Much of the history of European ceramics is the attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain. The Ottoman Turks covered buff clay with white slip and a clear glaze. The Moors brought opaque white tin glaze into Spain, from where it spread to Italy, the Netherlands, central Europe and England. Meanwhile, there were experiments in porcelain, adding products like crushed glass to clay. In 1693 a soft paste porcelain was invented at Rouen, and in 1708 a hard paste, closer to the Chinese original, at Meissen.
Wedgwood went in a different direction, aiming for a white earthenware, his experiments finally yielding a satisfactory cream-coloured body in the late 1760s.
I had known that creamware spelled the end of tin-glazed earthenware – Alan Caiger-Smith mentions it in Tin-glazed Earthenware – but I had not known exactly how Wedgwood displaced delftware until I read Robin Reilley’s Wedgwood biography.
Wedgwood could not export to France because the quality potteries were protected by the crown, but trade with the Netherlands was easier and creamware made rapid inroads there. His Dutch agent, Lamertus van Veldhuysen, introduced it to the upper class but had difficulty selling it to “the middle sort of people” because it was too expensive. The Delft potters recognised its superiority and tried to imitate it, some of them bankrupting themselves in the process. Wedgwood was unconcerned. When van Veldhuysen sent him a sample of creamware made by a potter called Zwenck, he said, “With regard to the quality of the body & glaze, they are so bad that we could not sell such pieces at 1 shilling a dozen.” Reilley comments that no Dutch manufacturer succeeded in copying creamware until the nineteenth century and that the Dutch have always been among Wedgwood’s best customers.
On a visit to Lisbon I found that the azulejo tradition is not only more deeply rooted in Portugal’s culture than I realised but that it remains alive and is being continually renewed.
The Lisbon metro has been decorated in azulejos over the last twenty years, using modern techniques like screen printing and styles and themes that are completely contemporary. Then, when we were walking past the Pasteleria Alcôa at 37 Rua Garrett, I saw the tiled shop front made by Querubim Lapa in 1960, a beautiful, softly-painted panel in shades of blue.
Lapa, I discovered, was one of Portugal’s principal contemporary ceramic artists. The high esteem in which tile painting is held in this country meant that after a training and early career in easel painting, he was able to concentrate entirety on ceramics.
The shop in Rua Garrett, originally for Casa da Sorte, was a collaboration between architect Francisco Conceição Silva and Lapa. Lapa rated his contribution so highly that he asked for his application for the chair in ceramics at the school of fine arts to be assessed on it alone.
When Casa da Sorte closed, there was concern for the future of this fine ceramic work, but, when Alcôa took over the building in 2015, they undertook not to disturb it.
I discover good ceramists every day. Here are two pieces by Vivien Moir, a Scottish artist. She trained as an illustrator at Jordanstone College of Art and Design and lives on the west coast of Scotland. I found these images on the website of the Water Street Gallery in Todmorden, and the Heinzel Gallery in Aberdeen, where she exhibits. Her blue-and-white illustrations recall the 17th century ceramics of Delft, in particular their naive pictures of Adam and Eve and of King William III on a horse. Utterly charming.
I took some Associate Members of the Craft Potters Association to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge on Tuesday, to view and handle seven ceramics from their collection. The Fitzwilliam has one of the best ceramics collections in Britain and doesn’t have room to display them all, so we were able to see some that aren’t on show. Above you can see Dr. Julia Poole, past keeper of applied arts, explaining one of the works to us.
We were able to handle a celadon wine jug from Korea, a maiolica dish from the workshop of Durantino in Urbino, a very large Thomas Toft dish (left) with a picture of Adam and Eve, a Bernard Leach pagoda-lidded pot, a yellow bowl by Lucie Rie, a colourful pot by Kate Malone and a hollow, monochrome form by Gordon Baldwin. The pieces were chosen to cover a wide range of styles, methods and periods. Dr. Poole is a specialist in Italian maiolica and gave a fascinating insight into the social conditions in which the Durantino dish was produced. The Toft dish was naively, even crudely, painted, but with great wit and energy and a skilled appreciation of how to fill a space with an image and decorative elements and how to create rhythm and energy with three colours.
But the piece that stood out for me was the Lucy Rie bowl, in the centre of the table in the top picture. It is 34cm wide, finely made, with a pitted and bubbly, sulphur-yellow glaze. A Stoke-on-Trent potter would say that the glaze is faulty, but Rie, who made innovative use of pinholed, bubbling, and volcanic glazes, has judged it perfectly. It was made in the early 1950s. Perhaps it is unfair to compare it with the Leach dish, which was made towards the end of his life when his sight was failing, but it is so much more light and refined and lacking the peasanty affectation of Arts-and-Crafts pottery.
I was familiar with reproductions of Manet’s Déjeunersur l’herbe (above) long before I saw it in the Musée d’Orsay but however blasé I was the impact of its size (more than two metres by three) and the juxtaposition of the naked woman with the clothed men was great.
In the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which has one of the best collections of tin glazed pottery in Europe, I saw a fine maiolica dish (left) from the workshop of Guido Durantino (16th century) showing The Judgement of Paris. There, on the bottom right, was Déjeuner sur l’herbe though not so shocking as Manet because everyone is naked.
What’s the connection between Manet and a maiolica dish? Durantino copied a famous engraving by by Marcantonio Raimondi (below) from a design by Raphael. Manet studied the old masters and copied the three principal figures in Déjeuner from Raphael’s design.
Before we went to Rome, I broke a ceramic figurine of sentimental value. I should have packed it, because one of our finds was Squatriti, this doll’s hospital in the Via di Ripetta. It’s not the sort of thing you look for, but it’s typical of the unexpected things you come across while wandering in the city.
Among the others were a modernist sports centre from the Fascist 1930s designed by Luigi Moretti. The centre, Casa GIL, opposite our hotel in Trastevere, is still used as a gym and steps are being taken to restore it, but it’s in a sorry state and there are sensitivities about restoring Italy’s Fascist past. Here are pictures of it as it was and as it is today (below).
The government was introducing austerity measures and a round of demos was under way. This demo by school students (bottom left) went past Casa GIL to the ministry of education down the road It was different from demos in England: here the teachers joined in instead of trying to stop it and addressed the students from the steps of the ministry.
Intense secular and religious demonstrations take place streets away from one another and in Trastevere there was a religious procession by Rome’s Peruvian community (bottom right).
We are going to Rome soon, after a successful Open Studio. The last time I was there I bought a ceramic vase like this one, made in the Dolfi factory in Montelupo. There was a big shop by the Piazza Sant’Andrea selling reproductions of Renaissance maiolica. You see it all over Italy. Market stalls in Florence overflow with it, much of it made nearby in the ancient pottery towns of Montelupo, Deruta, Gubbio and further north in Faenza. Some of it is quite cheap, and most of it is no good. It is well-made technically, but there is little innovation and the brush work is often weak. Dolfi, which does some direct imitations of old maiolica, is a good exponent of this genre.
At the G. Ballardini State Institute of Art at Faenza, you can receive a training in the production and conservation of these ceramics. Although some of the student work at the Ballardini is innovative, I have never seen it in the tourist centres. Italy is a country of innovative modern design weighed down by its history. Perhaps this time in Rome I’ll look out for some new and modern ceramics.
Student work from the Instituto Statale d’Arte G.Ballardini, Faenza