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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Edward Lycett (1833–1910)

When Edward Lycett, a twenty-eight-year-old china painter, arrived in New York City in 1861, he was one of hundreds of ambitious Englishmen from the Staffordshire potteries who, beginning in the 1840s, came to the United States in search of greater prospects and higher wages. Lycett’s artistic talent and entrepreneurial skill fueled the dramatic upward trajectory of his success and distinguish his story from those of many industrious immigrants to the land of opportunity. His career, which spanned six decades, encompassed a White House commission for the Johnson administration, teaching positions in St. Louis and Cincinnati, and recognition by Edwin Atlee Barber, the preeminent nineteenth-century American ceramic historian. Lycett reached his creative peak during the late 1880s, when he directed the aesthetic repertoire of the Faience Manufacturing Company, an enterprising New York City art pottery. As art director, Lycett designed eclectic and opulent wares in a style favored by the Aesthetic movement that garnered critical acclaim in the press and were sold by Tiffany & Co. and other elite firms across the nation.

Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, Lycett apprenticed as a china decorator, beginning at age twelve, at Copeland and Garrett, the former Spode manufactory in Stoke-on-Trent. In 1852, he moved to London to work with Thomas Battam Sr.’s century-old china decorating establishment. China decorators, gilders, and model makers were the elite artisans in porcelain manufacturing. Decorating china required artistic talent as well as technical skill to paint with enamels, whose colors mutate in the kiln. Lycett painted highly finished classical figures, cameo medallions, and naturalistic birds, fish, flowers, and landscapes with a complex polychromatic palette characteristic of the finest English china painting.

Upon Lycett’s arrival in New York City in 1861, he and his family settled in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the center for ceramic production. It is likely that he worked with established china painters at first. In January 1866, the retailer E. V. Haughwout hired him to paint additional pieces of the Lincoln dinner service for President Andrew Johnson. This major commission of national note secured Lycett’s reputation, and that same year he established his own china decorating business in Manhattan, eventually employing forty decorators, both male and female.

For the next eighteen years, Lycett worked alone and in partnerships decorating wares in a variety of styles over a broad economic range, from ornate dinner services to bar pitchers and sink basins, for large retailers. In addition to managing a successful business, Lycett capitalized on the widespread interest in amateur china painting during the 1870s and fired china painted by female practitioners—including Maria Longworth Nichols, future founder of the Rookwood Pottery—in his kilns and conducted china-painting classes in his shop. His stellar reputation motivated the St. Louis School of Design in 1877 and the Cincinnati School of Design the following year to invite him to teach china-painting classes.

Returning to New York in 1879, Lycett formed a partnership with John Bennett, with whom he would work until 1884. (This is not the John Bennett formerly of the Lambeth Pottery of Messrs. Doulton & Co. of London, England, who arrived in New York in 1878.) A meticulously painted commemorative vase, signed by Lycett, demonstrates his prodigious talent in the prime of his career and represents the type of work Lycett and Bennett sold to Tiffany & Co. Lycett and Bennett dissolved their partnership in January 1884. Shortly thereafter, Lycett made a dramatic career change. As newly appointed art director of the Faience Manufacturing Company, Lycett ceased decorating porcelain blanks to order and began experimenting with clay bodies and glazes and designing exotic ceramic forms.

Incorporated in 1881 under the direction of President Bernard Veit, a partner in the prosperous millinery goods manufacturer and importer Veit and Nelson, the Faience Manufacturing Company produced ornamental white-bodied earthenware vases, plaques, baskets, lamps, umbrella stands, and more in its Brooklyn factory that were sold in Veit and Nelson’s showrooms in lower Manhattan. Fashionable French faience and Limoges wares, which were much admired at the United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, undoubtedly inspired the name of the company and served as models for its early wares (L.1997.45.2). Staying abreast of stylistic trends was critical for survival in the competitive art pottery industry. By 1883, consumer interest shifted from coarse-bodied French ceramics to ivory-bodied wares of Near and Far Eastern inspiration produced by English firms such as Royal Worcester Porcelain Company and Crown Derby porcelain companies, and American potteries modified their output accordingly. In 1884, the Faience Manufacturing Company underwent a dramatic transformation that attests to its ambition to succeed at art pottery production. The firm expanded its Brooklyn pottery-making facilities, moved its Manhattan showrooms, and recruited Lycett, a renowned ceramic artist, as the new art director.

Within two years of his arrival, Lycett transformed the Faience Manufacturing Company’s artistic agenda. His experiments enabled the firm to produce a wide range of refined ceramic bodies, and his bold and eclectic designs drew inspiration from fashionable English and European wares, as well as from venerated ancient, medieval, and Renaissance objects in major museum collections. The extroverted shapes and opulent decoration of the firm’s wares produced under Lycett’s tenure distinguish them from those by rival domestic and foreign art potteries.

Typically measuring between 11 and 18 inches high, occasionally 27 (1986.57a,b), and even 42 inches high, the Faience Manufacturing Company’s wares are very large. Many prominent English potteries produced overscaled wares as exhibition pieces for world fairs. The Faience Manufacturing Company may have alluded to exhibition pieces with its large-scale ewers and vases, which were expensive to produce since fewer could be fired at once. Displayed on a mantel or table, these vessels were the physical manifestation of their owner’s artistic and cultural sophistication.

Lycett introduced an innovative shop practice of interchangeable parts to create the firm’s unique shapes. Originating in the Staffordshire potteries, this progressive production technique employed molds to speed and diversify production. Exotic Near Eastern-inspired, long-necked bulbous shapes that recombine a variety of elements with exaggerated openwork handles and covers became hallmarks of the firm.

Decorative motifs were also used interchangeably. Lycett employed twenty-five highly skilled decorators, including former Royal Worcester artisans James and Sidney Callowhill, to paint the firms vessels with exuberant Asian-inspired flowers (1981.432.4), birds and insects (1984.424; 2002.443), dolphins (2004.95), and Near Eastern arabesques, ogees, and scrolls, as well as jeweled and luster decoration (1991.370.15) in vivid enamels enriched with raised gold paste. In some cases, the decoration covers the entire lower body (1991.58). More often, flat and raised gold paste bands divide the body into horizontal compartments (1986.57a,b), a standard design practice of the Aesthetic movement that allowed for a more eclectic combination of motifs. Impressive in size and technically complex in decoration, the Faience Manufacturing Company’s wares exhibit a self-conscious boldness that is distinctly American and illustrate the firm’s ambitious response to European competition.

During 1886, the Faience Manufacturing Company made a big push to promote its stylish new wares. The firm continued to advertise in trade publications oriented toward wholesalers, but it also targeted the more consumer-oriented Decorator and Furnisher, where the company was praised in November 1886 for its “remarkable evidences of the advancement of art pottery making in this country.” Positive press accelerated the firm’s success and it sold at all the major retail establishments across the country, including Tiffany & Co. of New York, Bailey, Banks & Biddle, and J. E. Caldwell & Co. of Philadelphia, as well as Nathan, Dohrmann & Company of San Francisco.

Despite continued positive press and participation in an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art in 1888, the Faience Manufacturing Company ceased production of pottery by 1890, presumably because of financial difficulties. The firm’s output was strictly artware, and it did not produce more conventional products, as did large firms such as Union Porcelain Works. In spite of the great beauty of the company’s wares, the expense of producing labor-intensive ornamental ceramics was too costly to sustain and forced it to reorganize as an agent for a French porcelain manufacturer.

Because the firm no longer required an art director, Lycett retired and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to live with his eldest son William, who had established a china-painting business there. In retirement, Lycett returned to the detailed china decoration typical of his earlier career and conducted experiments with different types of surface decoration, including the luster glaze found on Middle Eastern tiles. Lycett’s efforts to exhibit his specimens and to contact museums in the United States and England about his experiments reveal his conviction in his discoveries, as well as his desire to secure recognition for his work.

Ceramic historian Edwin AtLee Barber played a major role in Lycett’s later life. Barber acknowledged Lycett’s talent and promoted him as a significant figure in the world of American ceramics in his monographic 1895 article on Lycett, entitled “The Pioneer of China Painting in America.” Much to Lycett’s pleasure, after the publication of this article, the Smithsonian Institution accepted the gifts of his luster-glazed tiles, beginning what would become the first repository in a museum collection of his innovative work, to which he would continue to add.

Edward Lycett’s unique combination of artistic talent and versatility, his skillful self-promotion, and ability to capitalize on opportunities at hand sustained his accomplished career for more than fifty years. Although longevity eluded the Faience Manufacturing Company, under Lycett’s short-lived but influential tenure the firm produced robust, large-scale artistic ceramic wares that exemplify the American expansiveness of the late nineteenth century.