Sometimes from the depths of despair come forth strength, beauty and inspiration. Such is the story of Newcomb Pottery, the American art pottery cultivated within and representative of New Orleans.
The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise was a vocational training program within the art education curriculum of Newcomb College. The program came out of the vision set forth by Josephine Louise Newcomb, the benefactor whose gift founded H. Sophie Newcomb College in 1886. The philanthropist made the donation in memory of her daughter Harriott Sophie Newcomb, who died at the age of 15 from diphtheria, according to information at the Newcomb College Institute site.
Newcomb, as she is quoted as saying, sought to create a place that “would go on year by year doing good. Such a memorial … [remains] better than statues or monuments.”
The college made history, becoming the first degree-granting “coordinate college” operating within a university in the United States; in this case Tulane University. It also served as the archetype for future women’s colleges.
Less than a decade after the founding of Newcomb College, the Newcomb Pottery operation came into being, under the direction of a pair of young art educators, Ellsworth Woodward and Mary Given Sheerer.
Drawing on the color and shapes of nature in Louisiana, the student potters and decorators would create utilitarian art pottery with distinctive designs and individuality.
Newcomb Note: During its 45-year existence Newcomb Pottery employed about 90 Newcomb College graduates, and together they produced 70,000 pieces of art pottery.
Not unlike other items attracting attention in the secondary collector market, Newcomb Pottery gained global acclaim at an major exposition, said Miriam Taylor, external affairs manager at Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University.
“The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise gained international recognition when it received a prestigious bronze medal at Paris’ 1900 Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair that attracted nearly 50 million visitors. The enterprise would go on to win an impressive eight medals during its 45-year history, including a silver medal at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California.
“At the former, Louis Comfort Tiffany invited Newcomb to display their works alongside those of the Tiffany Glass Co., effectively recognizing the New Orleans program as an artistic equal,” added Taylor.
Among the elements of Newcomb Pottery that reflect the obvious influence by the English Arts and Crafts movement is the commitment to handmade design, especially at the turn of the century, and the use of regional materials.
“Each piece that came out of the Newcomb Pottery Enterprise was completely unique and recalled the South’s distinctive natural landscape. Representations of plants and animals — from magnolias and live oaks to crabs and crawfish — appeared on works made of local clays collected in St. Tammany Parish on Lake Pontchartrain’s north shore,” said Taylor. “Early pieces were characterized by simplified flat patterns while later works offered softer, more realistic scenes of nature. During the enterprise’s final years, artists began experimenting with abstract designs that merely suggested environmental elements.”
Newcomb Note: During the period Newcomb Pottery Enterprise was in operation society viewed it as improper for women to throw the pottery, the process of shaping clay on a potter’s wheel. With this, men, including professional potter Joseph Fortune Meyer would throw the pieces, while female artists perfected the underglaze design of the ceramic objects.
Most objects of Newcomb Pottery bear the potter’s mark, indicators of the clay mixture, and registration marks, as well the mark or monogram of the decorator. Plus, the Newcomb College mark, according to information obtained at www.arts-crafts.com.
Current prices for Newcomb Pottery at auction range from $1,900 to $2,800, with the best pieces commanding $10,000 or more.
Newcomb Note: The Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane includes many examples of this storied art pottery in its collection, and currently features several in the exhibit “Clay in Places,” which is on display through March 24. Admission to the museum is free, and public exhibition tours are offered the second Saturday and the third Thursday of each month. www.newcombartmuseum.tulane.edu.
Although it’s been nearly 80 years since Newcomb Pottery ceased production, the influence and impact of this history-making operation carries on.
“Beyond the creation of more than 70,000 unique works of art, the Newcomb enterprise proved the South’s ability for making significant contributions to the country’s cultural life,” said Taylor. “More importantly, it demonstrated conclusively that women were capable of pursuing paying professional careers outside of their homes, whether in New Orleans or beyond.”