Reviving a lost art; Dedham pottery finds new life in reproductions

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As a child growing up in Dedham, Mass., Chotsie (Charlotte) Starr fell in love with the charming cobalt-blue-and-white tableware she saw on her trips to Pottery Lane.

Dedhamware, with its distinctive crackle glaze and whimsical animal borders--the most famous is a bunny munching on what may be a stalk of Brussels sprouts--was produced until 1943. An attractive and practical tableware, it was especially popular with the Boston Brahmins for use in their nurseries and summer homes.

Today, Dedhamware is eagerly sought by collectors, and original pieces command impressive prices; dinner plates, for example, are in the $100 range.

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In 1973, Chotsie Starr inadvertently stepped into an open, lucrative market when she took up ceramics to make pieces to supplement her collection of original Dedham pottery. She had no idea her hobby would soon turn into a flourishing business.

By trial and error Ms. Starr learned to replicate Dedhamware and soon equipped her small cellar studio with molds and a kiln. Within six to eight months she was selling locally among friends. In 1975, she started to sell her reproductions through two local retail shops.

Her two sons, Rob and Chris, joined the small business in 1977, and ''things got a little more serious,'' Ms. Starr says. She and her sons, together with some local artisans, founded the Potting Shed and moved productions out of the cellar into two floors of a spacious old New England factory building on Baharrel St. in West Concord, Mass.

With Rob Starr handling the business end, Chris Starr supervising the molds area, and the staff of 15 carrying out the daily operations, Ms. Starr is free to develop new designs and oversee special orders. In addition to the popular bunny pattern, the Potting Shed offers more than 50 others on special order. The floral and animal patterns, most taken from the original Dedhamware, include swan, butterfly, quail, iris, bear, peacock, turkey, chick, and turtle designs. Although smaller items sell for under $10, prices are generally in the $20 to $ 35 range.

Because of increased demand for the reproductions, the Potting Shed sells its wares through more than 250 sales outlets nationwide. In addition to the popularity and quality of the product, ''One selling point with wholesalers is the fact that it's a family business,'' Ms. Starr says.

Dedham tableware was originally produced by Hugh Cornwall Robertson, a turn-of-the-century Massachusetts potter. His white-and-cobalt-blue crackleware was inspired by a display of Oriental porcelains at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Through relentless experimenting, Robertson eventually recaptured the hairline-crackle glaze and color of the Ming porcelains he admired.

The first border designed for Robertson's tableware was the rabbit pattern, drawn by Alice Morse and Joseph Lindon Smith of the Museum of Fine Arts School, Boston. The pattern became so popular that the pottery adopted the rabbit as its trademark. The repertoire of freehand-painted animal borders eventually expanded to 50, including an elephant design made for the Republican Party during the time of President Teddy Roosevelt.

Hugh Robertson's son William succeeded his father in the business and presided over the operations until his death in 1929. Under J. Milton Robertson, the business floundered. The decline of interest in handmade products, coupled with his own lack of interest and inexperience with the pottery business, led the seventh-generation Robertson to cease production in 1943. The remaining stock was sold by Gimbels. In all, over 250,000 pieces of Dedhamware were produced and are now spread across the United States.

Like the original Dedhamware, the Potting Shed produces its reproductions entirely by hand. But because the original molds are no longer available, no piece is identical in shape to the Robertsons' Dedhamware.

Each piece, regardless of size, takes a week to complete. First, the pieces are formed individually in plaster molds, allowed to dry, and sanded smooth.

A small staff of artists then paints the border designs freehand. ''It's a matter of acquiring a steady hand,'' says Ms. Starr. Since the artists each have slightly different nuances in style, some collectors of the reproductions have started to collect pieces initialed by one particular artist.

After the pieces are painted, they are bisque fired in the kiln and then dipped in glaze. When the pieces are dry, they are fired again at a lower temperature. Out of the kiln the pieces are milky white and appear smooth, but sitting on the shelf, they give off a faint crackling sound. The crackled glaze is not visible until a carbon/water solution is rubbed onto the surface. The cracks absorb the color and give the piece its delicate tracery. The longer a piece is left before treating it with the solution, the more dense the tracery becomes.

The reproductions are easily distinguished from the originals by their trademarks. The Potting Shed uses the initial of the artist who painted the border, the date, and a five-pointed star. The original Dedham Pottery trademark was a square containing a rabbit.

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