Original Document
Original Document
Henry Chapman Mercer, on the Origin of his Pottery, 1925.

Dear Mr. Graves,

I enclose a few notes as to the origin of my pottery, which you probably would not want in your lecture, but might look over beforehand. The personal side of things of this sort seems to be popular nowadays, but I would eliminate that, and consider facts without fear or favor. If I should write a sketch or history of the subject, I would not want to do it. It is too personal, and I doubt if you would wish to try it either.

As for causes that impelled me–artistic motives, etc., as follows:–

You realize, as outsiders won't, that the art and technique of this craft are so closely interwoven, that to describe one without the other never gets us to the bottom of the subject. Nevertheless, here are a few of my original impressions.–

First, as to the technique, I thought

1. that native clay should not be mixed or artificially whitened.

2. that the Prosser's semi-dry-dust process, then, 1898, in vogue, was fatal to the beauty of tiles, but destructive of shrinkage.

3. that artistic tiles should not be produced by machinery. As an example of my point of view, I had a very strong dislike to all the Staffordshire table ware, etc., and Liverpool tiles, in which the design is not painted on by hand, but printed in a printing press, and transferred to the clay. I also thought, though I fear to being returned and trued on the potter's wheel when semi-dry.

4. further as a very important fact, that the great tile processes of the past, namely, painting the design by hand with a brush on a white background or encrusted white clay upon red by hand (encaustic) or painting enamels by hand within relief contours (Hispano Moresque) were precluded in the United States on account of the high cost of labor.

My first effort therefore was to invent new methods of producing hand made tiles cheap enough to sell and artistic enough to rival the old one. None of my friends and no architects have taken the slightest interest in the technical or practical value of any of these processes, upon which the success of my effort had depended from the start.

Second, as to my artistic point of view,–I thought that if tiles are to be considered as decorative art, no one should make them without first reverently and faithfully studying the great decorative art of the past. In a high estimate of the aesthetic value of these ancient works, namely their mastery of color, conventionalism, balance of pattern, splendid decorative effect, I agree with my artistic friends, but in the best of these masterpieces I find a story, a sermon, that my friends care nothing about. Yet to me, this so called "literary" side of the craft, this story telling, which I understand has been said to "contaminate" painting, has been my primary impulse or inspiration. I agree with them that the design must be an aesthetic success in color, pattern, conventionalism, balance, etc., and further that it may be such a success without any meaning at all. But if tiles could tell no story, inspire or teach nobody, and only serve to produce aesthetic thrills, I would have stopped making them long ago. To explain this more clearly, I would say that to me the ancient designs have seemed more and more inspiring as they rose from the geometrical forms of the Western Mohammedans, through the flowers, birds and animals of the Persians, Chinese Buddhists, or Byzantines, none the less decorative none the less aesthetic, none the less constrained to constructive laws, but interwoven with human figures expressing in legends and stories sincerely felt and told.

In this direction, the further thought that the Spaniards, as the great mural tile decorators of Europe, who learned their art from the Moors, never developed it after they discovered America, in other words, that they never got beyond a floral filigree, and never translated their own dramatic American discoveries into pictures and stories upon tiles. That the modern American maker of tiles might well find his best and most inspiring and appropriate theme in the dramatic story of the discovery and first exploration of America.

Veneration for the past; deficient knowledge, but great love of Latin; great interest in the technical history of industries; several visits to Europe; my experience in Archaeology, and Museums; consultations with primitive peoples–have helped me very much.

Hoping this may be of some help to you, and looking forward to the pleasure of seeing you again, when you come down this way, and with best wishes for your success, I am

Very sincerely yours,
H. C. Mercer

Credit: Henry Chapman Mercer to William Hagerman Graves, November 14, 1925. Mercer Papers, Spruance Library, Bucks County Historical Society.
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