home what's new general store workshops eastfield village articles
         
  Great American Craftsmen
 
  Articles
 
Don Carpentier's Pottery  
 
  by Jonathan Rickard
   
 

Don Carpentier's mocha is what' s been raising eyebrows, though his recreations of creamware, pearlware, and tortoiseshell decoration have been astonishing, too. He' s essentially self-taught as a potter, at it for only four years. His skills as a blacksmith and tinsmith, his knowledge of where to go to have things made, his mechanical abilities, and his willingness to work hard and long have combined to unlock many dusty secrets associated with how these pots were made. And that is principally why he's doing it; the challenge he can 't resist is to find out how and then to do it.

Creamware and pearlware are the two bodies on which most mocha prior to 1840 was produced. For Don's feather-edge and shell-edge creamware and pearlware forms, he uses period examples to make intricate wax molds. He has crafted his own profiles -- tools made of wood and sheet metal -- to provide just what the name implies: profiles of objects being turned on a wheel where perfect consistency of shape and size is desired.

Despite the working environment in his ninetieth-century Eastfield Village, he uses electric kilns, a powered wheel and lathe, and modern lighting (though he hates the problems fluorescent light creates in judging colors).

For the mocha, he has carved his own plaster molds for handle terminals, built his own dod box for extruding strap handles, recreated rouletting wheels for impressing textured bands into greenware, and made profiles for foot moldings seen on some of the nineteenth-century styles.

His early attempts at creating the basic bodies were done with commercially available raw materials. In the Carpentier's backyard, over a ridge is Don 's version of what the British call a waste tip, where all the unsuccessful trials and experiments go. By experimenting, by continually tweaking the ingredients and recipes for bodies based on period documents he 'd researched, Don eventually landed on a body that possessed the qualities he 'd been looking for in terms of color, weight, and feel. He determined that one body was sufficient for both creamware and pearlware, with different glazes giving each its typical appearance.

This simple realization proved to be something of a blockbuster for British ceramic historians. Terence Lockett, the English author of numerous books on ceramics and company-author with Pat Halfpenny of the upcoming Creamware and Pearlware, had long suspected it might have been possible to produce both using the same body recipe, both hadn't any means to prove it. The early creamwares produced in Staffordshire used a mix of local clay, ball clay shipped from Devon, and calcined (burned) flint to further whiten the body and to reduce the effects of thermal shock (cracks produced, for instance, when pouring boiling water into a teapot). Each potter tended to develop proportions of materials based on his own experience and availability of supplies, so there is no one true creamware or pearlware recipe. But the simple fact of Don's production proved to Lockett that the theory holds up in practice.

Because Don's village is intended to reflect the period 1820-40, mocha seemed the most appropriate ceramic type to develop. Mocha first appeared in the 1790's with the Staffordshire potters Lakin & Poole's mention in invoices of "Mocoe tumblers." Earlier existence of dipped wares now thought of as belonging to the mocha family is confirmed by other documentation suggesting production of slip-marbled refined wares in the 1770's. But the strongest period for mocha's popularity in the States was between 1800-40, fitting nicely into Eastfield Villages' time frame. (University of Delaware archaeologist George L. Miller has charted the American market for British ceramics and determined that mocha, or "Dipt Ware," tended after 1840 to have lost its visual vitality and settled into simple banded decoration on generic whitewares. American production, including dendritic, tree-like decoration, came along after 1850 but on a yellow-bodied earthenware much like Grandmother's yellow mixing bowls. )

Within the present understanding of mocha lie several slip decorative techniques: marbling, combed marbling, engine turning, dendritic, trailed, dipped, and those utilizing the tool know as a three-chambered slip pot: cat's eyes, earthworm and twig. Don has made them all. He starts with wheel-thrown pots kept workable in a damp box. He fixes the vessel to a mandrel on his lathe and begins to turn the piece as if it were soft wood, shaving away excess clay to produce the desired thin-walled body so like period examples. Then he stamps the foot, using one of his mold profiles or, for an unmolded base, a blade, the shavings curling up and away from the vessel like the work of a master potato peeler, When the shape seems satisfactory, Don burnishes the pot's surface with a thin, flexible blade of steel as it spins on the lathe.

Trying to match the general appearance of period pots, Don has discovered many things, principally that nearly all the techniques can and should be accomplished while the pot remains on the lathe and that the simplest possible techniques always produce the most satisfactory results. Since these pots were intended for sale at low prices (George Miller has determined that dipped wares were the cheapest decorated imported ceramics available in early America), they were produced quickly, with little fuss, and often showed the results of haste - smeared slip, fingerprints, dents, and kiln accidents. As Don grows more and more comfortable with the processes, he works faster and realizes that his speed and even carelessness produce a more believable piece of pottery.

He is now working with his own formulated slip (fluid clay), finding that, unlike commercially available slip, his own is easier to work with, the colors are closer to period examples, and they set up faster, allowing greater control.

With the pot properly shaped and burnished, Don then chooses one of his rouletting wheels and decides just where on the pot he'll position the textured bands. On this example, a pint mug, he places one about three-eighths inch from the rim. With the mug turning on the lathe, he rests the hand holding the tool against a bar running parallel to and in from of the lathe, places the rolling wheel of the tool against the clay body, and, as the mug continues spinning, begins to slowly apply pressure. The pattern of the textured wheel doesn't immediately run clear. Instead it look like a horrible mistake. But with slow and steady pressure, the pattern begins to read well. As soon as the pattern is clearly impressed, Don removes the roulette and repeats the produce about a half inch up from the base.

On either side of each rouletted band, Don then pours a thin line of dark brown-black slip from a squeeze bottle (he buys bottles of blue chalk powder at the hardware store and throws away the chalk; period potters would have used a slip cup with an attached hollow quill). Then he picks out another color slip in its squeeze bottle and starts a new slip band just below the top two black bands. This one is a slightly muddy orange brown that Don say will fire to a brighter color. Here he begins to move the slip bottle toward the bottom of the mug as he continues squeezing a slow, steady stream between the top and bottom bands.


Next he reaches for one of his three-chambered slip pots, a triangular sheet metal device with a loop handle at the broad end. At the narrow end are three holes fitted with hollow goose quills, each coming from a central discrete compartment into which Don pours, respectively, black, white, and blue slip. At the end furthest from the handle, the goose quills are gathered tightly together, Don holds this point about five inches above the orange slip field and tilts the quills down until a single tricolor drop falls, landing on the slip field in a well-defined "cat's eye" of the three contrasting colors. Repeating this process as the lathe slowly turns creates more cat's eyes, and then Don says "Watch this." He lets two cat's eyes overlap, then a third and a fourth, and there is the earthworm design (referred to in nineteenth-century documents as "common cable").

The mug is then careful removed from the mandrel and placed to the side. Don squeezes a length of clay from his dod box and uses as putty knife to cut it to the appropriate length for a handle. Then he presses each end against the side of the mug where he has prepared patch areas with a thin coat of slip adhere it to the body. The mug joins a group of others to air dry before a low-temperature bisques firing fixes the decoration so the glazing can be accomplished.

After the mug has been dipped in liquid glaze, turning the entire piece a temporary opaque pink, Don quickly brushes some glaze color onto the rouletted bands. On firing, this will turn a bight translucent green, related to the green shell edge coloring so prevalent on pearlware plates and platters of the same period. Don has struggled to get the right green. On period examples an oxide of copper was used which reacted in the kiln to the lead in the glaze to produce a brilliant green that seems nearly impossible to achieve any other way. He's don some limited trials using lead to prove his point but will only produce wares with lead-free glaze. Through trail and error, he's arrived at a successful an sale approximately.

Don finds the reaction to his work from knowledgeable curators, collectors, and dealers to be one of his greatest rewards. Amanda Lange, curator of glass and ceramics at the Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum in Delaware, on seeing his work for the first time, said, "Frightening." Frightening only because if Down weren't so scrupulous in marking his wares, people could easily be led into believing it to be period. Denis Blake-Roberts, deputy direct or of the Iron Bridge-Coalport Museum complex in England's Shrophire, has an array of eighteenth-century tortoise-shell creamware plates over his fireplace at home. In the midst of them is an imposter, one of Don's, with a border design molded with the words, "Success of the King of Prussia." Mr. Blake-Roberts knows exactly what he has and that's part of the fun of it.

Paul Atternbury is another British author and expert who's seen Don's work. Paul is one of the regulars on the BBC "Antiques Road Show" television program with Terry Lockett some episodes of which have been shown on American cable. "He's got the weight just right!" Paul exclaimed. "This is astonishing." When he was told that Don had been potting for only three years at the time, the normally effusive Mr. Attenbury was speechless.

Colonial Williamsburg has commissioned from Don a complete feather-edge creamware dinner service for display in several of their interpretive sites. Archaeological findings strongly suggest such a set is a appropriate, but no complete period sets have turned up.

Don's endeavors have been varied. As art director on the Merchant-Ivory film "The Bostonians," assistant art director on their "The Europeans," historical consultant on the Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep "Ironweed", and most recently, advisor on aspects of "The Age of Innocence," he's rubbed shoulders with some impressively accomplished people. He's close to finishing the restoration and stocking of his nineteenth-century general store, and he continues to organize, teach at, and run his annual nineteenth-century trades school, offering instruction in everything from building an early fireplace to ornamental stone carving. But making pots and solving all the problems of how the early potters made them is where Don has the most fun, at least for now.

   
  1998 The Foundry Communications All rights reserved