Long before Greenpoint had the shipbuilding, oil refining or sugar refining industries, ceramicists had established Greenpoint as America’s first ceramic capital and it is more than a little ironic that recently a number of New York’s best ceramic artists have decided to call the area home. These artists are reviving an art form with over a hundred and fifty years of local history.
There are in fact so many first-rate potters working locally that just to mention them all would require too much space. Visit galleries like Greenpoint Hill (Freeman St.) or Wilcoxson Brooklyn Ceramics (67 West St.) to acquaint yourself with just some of the many talented locals turning out a stunning variety of ceramic art pieces.
The great poet Walt Whitman was also a journalist and in August of 1857 he visited The American Porcelain Works on Freeman and West Street to profile Greenpoint porcelain production. The pottery there stood atop a hill that was later leveled, appropriately called Pottery Hill, on account of the number of local potters there.
Englishman Charles Cartlidge, who established the American Porcelain works there way back in 1848, came to Greenpoint from a family of potters in Staffordshire, the center of English pottery. The Englishman’s Greenpoint company manufactured tea sets, pitchers, busts, and other porcelain pieces, but the firm really excelled at porcelain busts of famous figures, sculpting busts of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Joseph Hughes, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, Senator Daniel Webster, and President Zachary Taylor. Cartlidge’s Greenpoint Pottery exhibited wares that won a “first premium” award at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1853 in New York. The firm, however, could not pay the bills and became bankrupt.
To survive local potters would need to find commercial uses for porcelain. The man who first set up an economically viable local pottery was Thomas Smith, whose stately home on Milton Street is now occupied by the Greenpoint Reformed Church. Smith, a successful builder, never trained as an artist or a potter, so his success as a ceramicist is all the more remarkable.
In 1862, Smith became the owner of a bankrupt German pottery on Eckford Street. The Civil War was raging at the time and there was no market for porcelain. Smith, nevertheless, decided that he would make the pottery financially viable, even though he had no experience. Smith traveled to Sevres in France and Staffordshire in England to study how Europeans produced porcelain and realized that the days of hand produced pottery were over. The first American producer to “modernize” his plant for large-scale, low-cost production, Smith re-opened the plant on Eckford Street as the Union Porcelain Works. He was shrewd enough to realize that he could not immediately produce high-quality China, but he was able to produce doorknobs, insulators, caster wheels and other hardware trimmings that allowed the firm to pay its bills and continue experimentation.
Smith was soon ready to produce decorative china, a much more demanding task. He was determined to use only original designs, as he had already done in the forms of his vases and dishes, even though Smith was advised to copy European designs. Smith, however, wanted to create uniquely American patterns. He produced original American themed pieces of China that quickly became collector’s items.
Charles Mackie Falconer, a highly respected artist and personal friend of Smith, was instrumental in creating these artistic pieces. Falconer and Smith collaborated on designs. Falconer’s aesthetic sensibility was as important to the firm as Smith’s mechanical genius. He helped Smith choose artists capable of creating beautiful forms and designs for the firm’s creations. Soon the firm was able to produce high-quality china, vases and more delicate porcelain pieces. His work compared favorably with the European pieces of Limoges, Meissen and Berlin in design, delicacy and tastefulness of their decoration. Each year the quality and quantity of his production improved. Even the White House purchased its China from Smith’s Greenpoint firm.
James Jensen, a Danish immigrant, was another famous local ceramicist. Originally employed by Smith, his family in Denmark had produced porcelain and Smith pressured him to reveal family production secrets. Instead, he opened the Empire China Works on Green Street in 1867, producing pitchers, bowls, door knobs, cameos, and busts. His company exhibited its products at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. After 1890, this company was known for the porcelain wiring cleats it produced for electric lighting. By 189, insurance companies refused to tolerate wooden wiring devices because of the fire hazard, which produced a huge demand for his porcelain wiring devices and Empire China Works became the first manufacturers of electrical porcelain in the United States. Jensen became a millionaire.
Perhaps the most beautiful pieces ever made in Greenpoint came from The Faience Manufacturing Company, which opened in 1881 at 98 West St. The pottery produced ornamental, white-bodied earthenware. In 1884, Edward Lycett, one of the greatest American potters joined the firm. Being a practical potter, as well as an artist, Lycett set to work to compound better bodies and glazes and to design new shapes and decorations. Lycett introduced a fine grade of true porcelain, but it was fired in the reverse of the usual method, being burned hard in the biscuit and softer in the glaze, thus possessing all the advantages of a faience or earthen body and the superior glaze of high porcelain. Before leaving the company in 1890, Lycett developed a luster glaze, which he used on tiles and called them “Persian lusters.” Many of Lycett’s creations now grace museums around the country.
By the end of the First World War, the ceramics industry had died out in Greenpoint, but today local artists like Michiko Shimada, Claire Typaldos, Romy Northover, Megumi Yoshido and Allison Owen, just to name a few, are creating innovative designs that display brilliant creativity. The fact that many of these artists are creating their pieces within a stone’s throw of Pottery Hill and the other historic local ceramic factories just shows the rich local industrial history that Greenpointers inherited.