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Between 1770 and 1772, Philadelphia was home to an ambitious, complex commercial and artistic undertaking that mirrored the spirit of independence taking shape throughout the city and the American colonies. Encouraged by the production of porcelain at John Bartlam’s factory outside Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1760s, Gousse Bonnin — an Antiguan-born émigré from England — and George Anthony Morris — a native Philadelphian from a large and prominent family — launched the American China Manufactory in the city’s Southwark section near what is now known as the Navy Yard. The primary ingredient of the soft-paste porcelain was a pure, white clay that Bonnin and Morris procured from deposits along the Delaware River in New Castle County, Delaware. In two short years and despite formidable obstacles, the firm produced fine and delicate tablewares that audaciously rivaled the stylish English soft-paste porcelains that had previously laid nearly a full claim to the American market. Wares surviving from the factory’s production are referred to today as “Bonnin and Morris” in honor of the two proprietors known for creating some of America’s earliest commercially available porcelain. Colonial Philadelphia Porcelain: The Art of Bonnin and Morris will bring together for the first time the 19 known surviving examples of their porcelain along with large-scale sherds unearthed in excavations of the factory site now hidden under the shadow of Interstate 95.
The exhibition will focus on the quality, range and technical achievements of these porcelain wares, and present important archaeological remains from the factory site, placing the work of Bonnin and Morris within Philadelphia’s artistic, intellectual, and economic landscape of the late colonial era. Further framing Bonnin and Morris’ place in history will be Turned and Thrown: English Pottery, 1660-1820 (on view in nearby Gallery 227a from March 29 – July 27, 2008), which showcases some of the English wares that served both as inspiration and competition for the Philadelphia partners’ production.
Visitors will have the unprecedented opportunity to see all of the surviving Bonnin and Morris wares together and to compare the forms and the variety of decoration on them. The pieces include: woven fruit baskets (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Detroit Institute of Arts, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and 2 from private collections); pickle, or sweetmeat, stands (National Museum of American History — The Smithsonian Institution, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and a private collection); a single pickle dish (Philadelphia Museum of Art); and sauce boats (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — Bayou Bend). Select sherds from the factory site, owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and other archaeological sites along Market Street (owned by Independence National Historic Park), along with advertisements and invoices will offer insight into the full array of wares made at the American China Manufactory, including evidence of underglaze iron oxide (red) decoration used on some vessels. Philadelphia was the natural setting for Bonnin and Morris’s commercial venture. The city’s intellectual community, represented in the establishment and membership of institutions such as the Library Company and the American Philosophical Society played a key role in promoting American manufacturing, scientific pursuits, and the expansion of trade. Recent scholarship by Glenn Adamson, contributing scholar to this project, suggests that Bonnin and Morris’s porcelain actually evolved from the late 18th century’s lingering interest in alchemy.
Eminent Philadelphians active in scientific, social and cultural enterprise supported Bonnin and Morris’s factory, including Pennsylvania statesman Thomas Wharton, Revolutionary War general John Cadwalader; and Dr. Benjamin Rush, the patriot who urged colonists to launch and support domestic industries as a means of overcoming economic dependence on Britain. Benjamin Franklin’s wife, Deborah, procured china from Bonnin and Morris and had it shipped to her husband in London in 1771. He responded, “… I am pleased to find so good progress made in the China Manufactory. I wish it Success most heartily.” While there were notable similarities between some of the firm’s wares and those of the trans-Atlantic competitors, individual forms such as the two-tiered pickle stand whose elements are molded from actual shells and the diminutive covered baskets that reveal an originality that distinguishes Bonnin and Morris from their English contemporaries. Research indicates that Bonnin and Morris employed highly skilled European-trained craftsmen. The cost and difficulty of securing and maintaining these skilled and experienced artisans, many of whom were lured to the colonies from England with promises of paid passage and higher wages, proved ultimately too great for the firm to sustain. After Britain repealed the unpopular Townshend Acts imposing taxes on luxury consumer goods, support among colonists for continuing the boycott waned and further damaged domestic business. Like so many porcelain manufacturers, Bonnin and Morris were forced to terminate operations at the American China Manufactory after only two years. However, their ambitious experiment demonstrated that colonial Americans were capable of producing high-quality domestic goods and were committed to economic independence.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Chipstone Foundation and Kaufman American Foundation have devoted the 2007 volume of Ceramics in America, edited by Robert Hunter, to writings on Bonnin and Morris. This informative and richly illustrated book reprints Graham Hood’s seminal 1972 research on Bonnin and Morris that emerged from the 1967 excavation, and features new essays from leading decorative arts scholars and makers, including the exhibition’s curator, Associate Curator of American Art Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, who wrote the catalogue raisonné. The book is available for purchase ($65 cloth, 314 pages) in the Museum Store by calling (800) 329-4856 or by visiting the website.
The Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Sotheby’s will sponsor a symposium at the Museum on April 9, 2008, entitled Bonnin and Morris: New Perspectives on Philadelphia’s Role in the Production of Early American Porcelain (Van Pelt Auditorium, 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m.). Tickets are $40 for members, $50 for nonmembers. To register, call 215-235-SHOW or visit the website.