Remembering Joan

by Peter Eaton

Joan Brownstein and Peter Eaton in their Newbury, MA home, c. 2005

Joan had always been a collector. She started buying netsukes on Saturday trips as a child, moved on to sea shells, then Bakelite, and also art books, which became a lifelong pursuit. About thirty years ago she started buying geodes and fossils, building a collection she sold to an artist and jeweler who used them in his designs. 

A little over twenty years ago, she came across the Scheier's work on a trip to the Currier Gallery in Manchester, NH and she was hooked. She took a standing case of their work to the New Hampshire Antiques Show and sold the entire contents to one person. She then assembled another grouping and took it to the Folk Art Show in NYC—where she again sold the entire case to one individual.  As her reputation for Scheier grew, she began advertising it in national trade publications and was asked to exhibit it as part of our booth at the Winter Show in NYC. Contemporaneously, she discovered the work of Brother Thomas Bezanson at the Pucker Gallery in Boston and began collecting his work. Then she expanded her interest to the work of other, more experimental potters and ceramicists from the last quarter of the 20th century.

Joan holding one the Scheier vases in the present sale

Underlying these new interests was her thirty year quest with Chinese pottery from the Song period. This primarily ‘black and brown’ ware was made in many forms and was treated with a number of glazes. Tea bowls are the best known and most prized of this work, and it was Joan’s goal to have an example of every glaze pictured in the catalogs of museum collections and exhibitions. Joan continued to add additional forms of the ware, fascinated by the variety of shapes, glazes and slip decoration that the potters were able to attain with so few ingredients. Whether it was simply the shape of the piece, a pale blue/green base, ribbed vessels, cups and bowls with white rims, or pieces drizzled with a thin blue slip, it all fascinated her.  

Joan was first and foremost an artist, and what she responded to in pottery was its artistic and aesthetic quality. 

Joan was first and foremost an artist, and what she responded to in pottery was its artistic and aesthetic quality. She described her antiques business as a way to be a “serial collector”: buying, assembling, and selling what struck her eye. This collection is a result of her passion for art. Her Chinese pottery, in particular, is the largest collection of Song black and brown ware to be sold at one time in many years, and some of the tea bowls rival those in any museum collection. Many of the other forms are the only examples that she had seen.

Teco Pottery

Teco Pottery was the brain-child of Illinois lawyer William Day Gates (1852-1935, pictured). Gates purchased farmland northwest of Chicago and in the early 1880s discovered a red clay there that he would later develop into terracotta, starting in a small operation he named the Spring Valley Tile Works. The burgeoning company began manufacturing bricks and outdoor architectural features, and by 1885 he renamed it Terra Cotta Tile Works. The town was then also renamed Terra Cotta, Illinois. Two years later, the company was established as the American Terracotta Tile and Ceramic Company. In the wake of the Great Chicago fire of 1871, the demand for fireproof building materials was high. Gates’s company was among the first to begin fabricating architectural pieces to supply the rebuilding effort.

Through the end of the 19th century, Gates began to experiment with mixing different clays, making art pottery simply as a labor of love. In 1902, the Teco Pottery line was established, and by 1904 pieces were being manufactured and distributed on a national scale via Gates Potteries, a division of the Terracotta Company. The name “Teco” was derived from the first two syllables in “Terra” and “Cotta”.

Gates developed a signature matte glaze line, as matte glazes were popular at the turn of the century and fit neatly into the Arts and Crafts aesthetic. The glaze was a smooth, microcrystalline matte green, known as Teco Green, with only a few variations. Occasionally, a gunmetal color shift occurred called “charcoaling” as a result of excess copper colorant which floated to the surface of the glaze during firing, lending the carving more definition. By 1911, additional colors were created, including gray, yellow, brown, red, and blue, but these were not as common, nor were they as popular, as Teco Green.

As of 1911, Gates had designed over 500 styles of vessels. A majority of the forms are simple with little embellishment beyond buttresses or handles. A subset of examples have incredible, intricate details, incorporating swirling or reticulated leaf patterns and cut-outs. Many such forms were contributions from his associates, some of whom were accomplished artists and architects studying the Prairie School style of Frank Lloyd Wright, such as William J. Dodd. Other designers included Fritz W. Albert, who immigrated to the United States from Germany to work on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair buildings. He went on the work for Gates and became one of the company’s most prolific designers.

Gates retired in 1913 to write for Clay-worker magazine, yet the production of art pottery continued through the decade. In 1918, Indianapolis Terra Cotta Company was acquired, and by 1919 the business had purchased an Indianapolis plant and a branch in Minnesota. The latest pottery dates to around 1923, after which point the company’s focus shifted to architectural commissions. In 1930 the company was sold and renamed the American Terra Cotta Corporation, producing solely architectural elements, urns, and garden pieces. Because Teco Pottery was produced for a relatively short period of time, only about 20 years, their wares are highly sought after and some are quite rare. Pieces can be identified by the distinctive Teco stamp, usually found impressed on the underside.

Auction Results Teco Pottery