“What would I use this for?” people say as they pick up my work at shows. I make vessels that are not obviously useful for anything. “You can use it for anything you like,” I say, and then, in desperation, “You could use it for a vase!” Yes, you can put flowers in any hollow object that holds water. But there is a huge amount of pottery, going back a very long way, that was not used for anything and was not meant to be used for anything.
The figures made by potters are a case in point. Many were made at Chelsea, Bow, Bristol and other European potteries (top) in the 18th century and they have always been popular with collectors. But they are obviously not for use and more to the point is the large amount of functional pottery – plates and vessels – that was made not to be used.
Renaissance maiolica plates (left top) and Iznik plates are too refined to be for anything other than display. And not only this refined pottery: Toft plates, the vigorous English slipware of roughly the same period, were made to be looked at, not to be used. As plates offer a flat surface for the decorator, they become paintings on clay.
The successors of all these traditions make plates for display rather than the table. I have modern plates from Kütahya, (an imitation of Iznik), from Deruta (where maiolica has been made almost without interruption since the 15th century), and from Hungary (which has a strong slipware tradition, left middle) all of them with pierced foot rings, intended for the wall or the dresser.
As well as figures and picture-plates, useful vessels were often made to be looked at as well, and whatever they were made for, many are not used. Annabel Freyberg’s book Ceramics for the Home shows collections of Poole pottery, British studio pottery, Derby, Coalport, garish sixties vases, Thun ware, Romanian folk ware, Quimper, McCoy ware, transfer printed creamware, imitation Palissy, blue and white ware, and many other genres. Although there are plates and figurines in these collections, there are also bowls, jugs, mugs, tureens, teapots and vases. The picture left bottom shows old cook’s bowls in an East Coast American home, once used for cakes and puddings but now transformed into a domestic installation.
Pottery is collectible because it looks good and it’s cheap. You might even say that potters are kept in business by people who don’t want to use their products. Pottery also carries the identity of its maker, whether it’s made by an artist or a factory. Sevres, Herendt, Poole and Wedgwood are pretty easily recognisable. When I listen to what the public say at ceramics shows, I get the impression that they are buying people not pots:”Look at this lovely Svend Bayer I got!”
So the irony is that functional objects are treasured for their appearance, their associations and what they say about the collector. But here is the bigger irony, if your jug is comfortable to pick up and it pours well, it is better to contemplate, even if it never holds orange juice and you never use it as a vase.
Annabel Freyberg, Ceramics for the Home, London: Laurence King, 1999