Studying Southern Ceramics from Newcomb Pottery and Lycett Studios

Mar 20, 2020

by Elyse D. Gerstenecker

A Marie Zimmermann Summer Research Grant allowed me to travel to several collections and archives in Louisiana and Georgia essential to my PhD dissertation in the University of Virginia’s Art & Architectural History department. 

Titled “In Some Way Southern: Lycett Studios, Newcomb Pottery, and Design in the New South, 1883-1910,” this dissertation resituates these stylistically divergent ceramic producers within the dynamic context of the post-Reconstruction South. Probing their chosen design vocabularies and their emulation of ceramic and artistic production in the Northeast, my research asserts that the manufacturers’ production signals emerging Southern identities to their consumers and can potentially be viewed as expressions of competing cultural hegemonies.

The Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University proved a fruitful starting point for surveying Newcomb Pottery’s ceramic production from 1895 to 1910. I examined a wide range of forms, including several early works. Particularly significant is a porcelain Limoges plate painted in 1895 that evinces the similarities between Newcomb’s artistic practices and those of Lycett. Close analysis directed my attention to details such as the body’s thickness and the ornament’s textural finishes. Several of the objects retain their original labels, which, in my view, signify both their status as art objects and their depiction of “exotic” subjects in need of translation to the viewer.

This research has also afforded further consideration of the design languages in which Newcomb Pottery participated. For example, the designs’ linearity, saturation of color, and high-gloss glaze suggest strong aesthetic relationships to contemporaneous stained glass and graphic design that were also influenced by japonisme.

Archival research was equally productive. Tulane’s University Archives contained numerous illuminating period articles on the Pottery, but most important for this dissertation are the pamphlets from the Pottery’s early period that promote a narrative of the products as particularly “Southern” and unique.

I then traveled to Georgia to examine painted china from the Lycett Studios, as well as to delve into local archival materials. At the Atlanta History Center, I studied Lycett’s famed “white and gold” ware (ornament and monograms painted in gold on white porcelain) to ascertain the range of porcelain forms that Lycett imported and modes of gilt ornament. I also viewed several examples of specialty work. Tracing the Lycett Studios’ company history and local advertisements has led me to question some of the prevailing assumptions about the company’s structure.

In Athens, GA, I analyzed a group of showpiece Lycett china at the Georgia Museum of Art and met with Dale Couch, Curator of Decorative Arts, to discuss the project. Seeing Lycett china in person prompted and renewed questions about the relationship, or lack thereof, between form and ornament on the objects, the continued regional popularity of European porcelain from the Antebellum period, the scale of monograms and their relationship to familial heritage, and the significance of gilding. 

Because my dissertation relies upon close object analysis, the grant from the Decorative Arts Trust and the Marie and John Zimmermann Fund was critical to my progress.

The Decorative Arts Trusts offers grants, scholarships, and many more opportunities for young researchers and curators as part of the Emerging Scholars Program. To support this program, consider becoming a member of the Trust. 

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