Monday, June 02, 2008

Hercules: The Water Jug

When two people marry, according to Late Byzantine customs, they should be given a ceramic plate symbolizing their union into a new domestic unit, wishing blessings of fecundity and dining bliss (or it's just an early form of the registry). Many such plates survive from Cyprus, Corinth and other Byzantine sites. The most beautiful specimen (right) is an incised sgraffito plate excavated in Corinth during the 1930s (Charles Morgan, Corinth XI: The Byzantine Pottery. Cambridge, Mass., 1942, pl. LII). Alison Frantz (Hesperia 10, 1941, pp. 9-13), James Notopoulos (Hesperia 33, 1964, pp. 108-133) and others have tried to connect the scene with Digenis Akritas, wishing to heroize a modest representation. I think it's just a wedding plate no different in spirit than the ceramics illustrated in the ad (left) from April 25, 1940. In early 1940, Westinghouse held a letter-writing context with 10 refrigerators given away each week to the bride with the best answer to "I should have a Westinghouse Refrigerator because ..." In the middle right of the page, the conjugal refrigerator has been opened to show four complimentary ceramic gifts: a blue water jug at the top tray, two left-over dishes (green and yellow) and a yellow butter dish at the bottom tray (see below for detail zoom). The set constitutes the Hercules line produced by the Hall China Company in East Liverpool, Ohio between 1940 and 1941, as a complementary gift accompanying the purchase of a new refrigerator. On purely formal terms (color, shape, line, texture, etc.), the Hercules water jug is one of my favorite objects of 20th-century design.

On the occasion of the marriage between Elias Markolefas and Iota Vassilopoulou, I explore one particular vessel that brings modernism and archaeology into harmonious cohort. Preferring the aquatic metaphors of wedlock (refrigerated in the hot months of summer), my gift is a cobalt blue Hercules water jug, which I acquired on eBay. Now that it has safely arrived to Athens in one piece, I can write a few words without the threat of jinxing it. When the vessel arrived, it had a distinctive smell, suggesting that it served its las owner as a cigar box, making it additionally appropriate for the smoking room introspection that philosophical Elias continuously accommodates.

Hercules was designed by J. Palin Thorley (1892-1987), a fascinating individual of diverse skills and a pioneer in combining modernity with the material past. The first Hercules water jug I ever saw belongs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was featured in American Modern, 1925-1940: Design for a New Age, an exhibit that came through the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2002 (exhibition catalog, J. Stewart Johnson, New York, 2000, p. 155). Thorley also designed the “General” water jug (1939), which I saw for the first time at the Victoria and AlbertMuseum, London. It’s possible that Thorley also designed the “Phoenix” collection (1937-1939), but I haven’t found any proof of this. I began collecting Hall pottery in 2004, after seeing a stunning red “Ball Jug” (introduced in 1938) in Hamilton, Ontario. Since then, I have spotted Hall ceramics in antique stores throughout the Carolinas and on eBay. It’s quite an affordable habit. The moment I heard of my friends' marriage, I set out in a quest to find a Hercules jug for them. Given how cheaply-manufactured plastic containers have taken over our domestic lives, I find it especially apt to celebrate the ceramic containers of early modernity and recycle them in use, hoping that their ethics of production and their exceptional aesthetics will guide domestic life.

Thorley was born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, considered to be the home of England's pottery industry. He studied art in the Hanley School (1902) and apprenticed in the drawing department of Wedgwood (1906-1913), where, among other projects, he worked on Theodore Roosevelt’s and William Taft’s china service for the White House. As America began to dominate the industrial ceramics market, opportunities and demand grew; in 1927, Thorley immigrated to East Liverpool, Ohio hired as artistic director of booming local pottery firms, including the Hall China Company. A notable chapter in his career included a position at Colonial Williamsburg (1941-1956). In 1937, Thorley entered academia founding the ceramics department at the University of Pittsburgh, soon after the completion of the fabulous Cathedral of Learning (see, Lucia Curta, "Constructing 'Imagined Community': The Romanian Classroom at the University of Pittsburgh, 1927-1943," Studies in the Decorative Arts 5:2 (Spring-Summer 1998), pp. 40-68). By 1942, Thorley is no longer listed as professor. The trans-global designer and short-lived academic was also an archaeologist. He took part in the excavations of Tell Beit Mirsim and Bab ed-Dra', collaborating with William F. Albright (John Hopkins) and James L. Kelso (Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary).

Most importantly, Thorley pioneered methods known today as "experimental archaeology." Reviewing Thorley's chapter in W. F. Albright's, The Excavations of Tell Beit Mirsim 3: The Iron Age (New Haven, 1943), Herbert G. May writes, "For the first time we have a definitive analysis of the texture and manufacture of Palestinian pottery, based on experimentation and collaboration between ceramic expert and archaeologist. Other institutions may follow suit" (H. G. May, Journal of Biblical Literature 63:2, (June 1944), p. 194). There is no doubt in my mind that Thorley's direct archaeological experience influenced his design and craft. We know of his early love with archaeology following the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb; Thorley joined the British Army in World War I with the the hope of making it to Egypt. Thorley's Hall pottery for Westinghouse has streamlined ribs that, on the one had, remind us of machine age aesthetics but, on the one hand, speak of ribbed amphoras from the Late Roman Mediterranean.

As was the case with many archaeologists of the 1920s and the 1930s, the past was usable. The line between archaeological research and modern design was porous. For Thorley, the ancient potter was contemporary, a colleague invested in the challenges of synthetic material. He writes, "We live in a day of synthetics--synthetic rubber, synthetic gasoline, synthetic perfumes, and countless others. The first synthetic to be discovered in mankind was pottery, an artificial stone produced by firing clay shapes to a temperature sufficiently high to change the physical and chemical properties of the original clay into a new substance with many of the characteristics of stones."(Kelso and Thorley, "Palestinian Pottery in Bible Times," Biblical Archaeologist 8:4 (December 1945), pp. 88). Thorley and the ancient potter were engaged in a common agenda, the creation of a synthetic world. The industrial challenges of modernity were historicized with the origins of civilized society. Similarly, free enterprise found its precedents in craft production: "Pottery represented one of the major manufacturing industries of the ancient world and the Israelite potters belonged to what we call today 'up and coming business men'." (Ibid, p. 81).

From the designer's point of view, ceramic vessels are conditioned by common functions. Thorley's Hercules water jug fits snuggly next to the freezer of the Westinghouse refrigerator (ad detail). It stores water, cools it and finally pours it. Its job is related to that of ancient jugs like one described by Albright, Kelso and Thorley: "The spout of this jar is excellent designing. The problem of drip is handled by giving the lower surface of the spout a sharp upward cut back so that the drop cannot follow the contour of the spout and smear up the face of the jar. Furthermore the spout, although a short one and placed high on the jar, reaches beyond the body of the jar and thus prevents any drops smearing the jar ... The flat top of the spout depresses the liquid as it passes through the spout, thus making a better stream for controlled pouring. Furthermore, this almost flat surface gives variety and contrast to the well-rounded three-dimensional volume of the pot--a principle of design used in the best modern teapots." ( "Early-Bronze Pottery from Bab ed-Dra in Moag," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (Oct. 1944), p. 13).

From a historiographic point of view, Thorley is all but forgotten. His papers were acquired by the College of William and Mary in 1996 and can be found at the Special Collections of the Earl Gregg Swem Library. The best secondary literature is two articles by John Austin in Ceramics in America (2005 and 2006). I thank my friend and colleague Mike Vatalaro for the inspiration in contemporary ceramics. Mike is Art Department Chair and Professor of Ceramics at Clemson University. Born, raised and educated in Akron, Ohio, he knows all about the Ohio ceramics industries. As an MFA graduate student at Alfred University, moreover, he witnessed the discovery of terra sigilata's material constitution. I wish I could put Mike Vatalaro and Guy Sanders (dir. of Corinth Excavations and world authority on Roman/Byzantine ceramics) in the same room (or kiln) and sit back to watch the sparkles fly.

For more research on Thorley, I offer a preliminary bibliography below.

Mazel tov to Elias and Iota (and an overdue gift)

Albright, William Foxwell. 1943. The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim (Joint Expedition of the Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary and the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem), v. 3, The Iron Age. (The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, vols. 21-22, for 1941-43), New Haven. Chapter by James Leon Kelso and J. Palin Thorley.

Albright, William Foxwell, James Leon Kelso, and J. Palin Thorley. 1944. “Early-Bronze Pottery from Bab ed-Dra’ in Moab,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 95 (Oct., 1944), pp. 3-13.

Austin, John C. 2005. “J. Palin Thorley (1892-1987), Potter and Designer: Part I,” Ceramics in America 2005, ed. Robert Hunter, Hanover and London, pp. 160-201.

Austin, John C. 2006. “J. Palin Thorley (1892-1987), Potter and Designer: Part 2, Williamsburg Ceramics in America,” Ceramics in America 2006.

Bowman, Raymond A. 1944. Rev. William Foxwell Albright, The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim. Volume III, The Iron Age, in The American Historical Review 49:4 (Jul., 1944), pp. 691-692.

Kelso, James Leon, and J. Palin Thorley. 1945. “Palestinian Pottery in Bible Times,” The Biblical Archaeologist 8:4 (Dec. 1945), pp. 81-93.

Kelso, James Leon, and J. Palin Thorley. 1946. “A Ceramic Analysis of Late-Mycenaean and Other Late-Bronze Vases from Jett in Palestine,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 104 (Dec., 1946), pp. 21-25.

May, Herbert Godon. 1944. Book review of Albright 1943, Journal of Biblical Literature 63:2 (Jun. 1944), pp. 191-195.

Thorley, J. Palin 1938-1941. “Pottery Fundamentals” in Pottery, Glass and Brass Salesman, starting May 1938 and at least to June 1941.

Thorley, J. Palin 1942. “The Ceramic Designer in Wartime” Crockery and Glass Journal, two part article, June and August.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States