"Of the South, For the South, and By the South"

Ellsworth Woodward, Newcomb College, and the Southern Arts & Crafts Movement

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Ellsworth Woodward would become one of the most dynamic and important forces in the Newcomb College Pottery enterprise and Southern art education. He and his older brother, William, trained as artists, a decision inspired by their visit to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Ellsworth attended the Rhode Island School of Design from 1878 to 1880 and then studied briefly in Munich with Samuel G. Richards in the early 1880s. 

In 1885, at the age of 24, he and his brother joined the art faculty of Tulane University in New Orleans. Ellsworth remained in the south for the rest of his life and was active in many local and regional organizations, including the New Orleans Art Association, the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans, and the Southern States Art League, of which he was president from 1921 until 1939. A charismatic and passionate proponent of his adopted region's artistic capabilities, he explained the league's purpose to the local press: "The movement is not centralized in any city or around any group of artists: it is of the South, for the South and by the South, and its ultimate aim is to form in the South an appreciation of what the South can and will create in the fine arts."

Ellsworth Woodward and some of his students. Photo courtesy of the Newcomb Archives and Nadine Robbert Vorhoff Collection, Newcomb Institute, Tulane University.

Most germane to the present lot was Ellsworth’s appointment as professor of art at Sophie Newcomb College in 1887 and then, in 1890, as director of the art school, a position he would hold for the next forty-one years. His importance to the Newcomb College Pottery, along with the Art School’s female faculty and exceptionally talented students, cannot be understated. Under his leadership, women were taught applied arts including pottery, book design, silversmithing, jewelry, and textiles with a focus on the Arts and Crafts ideal of beautiful, hand-made objects suitable for everyday use. 

This vase is not rare just because of its early date, made just a few years after the start of the Newcomb College Pottery, but because it is one of two known examples decorated by Woodward... 

This vase is not rare just because of its early date, made just a few years after the start of the Newcomb College Pottery, but because it is one of two known examples decorated by Woodward, the other being in Newcomb Art Museum's collection. As an artist, he was, and still is, known for his paintings and watercolors. Additionally, the vast majority of Newcomb pottery was decorated with flora or fauna, with a specific emphasis on Southern species.

The present work, however, depicts a bacchanalian frieze on a two-handled, Grecian form. As Sierra Polisar, Collections Manager of the Newcomb Art Museum, notes, it may have been inspired by a Greek vase in the collection. The vase depicts a Bacchus celebration and was donated to Tulane in 1901, but could have been in their possession earlier as a loan, which was commonplace for Tulane around the turn of the century. Woodward's vase is executed in blue underglaze on buff clay, typical in the simpler palette of the earliest Newcomb output; as time went on and they were able to raise more funds, hire more staff, and increase production, the color scheme evolved as did the standardization and stylization of designs. Given the rarity of Woodward ceramics and the scandalous subject matter, one can deduce that this vase was likely a private commission or gift for a friend. 

Decorated by an influential figure of the Southern Arts and Crafts movement during the formative years of of one of the most prominent American potteries of the 19th-20th centuries, this rediscovered gem, which has remained in a private collection since it was acquired in New Orleans in the 1970s, is not just an important piece of Newcomb College Pottery’s history and development, but that of American art pottery as a whole.

Newcomb College Pottery

Newcomb College Pottery in New Orleans operated for almost fifty years and was one of the most successful and admired potteries in the American Arts and Crafts movement. Founded in 1886 by wealthy widow Josephine Louise Newcomb (pictured), Newcomb College was, in essence, the women’s branch of nearby men’s-only Tulane University. The pottery itself developed in stages and grew out of the omnipresent belief that crafts were an appropriate, and acceptable, career choice for women.

Art classes at Newcomb were first guided by the brothers William and Ellsworth Woodward, New England transplants with design training who were heavily influenced by the incredible display of ingenuity at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. They taught art classes at Newcomb through the late 1880s, all the while hiring staff that would help build the foundations of the pottery. Joseph Fortune Meyer, a local potter, was hired to build the kiln and throw pots, and even George Ohr worked there for a brief stint as Meyer’s assistant. Mary Given Sheerer, a Cincinnati-trained ceramist, was hired in 1894 to teach pottery and china decoration, unofficially launching Newcomb College Pottery. The enterprise blossomed quickly from there. In 1896 the college held its first exhibition and sale of pottery produced by Sheerer and her students, and in 1900 Newcomb pottery won a bronze medal at the Paris International Exposition. By 1901, demand was outpacing supply and the University provided the financial and official recognition needed to turn the Newcomb College Pottery into a long-term commercial enterprise.

Newcomb College Pottery was influenced primarily by traditional English Arts and Crafts principles, in large part due to the Woodwards, who had been trained by English instructors at American schools. One of the main concerns of the movement was the interrelationship between art, industry, and design, and the importance of every artisan involved in the process of creation. This led to Newcomb’s complex system of marks, which were created with the express purpose of recognizing each craftsperson involved, from the thrower (often Joseph Fortune Meyer, denoted with a ‘JM’) to the decorator (one of the ninety young women who attended the school over the course of its existence). Also in keeping with Arts and Crafts tenets, each piece was unique, though some designs were repeated with small variations. Flora and, occasionally, fauna were the primary subjects, with special emphasis placed on Southern species.

Work from the early to middle period is characterized by flat, conventionalized designs and a relatively simple palette of blue, green, black, and yellow. As 1910 approached, designs became slightly more integrated and realistic. The biggest stylistic shift occurred around 1910 with the introduction of a mat glaze by Sheerer, which was further perfected into a transparent mat glaze by ceramic chemist Paul Cox, a recent graduate of Charles Binns’ courses at Alfred University. The color palette changed as well, becoming softer and muted, more aesthetically related to New England’s Marblehead Pottery. After World War I vases were still handmade but designs were more heavily reproduced. The bold lines and colors of the early work were gone, and idyllic Southern landscapes, daffodils, and dogwood were heavily relied upon as subjects. Three of Newcomb’s longtime designers, Henrietta Bailey, Sadie Irvine, and Anna Frances Simpson, were responsible for much of the pottery decoration in later years. In the 1920s and 1930s, Joseph Meyer, Mary Sheerer, and Ellsworth Woodward retired, and fewer students opted to study pottery. Newcomb struggled to stay current with styles and practices, but finally closed in 1940.

At the pottery’s height, between 1910 and 1915, their work was rewarded with prizes at eight international expositions in addition to being published in national and international publications. They were also mentioned alongside other major potteries of the time, including Grueby, Rookwood, and others. Newcomb College Pottery, in its wide variety of styles and often exceptionally executed designs, has withstood the test of time and is considered today to be some of the finest American art pottery of the late 19th and early 20th century.

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