Students of American ceramic history have long been taught that the first successful producers of porcelain in North America were Gousse Bonnin (1741-c.1780) and George Anthony Morris (1741/5-73), who ran the short-lived American China Manufactory in Philadelphia between 1769 and 1772.
But there was another story to be told.
For years, scholars had been aware that an
enigmatic Staffordshire potter, John Bartlam, had emigrated to
South Carolina around 1763 in the hope of mining the abundant raw
materials found in the region (china clays had first been used by
Andrew Duché in Savannah in the 1730s) and satisfy the desire
of colonial America to dine in the English style.
His factory was based first in Cain Hoy, on
the Wando river near Charleston, from 1765, and then in the port
city itself from 1770 until 1773 when Bartlam returned to
But exactly what he had made in South
Carolina was mere speculation until the Cain Hoy site was located
in 2007. There a team of archaeologists from the South Carolina
Institute of Archaeology recovered not just fragments of
press-moulded creamware (the subject of an article in the
Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts as early
as 1991), but also sherds of translucent soft-paste porcelain.
Of particular interest were the fragmentary
wasters of three blue-decorated teabowls, each painted to the rim
with a diaper pattern and transfer-printed with vignettes
previously unknown on extant English examples.
The potting was 'provincial' but Bartlam, or
one of his workmen, was clearly well versed in the art of engraving
a copperplate. Combining typical chinoiserie motifs with a
rendering of a palmetto to the interior (a nod to a well-known
South Carolina symbol?), the design was quickly dubbed the
Bartlam on the Wando pattern.
The findings knocked into a cocked hat the
notion that the 19 pieces of porcelain surviving from the American
China Manufactory were the first produced on the continent (in fact
it emerged Bonnin and Morris had taken adverts in the Charleston
press in the hope of head-hunting Bartlam's employees). But had any
finished vessels survived?
In 2010, the London-based English porcelain
specialist Roderick Jellicoe spotted an intact Bartlam teabowl in a
British collection - identifying it from the distinctive
transfer-printed decoration found on sherds at Cain Hoy.
In April 2010, after scientific and visual
analysis confirmed the discovery, he sold it to the Chipstone
Foundation in Milwaukee. Shortly afterwards ceramics historian
Robert Hunter penned an article in The Magazine
Antiques in January/February 2011.
"This newly-discovered 18th century teabowl,
a modest object by any measure, represents the earliest intact
example of American-made porcelain," he wrote. "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."
Hunter hoped that more Cain Hoy porcelain
might emerge on the market and, indeed, one teabowl soon became
four. Again Britain was the source.
The publication of the new discovery on the
Chipstone's website was doubtless of interest to the various UK
private collectors who had bought three idiosyncratic teabowls from
Jupiter Antiques of East Sussex in 2004.
At the time they were sold as Isleworth (the
short-lived London factory that itself only arrived on the
collecting map in the late 1990s), but their reattribution moved
them into an altogether different collecting sphere… and an
altogether different financial league too.
While none of the bowls was in perfect
condition, one was sold to the Philadelphia Museum of Art last
autumn for $75,000, while another now resides in a private
collection. The third - described as 'the property of an English
collector' - was offered for sale by
Christie's New York as part of their Americana sale on January
25 with an estimate of $30,000-50,000. There it sold at $120,000
(£76,000) - or $146,500 including buyer's premium - to a buyer who
wishes to remain anonymous.
Quite why all four examples of Cain Hoy
porcelain were found in Britain is a matter for conjecture, but
perhaps Bartlam was shipping his porcelain to Britain for sale or
had returned home with some of his stock.
Many questions remain regarding these survivors from the
embryonic years of American porcelain production. Above all - are
there more out there?