In late 1875 or early 1876 John Bennett (1840-1907) immigrated to America from England, where he had been "Director of all the practical work in the Faience Department" at Doulton and Company in London. He settled in New York City and started his own ceramic business. According to Edwin AtLee Barber's The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States (1893), Bennett's work "was soon in great demand and brought high prices." In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Bennett closed down his New York kiln in 1882, retired to his farm in West Orange, New Jersey, and devoted more time to his rapidly growing family. He also spent time painting, sketching, and giving private art classes at the farm. He did not, however, stop making pottery. He had a kiln at the farm, and his descendants still own several of his pieces stamped W.Orange-N.J. and dated 1886 and 1888. Because Bennett was considerate enough, even in his restlessness, not only to sign and date his pieces but also to mark them with the place where they were made, we know that he was in London in 1891-92 and in Chicago in 1906, one year before his death.
This vase, marked BENNETT 412 E 24 ST NEW YORK 1882, was made during Bennett's last year in New York. The stylistic sources for the vase are varied and include the Orient, nature, and Bennett's painterly individuality. Its shape, asymmetrical decoration, and dark background all derive from Chinese sources, while the magnolias that decorate the surface are indigenous to both the Orient and America and thus link East and West. The painting on the vase is entirely true to nature, and the handling of the paint is typical of Bennett's individualistic style. The whole design is outlined in black, the flowers are painted with few but strong strokes of the brush, and the background, which from a distance appears solid, is in fact loosely worked in various tones of green as well as black, giving the impression of sunlight breaking through. Although Bennett produced pottery on and off throughout his life in America, this powerful, imposing work represents a magnificent swan song to his years of commercial production in New York.
This vase also stands as a monument to the Aesthetic Movement, which developed out of an abhorrence of Victorian excesses in design and decoration, an enthusiasm for Japanese art, and the philosophies of John Ruskin and William Morris. The movement was well established in England by 1875-76, when Bennett emigrated, and was flourishing in America by the early 1880s. Oscar Wilde toured North America for eighteen months in 1882-83 preaching the revolutionary doctrine of "Art for Art's Sake," which held that the beauty of an object or painting was more important than any function or content it might have. Although the following extract from one of Wilde's lectures refers specifically to painting, it applies as well to this Bennett vase: "It is a beautifully-coloured surface, nothing more, and affects us by no suggestion stolen from philosophy, no pathos pilfered from literature, no feeling filched from a poet, but by its own incommunicable artistic essence."