TURKISH CERAMICS AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

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.

Topkapı Palace, wall with Iznik tiles.

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.

Border decoration on Iznik plate derived from Chinese cloud motifs

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 19th-century Cantagalli vessel using Iznik motifs.

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.

A “Persian” vessel by the Crown Derby Porcelain Company, mid 1880s. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

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.

Sir Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall in Kensington, a mixture of antique tiles from Turkey and new ones from London.

MASS OBSERVATION: ‘MANTLEPIECES’

Osbert Lancaster, ‘Modernistic’, from Homes Sweet Homes (1939)

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.

BERNARD LEACH: TOWARDS A STANDARD

The art and industry movement of the thirties wanted to integrate artists into industry, improve the standard of consumer goods, democratise art and improve public taste. There was a strong interest in education, and Frank Pick, who was one of the leading figures of the Council for Art and Industry, used his influence to nudge the Royal College of Art towards the teaching of industrial design and hastened the resignation of William Rothenstein as principal.

I said earlier that this movement for design reform and education reform was able to push forward on all fronts like this – on the industrial front, persuading manufacturers that their products needed to be better designed, and on the consumer front, dissuading shoppers from buying badly-designed objects – because of its belief in objective standards of beauty and the spiritual potential of good design.

This commitment to objective artistic standards answered a question that had puzzled me: If poor design was supposed to be a brake on sales, because customers wanted good design, why was it necessary to educate public taste? The answer is that design reformers thought they knew better than everyone.

Another puzzle had been an influential essay written at the end of the 1930s by Bernard Leach, Towards a Standard. Towards a Standard is the opening chapter of Leach’s A Potter’s Book, which has been in print since 1940 and which has shaped the thinking of generations of potters. It expresses an anti-industrial philosophy as severe as anything in Ruskin and I read it as a restatement of the Arts and Crafts philosophy. Leach was active in the rearguard of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, utterly opposing its engagement with industry, and he resigned over its acceptance of items designed for manufacturing in its 1938 exhibition.

Leach took an anti-intellectual line in his essay, in fact an irrationalist line, in which I read the ideas of Henri Bergson. There is no evidence that Leach had read Bergson and Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, based on Leach’s diaries and correspondence finds no mention of him. Creative Evolution is exactly the sort of book one would have expected Leach to read and to have talked about if he had read it, but he does not. Bergson’s influence was great in the interwar years and terms like “vitality” in Leach’s writing and criticism were absorbed from his cultural environment.

Leach thought pottery could help to regenerate a civilisation marred by industry and ravaged by war and political conflict. The standard that potters were supposed to follow was absolute and unchanging, was not personal taste and was most certainly not a matter of consumer preference.

Thus in the modernist culture of the Council for Art and Industry and the anti-modernist aesthetic of A Potter’s Book, there is the same crusade to establish an absolute standard for artists and a mission among a benighted public who don’t appreciate “good design” or what they ought to have in their homes.