The Saint Louis Art Museum has acquired a ceramic vessel signed and dated by the enslaved ceramicist David Drake (c. 1801-1870s). The museum purchased the work in December for $155,000 from dealer Robert Hunter of Yorktown, Virginia.
Jar by David Drake (c. 1801-after 1870), dated June 6, 1857, alkaline-glazed stoneware; 17" x 15 3⁄8" x 15 3⁄8". Photo courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum. Purchase supported by the Richard Brumbaugh Trust in memory of Richard Irving Brumbaugh and Grace Lischer Brumbaugh, Friends Fund, the Marjorie Wyman Endowment Fund, the Lopata Endowment Fund, the Mary Elizabeth Rosborough Decorative Arts Fund, and the Margarita M. and Roland E. Jester Endowment Fund for the Decorative Arts.
Drake is known for his skill as a potter and for his ability to read and write at a time when antiliteracy laws were common in states where slavery was legal. He often inscribed ceramics with signatures, dates, and even rhyming verse. Today these inscriptions are seen as defiant expressions of literacy, authorship, and creativity in the face of slavery.
“The acquisition of this extraordinary vessel underscores the Saint Louis Art Museum’s ongoing commitment to acquire exceptional works of art by African American artists,” said Brent R. Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. “This work will enrich our galleries, and it will allow us to present an expanded history of early American art.”
Drake was born into slavery in South Carolina about 1801. Over his lifetime he labored in several potteries in the area around Edgefield, South Carolina. Drake produced utilitarian stoneware jugs, pitchers, and jars.
The largest known vessels made by Drake measure more than 2' in height, with thick walls and capacities greater than 20 gallons. The museum’s jar is compelling in size and form, with robust handles and a rich brown surface marked with splashed and dripped pale ocher-colored alkaline glaze.
Drake inscribed his name below the date of June 6, 1857, and ten dots to indicate its ten-gallon capacity. Evidence of the maker’s hand is palpable where his fingers gripped the base and the rim as he coated the vessel with glaze. The initials “Lm” near the rim indicate Lewis Miles, Drake’s enslaver and the proprietor of the Stoney Bluff Plantation, where Drake labored daily from 1849 until emancipation.
The jar will go on view later this year in the museum’s galleries devoted to 19th-century American art.
Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2021 Maine Antique Digest