NEW YORK – When it came to making stoneware, the Kirkpatrick brothers did not shy away from mixing politics with their art. Cornwall and Wallace Kirkpatrick, who founded and ran Anna Pottery, in Anna, Illinois, 1859-1896, reportedly likened politicians to a “den of vipers” and often espoused their political beliefs on the snake jugs they made. Wallace Kirkpatrick was said to have been long fascinated with snakes and had quite a few of his own. It’s also been speculated that the snake imagery here is biblically inspired and symbolizes evil and mankind’s falling from grace.
A striking form among American stoneware, Anna Pottery’s snake jugs are highly desirable today. In general, the more ornate the jug, the more valuable. Pinched forms are also highly sought after. Some jugs have one or two snakes while the best examples will have multiple intertwined snakes. Occasionally, figures and other animals also appear. These sinuous jugs have huge crossover appeal, especially among stoneware collectors and folk art collectors.
“Among 19th century potters, Wallace and Cornwall Kirkpatrick took the utilitarian stoneware medium to its upper limit of artistic expression and their snake jugs represent their most imaginative and visually appealing creations,” said Luke Zipp of Crocker Farm in Sparks, Maryland. “Collectors and museums, far beyond typical stoneware enthusiasts, have recently become captivated by the form, which is reflected in the rising prices at our auctions.”
Taking the traditional glazing and firing techniques they mastered in making stoneware to the next level by adding a sophistical level of artistry – adding both whimsical and macabre elements, the Kirkpatricks transcended the utilitarian nature of stoneware.
Setting a world auction record in November 2018 that still stands as of this writing nearly two years later, Crocker Farm sold an important Anna Pottery stoneware snake jug for $120,000 + the buyer’s premium that was one of three jugs inscribed “8 to 7,” an obscure reference to the presidential election of 1876, that the company made in 1877. Profusely decorated in Albany slip decoration, the ovoid jug had a handle in the form of a coiled snake with another 12 snakes (modeled and applied by hand) on the body.
“A pattern emerges when the jug is studied closely, as the potter has applied five snakes emerging around the midsection of the jug, each with a loop-shaped form, and then applied a second group of snakes that entwine their bodies through the first group of snakes,” according to the catalog description for this jug. Early Anna Pottery jugs often had thin snakes that almost seemed harmless but by the 1870s, the snakes were more well-formed and menacing.
Both private and museum collectors seek these jugs out. The Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, Ill. has an Anna snake jug in its collection, one of only about two dozen examples known. Its example features 12 well-defined intertwined timber rattlesnakes and three men. Understanding of the Kirkpatricks’ designs has changed a bit over the years, according to the museum. “In the 20th century, scholars saw the Kirkpatrick snake jugs as temperance warnings against the evils of drink. More recent interpreters, however, draw attention to the jugs’ grotesque, macabre, sexual and scatological aspects, their humor and their self-consciously extravagant style, and argue that they are an ironic debunking of Victorian values.”
Zipp echoed this assessment: “Judging by their large body of work, the Kirkpatricks were keenly aware of the current political climate and very willing to engage in political dialogue through their clay creations. There is no evidence that they supported the temperance movement. In fact, most of their best works, for instance their pig flasks, were made to hold alcohol. Most scholars agree that the Kirkpatrick snake jugs poke fun at temperance ideology.”
Another fine jug in a museum collection is this circa 1865 example at the Minneapolis Institute of Art that depicts a Civil War vignette of Union soldiers trying to catch Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, who escapes them clothed as a woman. “The dark spots on the snakes’ heads identify them as copperheads – a moniker for Northerners sympathetic to the Confederate cause,” according to the museum website. The likely inspiration for this scene was probably in cartoons found in period newspapers that were ideologically in support of the North.
Besides political themes seen in only a few jugs, alcohol is a dominant motif. Several pieces have applied figures of men (often partial torsos) with pained facial expressions. Often there are inscriptions on the side of the jugs referencing the men “going in.” This can be presumed to mean the men are going into the (whiskey) jug to be trapped under the spell of alcohol.
The essence of the appeal of these pieces lies in their exuberant decoration and the layered symbolism and messaging. Along with crosshatching and witty written inscriptions, the snakes –be they copperheads or rattlers – and figures are well molded in exacting detail. Several figures on this jug are molded in fine detail from a Union soldier to an African-American face to what appears to be Abraham Lincoln. A slavery motif present on that jug is a set of stoneware chain links.
“The more elaborate they are, the more valuable they are,” said Wes Cowan, founder of Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Whether one is looking at the larger jugs that might stand about 10 inches from base to the top of the stopper and having multiple snakes to smaller examples about 5 inches tall, with just one snake, all are desirable. “The market is very strong still for Anna.”