Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Rookwood Pottery and Maria Longworth Nichols Storer (1849-1932)

The Aladdin Vase, 1882, Maria Longworth Nichols Storer
The Aladdin Vase of 1882 was one in a series of Aladdin Vases first created in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols Storer in response to another work of art. She had learned that her artistic rival in the city, Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939), had successfully created the largest ceramic vase decorated "under the glaze" in America. McLaughlin was the first person in America to discover and master the technique of decorating pottery using this glazing technique (See "Alchemyofclay" post March 14, 2011). 

Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, (to be called Storer for the rest of this article) who was extremely strong willed and never happy in second place, was determined to outdo McLaughlin’s creation. Her response was the Aladdin Vase. Although this vessel is not quite as tall as the Ali Baba Vase, it is wider, and thus technically more difficult to produce.

Around the shoulder of the vase is a modeled dragon that is raised from the surface of the vessel. The dragon, complete with snarling face and sharp fangs, holds itself up with a thin craggy arm that grasps the neck of the vase. The work also has two catfish in relief with bulging eyes and areas of raised white swirls of clay. The dragon and catfish are motifs found in Japanese folklore. Following the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, Storer was fascinated with Japanese art and culture. 

The first of the Cincinnati Museum’s Dueling Divas, Mary Louise McLaughlin, (to be called McLaughlin for the rest of this article) was born on September 29, 1847. She was the youngest of three children and the only girl. Her father, a prominent and wealthy dry goods merchant, supported his daughter’s artistic endeavors as she showed great talent from a very early age. She took art courses at Miss Appleton’s Private School for Girls (1871-1872).
Maria Longworth Nichols Storer

Storer was born two years later in 1849. Like McLaughlin, she was the youngest of three children and the only girl. Storer grew up in an extremely comfortable household; her grandfather was Nicholas Longworth, a great philanthropist and patron of the arts, as well as the city’s first millionaire, and the nation’s second richest citizen. As a child she was surrounded by her family’s art collection, and she had her early education in art and music in a schoolroom at Rookwood, her family estate. Later, she also attended Miss Appleton’s Private School for Girls (1862-1865).

Storer was tutored privately at home. McLaughlin studied at the University of Cincinnati School of Design, later the Art Academy of Cincinnati.
MLN Rookwood vase

The first important event that showcased the china painting work of the two divas and their colleagues was The Centennial Tea Party, held in 1875. The mission of the Tea Party was to raise funds for the Cincinnati display at the American Centennial Exhibition that was to be mounted in Philadelphia for the 1876 centennial celebration.

MLN Rookwood Vase

Storer's enthusiasm reached such a fever pitch in 1880 that she asked her father to import an entire Japanese pottery to Cincinnati, including all the workmen and supplies. He refused, instead offering her an old schoolhouse he had purchased that she could convert to a pottery, which she would open by the end of the year.

In late September 1877, McLaughlin had published her book on china painting titled China Painting: A Practical Manual for the Use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain. This was the first manual on the subject in the United States written by a woman for women. . The manual was so popular among women that it was published in at least ten editions and sold over twenty thousand copies.

details, Rookwood vases

Published shortly after in 1878 was George Nichols’s (Storer’s husband) book on pottery in which she did all the illustrations in the Japanese style. As each woman contributed to the field, the other followed with a trump, cementing their rivalry.

To promote women’s work in ceramics, in 1879 McLaughlin created the Cincinnati Pottery Club, the first women’s ceramic club in the United States. Thirteen ladies were invited to join the club, however, one individual, Storer, did not respond.

While McLaughlin did in fact invite her to join, Storer claimed she did not receive the invitation, reacted with indignation and refused to join. (There are still conflicting accounts of this perceived snub in internet sources).   Storer's biographer, Anita Ellis, says she would take a back seat to no one, and joining the Club would mean that she would become a follower to McLaughlin, the club’s president. Her refusal to join ultimately led her to begin her own company, which she called Rookwood Pottery in 1880.
Rookwood Pottery

From the beginning, Rookwood faced several obstacles. Located on the river, in her father’s schoolhouse, the pottery was victim to annual flooding. Also, in the first years, the Pottery made very little money and Storer pulled from her own purse and that of her father’s to support her interest. In late 1883, Storer’s father helped her select a reliable, experienced manager for Rookwood. William Watts Taylor would be the saving grace for the struggling pottery. By 1889, Rookwood was a national and international success and truly considered the center of art pottery in Cincinnati.

McLaughlin published her second book Pottery Decoration under the Glaze in August of 1880. This manual discusses all steps of the underglaze technique. Since her discovery, underglaze decoration had become so popular that she felt she needed to create a manual in her own words that detailed the process.

McLaughlin’s ceramic career and that of the Cincinnati Pottery Club took a huge blow one year later in 1881. The Dallas Pottery, where they were located, closed when it's founder passed away.  In 1882 the Pottery Club moved to Rookwood Pottery and rented a room from Storer.

This situation served Storer well; she could support her fledgling pottery with the Club’s rent and could keep an eye on the Pottery Club’s work.  So just two years after the club was founded, it became a tennant of the rival Rookwood Pottery belonging to Storer.

The club finally came to an end shortly after their tenth reception, held on May 27, 1890. Their final exhibition together was at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Between 1888 and 1889, Rookwood won several awards in competition, including two first prizes at the Pottery and Porcelain Exhibition in Philadelphia and a gold medal at the Paris Exposition. Worldwide acclaim brought financial success, and Storer transferred ownership of Rookwood to William Watts Taylor. That same year, Storer moved to Washington, D.C. with her new husband, Bellamy Storer, who was in public office.  The pottery remained open another 75 years.

The chapter of her life that included her rivalry with Louise and her creative ventures in art pottery had come to a close. From 1897 to her death in 1932 Storer lived almost exclusively in Europe.
(source: Ellis, Anita J. The Ceramic Career of M. Louise McLaughlin. Athens , OH)

Whether from the rivalry of two talented women, or just the community which supported their creative development, the early women ceramic artists of Cincinnati provided a great impetus for American pottery.  Next we will take a look at some individuals who are alive and contributing to this movement today.


To create one's world in any of the arts takes courage. - Georgia O'Keeffe

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