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"[Henry Chapman Mercer] is an extraordinary figure, a figure straight from the Renaissance."
A gentleman scholar, Henry Chapman Mercer devoted his boundless energy to a broad range of creative endeavors. He was an author, artist, architect, archaeologist, antiquarian, and leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, which advocated the handcrafting of decorative objects. Mercer's dedication to conserving the past motivated many of his diverse pursuits. As a young man, he became an archaeologist, excavating Indian sites, writing scholarly tracts, and curating at the University of Pennsylvania's new Museum of Science and Art. Mercer's impulse toward preservation led him to protect old buildings in Bucks County and to design concrete molding for fire-proof construction. He collected hand-made artifacts and tools, which were rapidly disappearing in the industrial age. His collection, along with the building he constructed to contain it, have since become the Mercer Museum. A leader in the Arts and Crafts movement, Mercer built the Moravian Tile and Pottery Works to revive traditional methods of producing decorative tiles. He designed all the tiles his firm produced during his lifetime.
Henry Chapman Mercer. Image courtesy of the Spruance Library of the Bucks County Historical Society.
"What you are about to see, the last survival here in our midst of an ancient art with a brilliant history reaching back to the beginning of civilization, inspired me and changed the current of my life."
-Henry Chapman Mercer
Henry Chapman Mercer deplored the industrialization of America. In attempt to restore creativity to the manufacturing process, he joined the Arts and Crafts movement, focusing on the production of decorative ceramic tiles. Scorning the shoddiness of the tiles which had been mass-produced since the 1840s, Mercer revived traditional methods of crafting them. He surveyed the pottery workshops of Moravian farmers, while learning about the glazing process from modern chemists and Renaissance manuscripts. Drawing upon this antiquarian knowledge, Mercer in 1899 opened the Moravian Tile and Pottery Works in Doylestown. In 1912, he moved it to a new building that he designed, combining Spanish mission and modern industrial architecture, its cloistered courtyards and curving gables capped with belching chimneys.
Mercer impressed designs on the clay with a hand-operated tile press and, afterwards, applied glaze with a method capable of producing a range of textures, colors, and effects. He derived his designs from medieval patterns, folktales, Biblical stories, and history. In addition to designing individual tiles, Mercer created mosaics. His tiles were highly acclaimed, displayed in arts and crafts exhibitions and featured in popular journals such as House Beautiful. While Mercer was able to make a profit off of his endeavors, he was most concerned with his success in reviving the past he had so zealously studied, producing objects of utilitarian value and beauty.
Henry Chapman Mercer, Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, 1912. Courtesy of Urban archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
"The point I earnestly desire to make... is that in this collection called 'The Tools of the Nationmaker' we are ahead of everybody; we are original, alone, unique."
-Henry Chapman Mercer
Henry Chapman Mercer first became interested in material culture as a young man when, working as an archaeologist, he excavated Indian sites across America. Gradually he shifted his attention from the study of prehistory to that of history. As an avid collector, gathering such diverse objects as an old New England whale boat, colonial farm tools, and even a conestoga wagon, Mercer concluded that the excavation of material culture need not be restricted to that of antiquity. He recognized that by studying artifacts from a historic period, scholars could deepen their understanding of the past. In this way, Mercer pioneered the discipline of cultural history.
Mercer promoted this field through his involvement in the Bucks County Historical Society, of which he became president in 1911. By donating many artifacts to its collection of pre-industrial American implements, as well as a large new building to accommodate it, Mercer created a museum. He also strengthened the Society's scholarly mission by arranging lectures and publications, which often were his own. In the years since his death, the Mercer Museum has grown and flourished, serving as a model for other cultural history museums around the country. Working in conjunction with the Bucks County Historical Society, Mercer redefined the role of the museum in presenting history.
Henry Chapman Mercer. Courtesy of the Spruance Library of the Bucks County Historical Society.
Education and Training
B.A., Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1879
University of Pennsylvania, School of Law, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1880-1881
Apprenticeship to a German potter
Connection to Bucks County
Henry Chapman Mercer's family resided in Bucks County beginning in 1684. Raised in Doylestown by his grandfather, Judge Henry Chapman, Mercer dwelled there all his life, except during his extensive periods of travel, especially to Europe. He built several important institutions in Doylestown, including the Mercer Museum, which houses his collection of historical artifacts, as well as his estate, Fonthill, and the Moravian Tile and Pottery Works. Mercer was president of the Bucks County Historical Society. His interests in historical preservation introduced him to the artist Charles Sheeler, whom he helped to lease the eighteenth-century fieldstone house which Sheeler subsequently explored in many art photographs and paintings. Mercer was also friendly with Bucks County painter William Langson Lathrop.
Colleagues and Affiliations
William Lathrop was a close friend of Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was present when Lathrop launched his boat, the Widge. Mercer also helped Charles Sheeler and Morton Schamberg locate and lease the Bucks County farm they used as a painting retreat. He was a member of the Doylestown Nature Club and president of the Bucks County Historical Society.
Major Solo Exhibitions
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1900-1902
Architectural League and Arts Club, New York, New York, 1900
Providence Art Club, Providence, Rhode Island, 1901
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1902
Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, Michigan, 1906
International Museum of Ceramics, Faenza, Italy, 1925
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1915
Machinery Can't Make Art: The Pottery and Tiles of Henry Chapman Mercer, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1998
Major Group Exhibitions
Creative Bucks County, Michener Art Museum, New Hope, Pennsylvania, 2003
The Moravian Tile and Pottery Works, 1910-1912
The Mercer Museum, 1914-1916
Teaching and Professional Appointments
Curator, American and Prehistoric Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania, 1894-1897
Superintendent, Port Kennedy Bone Cave, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1894-1896
Honorary member, U.S. Archaeological Commission to Madrid, Colombian Expedition, 1892-1893
Manager, Free Museum of Science and Art of the University of Pennsylvania, 1891
Associate Editor, American Naturalist, 1893-1897
Craftsman, Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, 1901
Doctor of Science (honorary), Franklin and Marshall College, 1916
Grand Prize, Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, St. Louis, 1904
Master Craftsman's Medal of the Arts and Crafts Guild of Philadelphia, 1930
Gold Medal for Allied Arts, American Institute of Architects, 1918
Affiliations and Memberships
Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Founding Member, Bucks County Historical Society, 1880
Founder, Mercer Museum
Member, Academy of Natural Sciences
Member, Doylestown Nature Club
Member, American Philosophical Society, 1895