"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

John Brown in China,
Staffordshire China, That Is

John Brown the abolitionist was much admired abroad by the anti-slavery community, and during the Civil War years his popularity was not only booming in the U.S.A., but in Great Britain especially. Apart from literary and oratory tributes, Brown was also a marketable theme in pictures and figurines, as witnessed by this rare survivor from the 19th century, a Staffordshire china figurine made in that region of England ca. 1860-65. A number of ceramic pieces based on Brown were manufactured there after his famous execution in 1859, and these items were produced for domestic sale and export to the U.S. This large figurine, 13 ½ inches in height, survived the years and found its way to the Heritage Galleries auction house in 2005, and has no doubt found a home with some happy collector by now. HG noted that this "is one of the more impressive – and scarce – varieties."

In life John Brown visited England in 1849 in conjunction with his business activities as representative of the wool commission operation of Perkins & Brown, of which he was a partner with Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron, Ohio. Brown was particularly intent on finding foreign markets for wools grown in Ohio, western Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other states because the wool growers were under the heavy foot of New England manufacturers. Brown's failures in the wool commission business are famously misrepresented by popular narratives, although my research shows that most of the shipwreck of Perkins & Brown can be attributed to external and circumstantial issues. More research is needed about John Brown's time abroad, but it is clear that he made no effort to associate with England's abolitionists (not surprising since he made no effort to associate with New England's abolitionist leadership either) during his time abroad.

As to the theme of the china figurine, the artisan's design is no doubt apropos of the newspaper coverage of Brown at the time of his death. He is flanked by two young black children, one whom he supports with his hand, the other reaching up to hold his other hand. It was Brown's stated wish at the time of his execution that he receive no ceremony or prayers from pro-slavery preachers, but only an escort comprised of the enslaved--an old mother and barefoot children. This figurine captures something of Brown's sentiments and reminds us of the fine statue of Brown at the Brown Farm in Lake Placid, New York, where he is pictured walking with a black youth. Of course these images are quite authentic, not only to Brown's sentiments, but to the life he lived. Having lived and interacted extensively with black people in their homes and churches, there were many occasions when the scene portrayed by this china figurine might just as well have been based on a real John Brown incident.--LD

For fresh, cutting-edge work on John Brown as both businessman and abolitionist, see my latest book, John Brown--the Cost of Freedom.

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