Part 2 of Seagreaves series. First part ran last issue.
Expanding on the career of James Christian Seagreaves “JCS,” Seagreaves quality sgraffito works with Pennsylvania Dutch motifs such as the tulip, flat heart, North Carolina parrot, and even the distelfink coincide with the outstanding examples of early sgraffito wares popularized during the 18th century. And his love for the sgraffito technique allowed Jimmy to excel in this art form over any style he attempted.
Unlike all other contemporary potters seeking to produce Pennsylvania German earthenware facsimiles in the early 1900s as the Stahls (Thomas, Isaac, and Russell), and in 1940s as Seagreaves, the JCS interpretation of this ancient Pennsylvania German art had a unique “ultra Germanic twist,” which made his ware both desirable and unusual. The Seagreaves school of pottery was as definite and individualistic, as the wares of the original master craftsman he sought to replicate.
Perhaps the Pennsylvania Dutch bird carvings on the tops of wooden walking canes made by Simmons and Schimmel caught Jimmy’s eye in those formative days, and with almost the same simplicity and amusement, he began to make stylized bird whistles by the score. Pennsylvania potters by in large have always had a great deal of fascination and amusement making animal whistles, rattles and water whistles. Seagreaves was no exception and produced a great number of bird whistles of varying sizes, but always artistically executing them with colorful lead glaze. Jimmy also created owl and fish whistles, but only a rare few.
John H. Snyder of Mohrsville was known for making duck whistles in the 1850s, and many potters before him bearing the same name produced earlier bird whistles using the initials JS on their wares at the same location. The John Drey pottery in Rockland Township famous for their beautiful slip tulip plates made bird whistles as early as 1809 at Dryville. The early bird whistles made in Berks were free molded and rarely incised with designs.
Seagreaves took pride in creating elaborate folk bird whistles that were so attractive they astonished the prospective buyer that they were in fact whistles, and the hole at the end of the tail was to be blown into so the buyer could hear its high pitch as well as anyone else who was visiting the pottery shop. What Jimmy did was refine the traditional bird whistles from being simply a toy to becoming a work of art. The hallmark of Seagreaves pottery is its uncommon Germanic character, as well as its molded style.
Of all the contemporary potters, no other potter has done more press molding than Jimmy and his animated freestanding birds with whimsical expressions have no equal in my opinion. Almost all of his glazed items are treated with bold Pennsylvania Dutch colors, and his sgraffito plates are well balanced with authentic Pennsylvania German motifs and overlaid with yellow slip.
Seagreaves collectors of yesteryear as Richard Shaner of Kutztown, the late Mary Snyder of Reinholds, and Brad Hamilton of Fleetwood who knew and observed James Christian Seagreaves using his natural talent, attest to the fact that Jimmy was always a professional craftsman and his sgraffito art motifs such as the single or double headed eagles contained near perfect symmetry and were flawlessly carved.
James Christian Seagreaves pottery pieces are signed on the bottom JCS with a rare few of them signed VAS, which were molded and painted by his wife Verna A. Seagreaves. His earliest pottery only bore the initials JS that are even rarer and could be mistaken by an overzealous pottery collector for John Snyder who was a century earlier. Only a select few of the Seagreaves’ pottery are dated.
Many of Jimmy’s birds, other than his whistles, were made from molds that were cast from his original work of art. When Seagreaves died in 1997, almost all the molds were destroyed, so they could not be duplicated. Although it would seem a temptation for the potter to mass-produce these works of art, that was not the case with Jimmy. When in later life, museum gift shops and the Kutztown Folk Festival begged Jimmy to go into production for their visitors, he refused, because he shunned publicity and felt it took too much valuable time away from creating more original pieces. So there is actually only a limited number of each work of art.
Jimmy’s true gift in the field of free molding pottery objects was in his imaginative genius to take a true life form such as a bird and innovate its features as true German folk artists did, then take it one step further to accentuate its positive features in clay, and later elaborate them again with colored glaze. With this attention to detail, it is rare for any two of his clay objects to be alike. Even press-molded objects were creatively refined.
One of the rare forms made by Seagreaves is the Federal style house, mostly made into banks complete with a pediment doorway on its front facade. Some of Jimmy’s other rare pieces include his owl and fish whistles, free molded dogs, candle holders or fat lamps, which he thought were “too practical,” but created for his loyal customers. Among his most unusual pieces were the Voodoo (grotesque) jugs, complete with the devil’s horns on top and embossed with hex signs.
A learned scholar, Seagreaves utilized the best of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art motifs as the North Carolina parrot and the flat heart, and most commonly the tulip. Just as Jimmy’s bird whistles enticed the child in all of us to blow them and hear their high pitch, he seemed to have enjoyed purposefully giving his birds and animals whimsy expressions of “toy like” appeal. Among the numerous potters replicating early Pennsylvania German Renaissance art, none have done it better than the late James Christian Seagreaves.
The Renaissance school of outstanding potters includes the late Powder Valley Stahls, Robesonia’s late Lester Breininger, and Ned Foltz of Reinholds, who each have developed their own pottery style and found a ready market. And like the earthenwares of James Seagreaves are today respectable collectibles at auctions and in the art world.
The legacy left behind by this deceased potter of 84 years was one of joyous color for the world and the super whimsy expressions of his objects to lighten your heart.
Richard L.T. Orth is assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.