Stoneware Bowl Proved to be Cat's Meow
For a better understanding of American Stoneware, let's drop in on Jonathan Gash's prankish British antique dealer, Lovejoy, as he and Tinker scout the back roads of Maine, trying to ferret out old treasures in the States.
Tinker: "Why are you stopping at this dilapidated old farmhouse, Lovejoy? The sign says, "Kitten's For Sale," not antiques. You're allergic to cats!"
"The point is, Tink," Lovejoy says, putting his rented van into park, "I'm not allergic to cat bowls." He points his finger at a stoneware basin on the wood-plank porch. A newborn kit is lapping milk from it. "Not if the cat bowl happens to be a rare and valuable example of blue decorated stoneware, like that one."
Tinker: "Spotted while you were driving?"
Lovejoy: "At sixty miles an hour!"
Lovejoy and his priggish elderly assistant step up creaky stairs and take an appreciative look at the bowl It's four inches tall and a foot wide. A desirable whimsical cobalt slip decoration consisting of a ring of five cats, each biting the outstretched tail of its predecessor, surrounds the bowl. Two ear-type flattened handles are modeled into the sides. An impressed maker's mark in front reads,"BENTLEY, SLOWCREEK, MAINE." Lovejoy is perplexed by the mark. He knows that stoneware is collected by its many varieties of makers, as well as age, form and decoration. He's heard of early, ovoid shaped, "Boston" and "Charlestown," MA, stoneware pieces made around 1800 by Jonathan Fenton and Frederick Carpenter. He'd seen stoneware stamped "Whites Utica," NY, c.1865-1877, and "Cowden & Wilcox, Harrisburg, PA," c. 1850-80, and perhaps the most famous of all, "J &E Norton, Bennington, VT," mid 19th c., which was first established in 1793 by Goshen, CT native, Captain John Norton. He wasn't familiar with "Bentley" stoneware, however.
Tinker: It's ghastly! Josiah Wedgwood would be turning over in his grave if he knew that two of his kinsmen showed even the slightest interest in such primitively decorated pottery.
Lovejoy: Americans pay big money for it, Tink. Call it folk art. Early pieces are often incised, and more ovoid in shape compared with mid 19th century stuff. Most stoneware I've seen comes in the forms of crocks and jugs and churns-thing's for storing food. A cat bowl, now that's a rare form! Combined with this unique decoration ..."
"Bowl's not for sale!" a man says in a long Maine drawl. He steps outside the house, looking like the man holding the pitchfork in Grant's American Gothic. "Got kitten's, though."
Lovejoy winks at his assistant, motioning for him to pick up the mitten-sized blonde baby cat. He explains to the farmer that taking a newborn kit away from her milk bowl is like taking her away from her mother's tit. Without her bowl, she might refuse to eat. The farmer explains that the basin is a great example of his favorite stoneware maker. They arrive at a price of $200, for bowl and cat. Lovejoy is delighted until, driving down the road a mile from the farmhouse, he reads a sign saying "Leaving Slowcreek, Maine." He turns the van around and floors it. Back at the farmhouse, he spots a long building in back yard that looks like a kiln. The name on them mailbox reads, Bentley.
ONE HOUR LATER, LEAVING MAINE
Tinker: "So the farmer's wife made the bowl, Lovejoy?"
Lovejoy: "Yes, Tink."
Tinker: "Why didn't he tell you that his wife made it, that it had no age to it?"
Lovejoy: "He said, I didn't ask."
Tinker: We did get a fine kitty out of the deal, Lovejoy!"