American Porcelain Teabowl

Editorial Staff Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2011 |

Students of American ceramic history have special reverence for the story of domestically made eighteenth-century porcelain. This tale begins with Andrew Duché’s dis­­covery of “Carolina Clay” in the 1730s and his purported experimental production in Charleston, South Carolina, though no physical evidence of his endeavors has ever come to light.  Meanwhile, some nineteen objects survive from the American China Manufactory founded by Gousse Bonnin (1741–c. 1780) and George Anthony Morris (1742/5–1773) in Philadelphia, so Bonnin and Morris have been championed as the first successful producers of soft-paste porcelain, and their surviving products are considered America’s most important ceramic relics.

  • Fig. 1.  Interior of a teabowl made at the pottery of John Bartlam (1735 or 1736–1781), Cain Hoy (now Cainhoy), South Carolina, 1765–1770. Soft-paste porcelain with transfer-printed and hand-painted decoration; height 1 ⅝, diameter 2 ⅞ inches. The palmetto motif is transfer printed while the diaper band circling the inside lip is hand-painted. Chipstone Foundation, Milwaukee; photograph by Jim Wildeman.

  • Fig. 2.  Teabowl fragments excavated from the site of Bartlam’s pottery at Cain Hoy, 1765–1770. Soft-paste porcelain with transfer-printed decoration. South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, Columbia; photograph by Gavin Ashworth.

  • Fig. 3. Teabowl by Bartlam. The transfer-printed
    decoration matches that on the excavated fragments.
    Chipstone Foundation; Wildeman photograph.

  • Figs. 4a, 4b.  Reconstructed teabowl fragments excavated at Bartlam’s pottery site. South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology; Ashworth photographs.

  • Figs. 5a, 5b. As seen in these views of the Bartlam teabowl, the transfer-printed decoration matches that on the recovered fragments. Chipstone Foundation; Wildeman photographs.

For years, scholars had been aware that another master potter, John Bartlam immigrated to South Carolina from Staffordshire around 1763 to exploit the abundant clays of the region and to take advantage of the growing American market for English style table wares. Bartlam may have been producing soft-paste porcelain as early as 1765 in the settlement of Cain Hoy just north of Charleston, and then later in Charleston until 1773. But the extent of his manufactory was not recognized until archaeologist Stanley South and his team from the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Brad Rauschenberg, former director of research at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, found the nants of his site in Cain Hoy.1 Their excavations recovered misfired waster fragments of press-molded creamware and blue decorated porcelain. Of particular interest was the recovery of three fragmentary but matching porcelain teabowls (see Fig. 2, 4).

In-depth examination of the teabowl sherds by geologist J. Victor Owen revealed that the paste was consistent with phosphatic soft-paste porcelain, not dissimilar from the recipe used by Bonnin and Morris in Philadelphia.2 In addition, when the layer of brown oxidation that had resulted from their long burial in the soil was carefully scraped away, the fragments were discovered to have blue transfer-printed decoration similar to the popular chinoiserie scenes used by several English porcelain factories. the fragments were discovered to have blue transfer-printed decoration similar to the popular chinoiserie scenes used by several English porcelain factories.

Three separate prints were applied to the teabowls: two on the outside and a smaller one on the bottom of the interior. None had been previously identified on any extant English examples, suggesting not only that they were unique to Bartlam’s South Carolina venture but also that Bartlam or one of his workmen was well versed in the art of engraving the copperplates necessary to create the transfers. At first this may seem like a high level of sophistication for a fledging American operation, until it is remembered that the workmen at the American China Factory also engraved copperplates.

The two exterior teabowl scenes incorporate a vocabulary found in Chinese and English porcelain decoration. They show Chinese style houses amidst riverine scenes, one with a distinctive vignette of two men in a small boat. The interior image of a tree on a rock likewise has general parallels to Chinese and English porcelain motifs (see Fig. 4b), though, as several scholars have noted, the similarity of the tree to a palmetto tantalizingly suggests a link to what has become a well-known South Carolina symbol.

Armed with the information provided by the scientific and visual analysis of the Bartlam sherds, one of the researchers working on the project, the English porcelain dealer and scholar Roderick Jellicoe, recently discovered the bowl shown here in an English collection. The printed scenes are identical to those on the Bartlam archaeological examples, and in fact, appear to have come from the same copperplates. While the soft-paste porcelain is translucent, the potting of the bowl is not up to the standards of the more prominent English makers, suggesting provincial manufacture. And, perhaps most importantly, initial X-ray fluorescence testing of the ceramic paste indicates a clear relationship to the Bartlam fragments.

How an intact Bartlam teabowl could have made its way to England can be posited in several ways. Certainly the antiques trade could have brought it to England at almost any time during the twentieth century. However, it is also possible that Bartlam, who returned home in 1769 to raise capital and obtain additional workers, brought finished products with him to show to potential investors. Moreover, he may have been shipping some his products back to England all along, as suggested in a 1764 advertisement in the London Evening Post that records, “This week, some pieces of porcelain manufactured in Georgia was imported.”3 While those porcelains have been ascribed to Samuel Bowen, a potter reportedly working in Savannah, Bartlam could have similarly been sending finished goods back to England.

Additional research is underway to learn more about the entirety of Bartlam’s South Carolina venture, and it is hoped that other examples will surface in the marketplace.  (So far, no examples of his creamware have been firmly identified.) A much-needed task is the archaeological examination of his works in Charleston, where he relocated from Cain Hoy in 1770. Although the Charleston factory was short-lived, closing in 1773, its excavation could contribute enormously to the history of American ceramics.  In the meantime, the newly discovered eighteenth-century teabowl, a modest object by any measure, represents the earliest intact example of American-made porcelain. And, equally important, its discovery reflects the dynamic nature of decorative arts scholarship, where the next turn of the spade or opening of a forgotten drawer might bring a piece of the past back to life.

1 Stanley A South, John Bartlam: Staffordshire in Carolina, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology Research Manuscript Series 231 (University of South Carolina, Columbia, 2004); Bradford L. Rauschenberg, “John Bartlam, Who Established ‘new Pottworks in South Carolina’ and Became the First Successful Creamware Potter in America,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, vol. 17, no. 2 (November 1991), pp. 1–66. 

2 J. Victor Owen, “Geochemistry of High-Fired Bartlam Ceramics” in Ceramics in America 2007,  pp. 209–218. 

3 London Evening Post, November 20–22, 1764. My thanks to Angelika Kuettner for locating this notice.

ROBERT HUNTER is an independent scholar and coeditor of Ceramics in America.