The Most Distinguished Product of the Newcomb Pottery

by Dr. Martin Eidelberg

For those passionate about the American Arts & Crafts Movement, and especially for aficionados of the Newcomb Pottery, Mary Sheerer’s Iris lamp is an unparalleled, iconic object. Its carved and glazed base and jewel-like glass-beaded shade with iris blossoms embody all that the Arts & Crafts Movement represents and testify to the artist’s creative ability and her selfless commitment to labor. In accord with William Morris’s dictum, the Iris lamp unites the useful and the beautiful: it sheds light in the darkness and brings joy to the beholder. Comparable Newcomb lamps cannot be found. Indeed, as far as is known, this lamp is the only extant example of such work from the Newcomb Pottery. While there are a few Newcomb lamps with metal shades, none with glass-beaded shades have survived. There are contemporary references to other shades with glass beads, and one was illustrated, but the Iris lamp remains unique. (1) 

When it was first seen in New Orleans, probably before it was sent to the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, it was described at great length and highly praised:

A handsome and most original piece of work is attracting a great deal of attention. It is a lamp made, of course, of Louisiana clay, in the deep bluish gray that has secured such favor for the Newcomb pottery. The great beauty of the lamp, however, is the shade, and here Miss Sheerer, who made it, has shown wonderful originality. There has recently been a great revival of the old-fashioned bead work so beautifully done by our grandmothers fifty years ago. Miss Sheerer has applied the idea of bead work to lamp shades. The lovely overhanging shade of the lamp is made entirely of dark bluish gray beads, as fine almost as the head of a pin; they are strung on wire and formed into the shape of the shade so peculiar to the Newcomb lamps. The design around the shade is the fleur de lys. It is beautifully wrought, and the lamp is remarkable not only for the originality of the application of beads to lamp shade purposes, but the discovery that Miss Sheerer has made of a material which will properly shade the lamp without emitting the great heat so common in most shades. The lamp is admired by all visitors to Newcomb College. (2)

As familiar as the Iris lamp may be today, it has not been seen publicly since the 1987 exhibition The Art That is Life: The Arts & Crafts Movement in America 1875-1920. It was illustrated in magazines of the time, most notably in Good Housekeeping and International Studio (3), and was also prominently pictured in a small brochure that the pottery issued c. 1905. (4)  In effect, it had star status. In recent times, although it was zealously guarded in a private collection, it was pictured in two major publications on Newcomb Pottery: Jessie Poesch’s 1975 monograph and the 2013-16 exhibition on Newcomb crafts that toured across the country. (5)

1. View of the Newcomb Pottery’s display at the Buffalo Pan-American Exhibition, 1901

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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