Ceramics, Pottery, and Porcelain

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CERAMICS, POTTERY, AND PORCELAIN. Pottery is made from clays taken from the ground and baked, or fired, in a kiln to a temperature of several hundred degrees. Pottery can take many forms but is best known for items thrown on a spinning wheel, where the potter uses centrifugal force to create a perfectly symmetrical round object. However, round pots and other items can also be made by coiling strips of clay together or by pressing clay into molds. Alternatively, it is, of course, possible to create an item entirely by hand modeling.

If a pot is fired and then covered in a layer of glass, or glaze, and fired again, it becomes nonporous and capable of holding liquids. Such low-fired pottery is called earthenware and can take many forms. Pottery made in medieval Europe was in general of low status, considered inferior to items of metal, and used for storage or basic cookery. However, elaborate inlaid clay floor tiles are found in churches and royal palaces.

By the tenth century in Arab countries, tin oxide was being added to a lead-oxide glaze on earthenware, which turned the glaze white in the kiln to produce a pot with the appearance of porcelain. This could be painted in metallic oxides to produce a metallic layer, or luster, or alternatively in colored oxides to create a pictorial effect. In sixteenth-century Italy, painters of tin-glazed earthenware, or maiolica, such as Nicola da Urbino (d. 1537/1538) and Francesco Xanto Avelli (1487?1542?) became extremely skillful in adapting prints after Renaissance artists such as Raphael (14831520) and Michelangelo (14751564) to produce ceramics that became independent works of art. More elaborate types, including ewers, basins, and vases, were made in the workshops of the Fontana family in Urbino. Meanwhile, in France the potter Bernard Palissy (c. 15101590) was making grottoes (artificial, ornamental caves) and large dishes decorated in colored lead glazes that exactly reproduced the forms of wildlife in imitation of the natural world.

A tougher form of earthenware called stoneware, which was fired to 1200° C, was made in Germany in the sixteenth century and glazed with the addition of salt thrown into the kiln during the firing (salt-glazed stoneware). Large tankards or beer mugs and jugs, suitable for tavern use, with stamped or applied decoration were made at Cologne, Siegburg, Raeren, and the Westerwald, and exported across the whole of the Western world. German stonewares were copied by John Dwight (c. 16351703) at Fulham in London and by other potters elsewhere.

Porcelain is a fusion of two special clays, china clay (kaolin) and china stone, at temperatures in excess of 1300° C. Unlike most pottery, it is vitrified (glasslike) and translucent. It was first made in China in about the eighth century c.e. and was known in Europe by the fifteenth century. In the seventeenth century Chinese porcelain began to be imported in large quantities. It was generally decorated in underglaze blue, where gray-black cobalt oxide painted on the once-fired piece before glazing turns blue in the second firing process. Chinese porcelain was copied by tin-glazed earthenware makers at Delft in the Netherlands (Delftware), as well as in Frankfurt in Germany, and in London, Bristol, and Liverpool in England, Glasgow in Scotland, and Dublin in Ireland. Whole rooms were decorated with Chinese and Japanese porcelain from the floor to the ceiling (china rooms).

An artificial, or soft-paste, porcelain, made from the ingredients of ground-up glass, was developed in the Medici workshops in Florence in the sixteenth century, and later in France. Meanwhile the secret of making true hard-paste porcelain like the Chinese had been discovered at Meissen near Dresden in Germany by the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (16821719) in 1708. The factory produced vases, figures, and teawares, often decorated with European versions of Chinese scenes (chinoiseries) painted in overglaze enamel colors by the painter Johann Gregor Höroldt (16961775), and beautifully modeled figures of animals and humans, notably actors from the Italian commedia dell'arte, by the sculptor Johann Joachim Kändler (17061775). The latter were used to decorate the dining table during the dessert course.

A porcelain factory soon became a status symbol for kings across Europe, and porcelain factories spread to Vienna in 1717 and to sites in Germany (Frankenthal, Nymphenburg, Berlin, Fürstenberg, Höchst). Their wares are visually very similar, though note must be taken of the great rococo modeler Franz Anton Bustelli (17231763) at Nymphenburg. There were also many other lesser factories, both in Germany and in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy. Meanwhile, good-quality tin-glazed earthenware (faience) that copied porcelain shapes and styles of decoration continued to be made in France and Germany.

French soft-paste factories continued to thrive under aristocratic and royal patronage. The wares made at Chantilly in the first half of the eighteenth century imitated the spare colors and white background of Japanese Kakiemon porcelain from the collection of the duc de Bourbon. The factory supported by Louis XV at Sèvres produced some of the most elaborate porcelain ever made, with rich gilding and ground or with background colors framing gold-bordered central panels that could be quite different in style from the rest of the painting (reserves). In England there were private soft-paste porcelain factories at Chelsea, Bow, Liverpool, and other locations; they imitated Meissen or Sèvres or Chinese porcelain, depending on the wealth of their clientele. The factory at Worcester developed decoration with pulls from copper-engraved plates, or transfer printing, which at Caughley became the basis of the Chinese-style willow pattern.

The county of Staffordshire in central England became a major producer of pottery in the eighteenth century, mostly with mass-produced slip cast wares (made by pouring clay into a mold and allowing it to set into a specific shape) for the middle market such as stoneware teapots, or wares in colored glazes based on fruit and vegetables. A more sophisticated taste developed with the work of the great potter Josiah Wedgwood (17301795), who used the neoclassical style of the later eighteenth century to sell pottery to the upper classes across Europe. He refined stoneware to create a tinted version in imitation of classical cameos called Jasperware and refined earthenware to produce the pale creamware for everyday use. His products, as well as those of other factories in Staffordshire and Yorkshire, were to put many of the faience makers of Europe out of business by the end of the century.

The Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created financial problems for many porcelain factories in Europe, and by 1815 the main surviving state-sponsored factories were at Sèvres, Berlin, Meissen, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. They all made wares in the strict neoclassical style. Meanwhile, Staffordshire continued to produce a vast quantity of wares in a huge variety of styles, both in toughened pottery (ironstone) and the new bone china, in which bone ash is added to hard-paste porcelain clays.

See also Decorative Arts .


Ayers, John, et al. World Ceramics: An Illustrated History. Edited by Robert J. Charleston. London and New York, 1968.

Coutts, Howard. The Art of Ceramics: European Ceramic Design, 15001830. New Haven, 2001.

Hannover, Emil. Pottery and Porcelain: A Handbook for Collectors. Edited with notes and appendices by Bernard Rackham. London, 1925.

Honey, William Bowyer. European Ceramic Art from the End of the Middle Ages to about 1815. London and New York, 1949.

Howard Coutts

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