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Dedham Pottery, A Rediscovered Lost Art
( Article orginally published October 1943 )
Who would believe that the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in China in 1644 would have any connection with the making of pottery in the town of Dedham, Massachusetts, over two centuries later? Yet Dedham potterers rediscovered the lost art of the Ming Dynasty and reproduced the priceless "Dragon's Blood" and treasured crackelware.
In 1876, Hugh Cornwall Robertson, a Dedham potter saw the Korean exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. So fascinated was he by the Chinese vases showing the deep, vibrant red color known as "Dragon's Blood" and the delicate web-like cracks called "crackle" that he dedicated the rest of his life to rediscovering this lost art of the ancient Chinese. Ten years later he succeeded in his quest but it was not until 1904 that he achieved full recognition. In that year Robertson sent some of his choicest vases to the World's Exposition held in St. Louis. When the jury, made up of artists and experts from the Orient, saw the Dedham ware they unanimously announced that it was the equal to the priceless Ming pottery, which up to that time no one had been able to reproduce. Thereafter Robertson won prize after prize throughout the world.
Famous artists were responsible for many of the designs used on Dedham ware. Joseph Linden Smith, once a director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, originated the rabbit pattern. This motif was so popular that it was adopted as the Pottery's trademark. Other patterns were executed by A. W. Longfellow, a nephew of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet, who started working in Dedham in 1893.
Visitors to Boston have usually included a trip to the Dedham Pottery on their "must" list. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts included this as one of its conducted tours for students of the ceramic arts. The Dedham Pottery had its own museum, started by the founder, Hugh Robertson. The finest examples of each year's production in vases were added to this exhibit and never offered for sale. When Hugh Robertson died in 1908, his son William continued to manufacture the famous Dedham ware, although considerably handicapped by injuries received in an explosion at the Pottery in 1904. This disfigured his hands and prevented him from carrying on the modelling of his father. On the death of William Robertson in 1929 it was first thought that the secret of making crackleware and "Dragon's Blood" had been lost as William Robertson trusted no one but himself with the manufacturing secrets of his business. However, later it was found that William had imparted the knowledge of making this pottery to his son, J. Milton Robertson, the seventh generation of this family of potters. He followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, producing the famous pottery in a large variety of shapes up until the outbreak of the present World War. Moved by patriotic impulses Mr. Robertson offered his services to his country and was recently commissioned a Commander in the United States Navy. The factory was dismantled and the entire stock, together with the thousands of pieces in the priceless Dedham Museum collection were consigned to Gimbel Brothers Art Department. Here lucky collectors may acquire a piece of this wonderful ware for as little as one dollar or as much as a few hundred dollars. When it is remembered that the best Ming pieces are valued as high as $50,000 it is little wonder that Gimbel's fifth floor is a popular place these days.