’re from Trenton and middle class, your family had Lenox, so that’s what I was gathering back in the early 1970s. I stopped handling it because there wasn’t enough around to make a living. I got turned on to art pottery because it was much more plentiful — and more affordable.” Since then, Arts & Crafts prices have a accelerated while the rarer porcelain now seems reasonably priced.
Looking back over his experience appraising ceramics at “Antique Roadshow” events, Rago noted, “I’ve seen tens of thousands of pieces of porcelain from around the world. I haven’t seen anything better than this.” The publication and sale of pieces from the Goldberg Collection is a perfect catalyst to re-ignite serious collector interest in the field.