When Robert Condon first began collecting Bennington ware nearly 20 years ago. his wife's aunt was scandalized. She remembered when, on a moving day long ago, her family had tossed out their Bennington pottery rather than bother to take it along.
But Mr. Condon, who, in addition to being a collector, is president of the board of trustees of the Bennington Museum, likes the fact that Bennington ware was often made for the humblest of household tasks. "Just like the plastic items of today, it was made to be used,"m he says. "But it was made with such care that it rose above its utilitarian purpose and became beautiful and artistic."
few gazing at the remarkably glazed pitchers, bowls, foot warmers, pie plates , picture frames, soap dishes, candlesticks, lamp bases, and decorative objects that make up the Bennington Museum's definitive collection would hesitate to agree. So highly prized has the pottery and porcelain become that prices can range anywhere from $40 for a plain stoneware jug up to many thousands of dollars for a rare piece of Rockingham or flint enamel.
Anyone contemplating joining Condon in his hobby should begin either by visiting the Bennington Museum or by reading Richard Carter Barret's "Bennington Pottery and Porcelain" (New York: Crown Publishers), a splendid history and identification guide liberally illustrated with items from the museum collection.
What both reveal is that the, term "Bennington" can be applied to a vast array of pottery and porcelain made in the town, including salt-glazed stoneware , redware, granite ware, flint enamel, scroddled ware, Rockingham, Parian, and others. What they all have in common is that they were made by only two pottery companies, one of which was in business for a scant 10 years.
The most enduring of the two companies was the one started by Capt. John Norton in 1793, just two years after Vermont became a state.The Norton Company, which primarily turned out stoneware jugs and crocks bearing a simple cobalt blue flower or animal design on the front, was in business for over a century.
Although made for the mundane uses of storing liquids and preserves, the Norton stoneware has recently started to command not-so-mundane prices. Those with the more unusual designs such as a lion or deer can easily bring between $ 500 and $1,000 or more.
Norton stoneware is usually the easiest of Bennington pottery to identify, as it often bears the Norton name in cobalt lettering near the spout or rim. The stoneware's appeal is in its classic shapes and the stunning contrast of cobalt blue on the smooth gray surface. Despite its rising value, a late 19th-century Norton jug with a flower design can still be had for between $50 and $100, a handsome and worthwhile investment.
But the most varied and unsually most valuable Bennington pottery is that produced in the short span by Charles Webber Fenton, who married into the Norton family and then started his own US pottery company in 1847. While his in-laws concentrated on stoneware, Fenton began intense experimentation in new types of pottery and porcelain, none of which have been exactly duplicated since.
One popular line that Fenton produced, Rockingham, was not his invention, glaze-finished pottery produced in England and elsewhere in the United STates. Fenton added his own designs and unusual mottling techniques to Rockingham, producing pieces with a streaked and spattered brown glaze that combined with the yellow body clay to make a tortoise-shell effect.
Because the mottled sufaces were created in the imprecise way of dipping a paddle into a vat of glaze and then spattering it on the pottery, no two pieces of Rockingham are exactly alike. The museum's cases of toby jugs, kitchen items , and animal figures reveal each item to have a speckled pattern of its own.
Other cases display a dazzling array of flint enamel, a type of glazed pottery that is truly Fenton's own. Using powdered oxides to produce vivid shades of green, blue, and brown and then sprinkling them over a wet, clear glaze, Fenton invented this type of pottery in 1849.
Another Fenton innovation is scroddled ware, a type of pottery in which swirls of colored clay were mixed together to produce an effect not unlike a marble cake. Because it was not popular in its day and was particularly fragile , few perfect pieces of scroddled ware have survived.
Fenton would perhaps have been surprised at the attention now paid to his pottery, as it was his fancy porcelains that he valued the most. His dream was to duplicate the fine china of Europe, to make the village of Bennington into the staffordshre of America.
About half the museum collection of Bennington ware is devoted to Fenton's porcelain, much of it Parian, a white, unglazed ware resembling marble. Often it was accented with a vivid blue color, giving it the look of Wedgwood. While the pottery served mainly as useful household objects, the porcelains are mostly statuettes and other much-embellished decorative items. Some of the porcelain pieces are elegant sets of dinner china, almost indistinguishable from that produced abroad.
What both the Fenton pottery and porcelain have in common is that neither is eady for the beginner to identify. Because less than a quarter of his work was marked, all the factors of color, design, and glaze have to be carefully considered.
Although Bennington ware was mostly made for local customers, a lot of it has eventually found its way throughout the nations. "I know of people in California and Texas who are among the most avid collectors," Condon says. He is now helping to form the Bennington Pottery Guild, an organization for collectors.
Despite its growing scarcity and expense, Condon believes that collectors should never give up hope of finding an undiscovered piece of Bennington ware on their own. "Because it was a household commodity, some of it is undoubedtly, tucked away in attics or cellars," he says. "New pieces do turn up even now, sometimes items that we never knew were made."
Perhaps the most exciting example of this is in connection with an 1853 exhibition of Bennington ware held at the Crystal Palace in New York. A report of the event in a Boston paper was accompanied by a drawing of some of the special pieces on display. "Two of them were flint enamel figures of a standing doe and a standing stag," Condon says. "For years the museum was completely puzzled as to the whereabouts of either. Then, at an auction during the 1930s, the stag turned up and was acquired by the museum. What happened to the does is still a mystery."
Does he believe the elusive figure will ever turn up?
"Oh, yes, absolutely," he says, undoubtedly counting on the enthusiasm of his fellow collectors to ensure this is so.