While some collecting trends come and go, the vivid color and creative decoration of Pennsylvania redware has ensured its continuing popularity since its 18th- and 19th-century roots. Made from clay native to Southeastern Pennsylvania, the bright earthenware pieces go as well with contemporary design as they do with period interiors.
Now pottery enthusiasts can see some of the region's most important pieces in a new exhibition starting Saturday at the Brandywine River Museum, "Seeing Red: Southeastern Pennsylvania Earthenware from Winterthur." The opening coincides with the first day of the museum's annual antiques show, which brings together 31 distinguished dealers at the charming Chadds Ford locale.
Catharine Dann Roeber, the exhibition's guest curator, has been cataloging the ceramics holdings at Winterthur, the nearby Wilmington museum of American decorative arts, and had the delicious task of selecting 50 objects for the Brandywine display from the museum's stellar collection.
"The guiding principle for choosing the objects was to emphasize the diversity of makers and users in Southeastern Pennsylvania and also to pick well-attributed examples," Roeber said.
At a time when American families were still importing tableware from abroad for their best china, locally made redware was used for utilitarian purposes, from storage jars and baking dishes to roof tiles and flower pots. The pottery's utility is one of the characteristics that Roeber finds so intriguing: "Every family would have had some type of redware in their life."
While this sounds like plain stuff, the clay has inspired creativity.
Decorations were added to the basic shapes through the use of colored slip - cream, brown, or more rarely, green. Even basic shapes like a flower pot could be adorned with added figures and shapes cut out of clay.
"Some of them were made to be completely useful day-to-day objects," Roeber said. "But then there were pieces that had a function but were intended as special items when they were made."
The potters who did the best work were sought out by customers. The appearance of names, dates, and inscriptions in German or English indicate that some pieces were commissioned as affectionate or commemorative presents.
A perfect example in the exhibition is a decorated dish, which Roeber calls "the creme de la creme of Pennsylvania redware," attributed to George Hubener of Montgomery County.
Not only is the plate covered with a fanciful pattern of a peacock, pinwheels, and tulips, it is incised with the date 1787 and an inscription around the edge. Translated from German, it says: "Were there no men or roosters, the cradles and chicken houses would be empty."
A very similar plate attributed to Hubener was sold in January 2008 at Pook & Pook in Downingtown for $351,000. But in this market, redware also turns up at auctions and shows priced in the $400 to $600 range, said Ron Pook, and "you could get a nice little plate for under $1,000."
Pook admits to being a redware fan: "It's one of my favorite things actually - it's so dramatic, so unique to this area. I love the material."
The value of redware is determined by qualities including color, decoration, form, and condition. The latter is particularly important because earthenware pottery is especially fragile and prone to chips or cracks.
Serious collectors will seek out larger pieces and unusual shapes, colorful slip designs, and incised inscriptions that add context. Pook explained, "You want to have some sort of slip decoration - wavy lines, for example - and the more ornate that is, the higher the price."
The redware display ties into the current exhibition at Winterthur, "Paint, Pattern and People: Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725-1850." An expedition to both museums makes a perfect day's outing.