Dr. David Park Curry, Senior Curator and Dept. Head of Decorative Arts, American Painting & Sculpture
You needn’t be a tea drinker to be charmed by this whimsical teapot with its soft, velvety bisque surface, tinted a blush pink not unlike a good rosé, resplendent with gilding. The teapot turns up at both ends – giving it an optimistic air. It is marked on the underside “Trenton N.J.”
“Trenton Makes – The World Takes.” So reads a large neon sign on an iron bridge spanning the Delaware River between Trenton, New Jersey and Morrisville, Pennsylvania. The manufacture of ceramics, first attempted during the colonial era, burgeoned there during the mid-19th century, establishing Trenton as a major ceramics center with fifty commercial pottery plants – hardly an auspicious moment to start yet another. However, nothing daunted, William T. Morris and Francis Willmore did just that, naming their new firm The Columbian Art Pottery. “Art” in the company title distinguished it from more utilitarian concerns – Trenton manufacturers were less noted for teapots than for potties – sanitary ceramics to furnish the earliest modern bathrooms.
Trenton lies just a few miles down from the spot where George Washington famously crossed the ice-choked Delaware River to mount a surprise attack on the British during the American Revolution, a bid for freedom largely driven by economics. Morris and Willmore’s attack on international markets was more subtle. By including “Columbian” in their company title, they took advantage of celebrity and name recognition generated by the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago, visited by more than 27 million people – an instant customer base avid for ceramic souvenirs manufactured by the Columbian Art Pottery.
If we can believe Emmanuel Leutze’s monumental Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art), the future president traveled in an open boat back in 1776. The actual site, west of Trenton, is a peaceful country glade bordering the river, but Leutze’s exaggerated Delaware conjures the high seas. Leutze hoped his theatrical picture would stir mid-19th-century liberal reformers in Europe who might be inspired by the earlier American patriots.
Intrepid sailors in an open boat really did cross the high seas heading for the World’s Columbian Exposition. They were Scandinavians, sailing an exact replica of a 9th-century Viking ship, excavated on at the Gokstad Farm in Norway in 1880. With its dragon head and upraised tail-like handle, the little teapot recalls the replica of the Gokstad Viking ship, one of the greatest attractions at the Chicago fair.
Today you can glimpse the Lower Trenton Bridge and its neon sign when dodging heavy traffic on I95. Leutze’s monumental painting of Washington is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The original Gokstad ship is in the Viking ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. To see the Columbian Art Pottery teapot, visit the new American Wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“Viking, replica of the Gokstad Viking ship, at the Chicago World Fair 1893“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.