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Henry Chapman Mercer, Gentleman Artist

BUCKS Magazine: Jan/Feb 2008

This area is full of great spots to visit, which is probably why a lot of us live here. Some are soft and sweet, like Daniel Garberís house on Cuttaloosa. Others are cool and industrial, like the Lumberville pedestrian bridge. The experiences at these places never disappoint.

At the very top of my list is Henry Chapman Mercerís home and tile works in Doylestown. Some of you have the great fortune of not having experienced it yet. I envy you that first look. Originally sited with the familyís home on a thirty-one acre parcel, Mercerís residence of Fonthill and his Moravian Pottery and Tile Works now look over a smaller but still majestic estate. A straightforward driveway leads the traveler from Swamp Rd to a grandiose vista of meandering low Spanish-mission buildings to the right, and a tall English castle residence to the left, peppered with other structures. The prettier road from Court Street takes one under an umbrella of perfectly matching sycamore trees which leads up to the house. The property now looks like a park, planted with a large collection of mature trees dating back to Mercerís time and duly labeled in scientific fashion with tiles made in house. Itís relaxing just to be there.

The main structures were designed in country styles popular during the Arts and Crafts movement, at the turn of the last century. If your tastes run in the least bit to architectural curiosities, there should be plenty here to keep you amused. You will first notice that the Mercer buildings were coated in cement. This keeps the effect cool, while the overall scheme will shake loose many warm-and-fuzzy memories of fairy tales, nooks and crannies, and cozy fireplaces.

Actually, the buildings were poured in cement. Constructed from the inside out under Mercerís precise directions, they are a wonderfully playful contrast of warm and cold, hard and soft surfaces. The faceted columns in Fonthill, made of plain concrete, are often imbedded with tiles Mercer brought back from his far away travels. Others bear deep prints from the roughly hewn logs which surrounded them as molds. Painted pine chests of drawers, found locally, were also coated in cement, leaving only the fronts as welcome points of color. European tapestries still hang on the cold walls, light washed of color, but youíll get the idea, and books, thousands of books in many languages, fill concrete shelves; red- and yellow-ware vessels hang from fishing nets suspended from the ceiling. Everywhere hang bare light bulbs down from unadorned wires, very cutting-edge in the early twentieth century and worthy of display. And of course, there are the tiles, which were the point of all of this, the reason for this unorthodox surface treatment.

After some failed attempts to energize the floundering German folk pottery production in Bucks County, Mercer took it upon himself to bring back to life the artisanal tile industry by setting up his own tile works. The concepts of the Arts and Crafts movement, a revolution against mass production which encouraged the making of handicrafts, were by then quite popular in America. He recognized in this market a good business opportunity, which would also help save a dying craft, concept most dear to his archeological heart. His influence on the American Arts & Crafts movement cannot be overstated.

In 1898, Mercer hired a crew and had the Tile Works built on the site of his studio, Indian House. He studied firsthand the designs and techniques of medieval tiles by visiting sites and museums in England, France, and Germany. Upon his return from Europe, he led a small team in the production of tiles done in the old style: hand pressed from local red clay in hand-made molds. The different styles and glazes can be seen in he spectacular displays he designed for Fonthill. Brocade refers to pieces pressed in cookie-cutter-type molds which are mounted in cement, itself often playing an important role in the design. These represent voyages, tales, historical events, and are accompanied by wordy copy. Other tiles are square in different formats, with molded or incised designs often lifted directly from ancient models. And then there are large plaques made up of smaller, mosaic-like parts, depicting activities, seasons, or cultures. The glazes range from bright and glossy to dead-matte and plain. Mercer even encouraged the use of ďsmokeĒ glazing on some pieces, when chips of wood are allowed to burn freely in the kiln during firing, coating the unglazed items in subtle earthy tones.

The overarching effect of the place is eclectic and sometimes messy. It isnít for everyone. When I took my father there years ago, a very well-traveled man, he ended up laughing and shaking his head. ďThis place is too much!Ē he said. I was stunned. How could someone not be completely charmed by this place? I donít know, you go check it out and let me know. Make sure you take your time, and visit both Fonthill and the Tile Works. Iíd move in there tomorrow.








 

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