Ceramics has alway been a field of cultural appropriation and there may have been little ceramic art without it. One of the most obvious cases is the appropriation of material culture both by and from Turkish potters. Istanbul’s great glory is its Iznik tiled mosques, so I was disappointed to find that, athough the walls of the Topkapı Palace are gorgeously tiled, the Palace’s collection of ceramics is from China, not from Iznik. If you want to see Iznik pottery, go to London, where the British Museum has the best collection in the world.
The development of Iznik pottery was motivated by the desire to imitate Chinese porcelain, which was done in a roundabout way, covering the local greyish clay with fine white slip then painting it in brilliant colours under a clear glaze. There are Chinese motifs on Iznik vessels, with their characteristically Turkish decorations of tulips, carnations and saz leaves, in the form of the cloud patterns round the margins of plates. The Chinese returned the compliment by taking Iznik motifs and painting them in blue and white on porcelain dishes for export.
This Turkish pottery was naturally admired everywhere. In Britain in the 19th century it was copied and adapted without understanding. Its origins weren’t known because the Iznik manufactories were long gone. As every visitor to Turkey discovers, Iznik designs are sold everywhere, but the pottery comes from Kütahya now.
A large cache of this pottery had been brought to England from Syria, so it was called Damascus ware. Some was found in Greece too, so it was also called Rhodian. The British thought that Ottoman Turks were incapable of creating such lovely work but that Persians were, so these wares were called Persian as well.
Under these confused names, Iznik patterns were put on tiles, which were all the rage at the time. Some were made by hand by William de Morgan for Sir Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall, many more were produced in industrial quantities by Minton Hollis. The “Persian” style was freely adapted and elaborated by Crown Derby, with raised gilt patterns, to make amazing bling for export to the USA. Homage was also paid to the Iznik potters by the Cantagalli company in Italy, who made much closer copies.
Curious as to how ceramic figures were displayed in their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s (I’ve written about them here and here), I popped down to the University of Sussex archive to read the Mass Observation report on Mantlepieces yesterday. Ceramic figures were produced in large quantities by factories, especially Doulton and Royal Worcester, and by studio potters. In fact, they were so common that, for most people, ‘studio pottery’ meant ceramic figures and not the plain stoneware vessels that it came to mean after the war, something that it’s hard for us to appreciate today. But we really know very little about their place in the home.
Osbert Lancaster included in his sardonic cartoons of Homes Sweet Homes the Modernistic home (above), with its comfortable-looking Art Deco furnishings and its comfortable-looking owner, her nicely curated mantlepiece with a square clock in the centre and figurines on either side. Was that how they were displayed?
Mass Observation was a famously muddled attempt by poet Charles Madge, anthropologist Tom Harrison and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings to make anthropological studies of the British people. There were intriguing results, like the chapter on the Lambeth Walk, the ‘thirties dance fad, in the Penguin book Britain by Mass Observation. But in other studies (MO called them ‘Directives’) the bias and capriciousness of the selections are obvious. In the Mantlepiece Directive, for example, it’s noticeable how many of the subjects are reported to be left-wing in their views and to have books by writers like Dostoevsky on the mantlepiece.
But what about the figurines? In fact there were very few on the mantlepieces observed and the overwhelming impression given in the reports was of chaos. Sociologists reading through the observations today and hoping to find pattern or significance in them have recorded their despair, irritation and ennui. There were 158 MO observers and they listed getting on for three thousand items. Unlike Osbert Lancaster’s Moderne lady, these mantlepiece-owners had little interest in display. There were a few china dogs and crinoline ladies, but on the whole there were random deposits of clocks, pipes, matches, postcards, brass ornaments, photos, vases, ashtrays, pencils, pens, bottles of ink, bowls with collar-studs and paper clips in them, and generally the detritus of everyday life whose classification would be like Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.