19 December 2016

THE BEGINNING AND END OF THE POTTERY PAINTING CRAZE

William S. Coleman, The Potter's Daughter
Just as pottery cafes are popular today, with children's parties and the like, pottery painting was a popular hobby in the late 19th century and it became a veritable craze.

It was sparked off by Mintons, who set up a London Art Pottery Studio in 1870 under the direction of the painter William Stephen Coleman. Coleman specialised in exotic pictures of half-naked girls, like The Potter's Daughter (above), although for Minton's he developed a series of naturalistic transfer printed illustrations of flowers and birds. The aim of Minton's Studio was to give employment to young women trained at the nearby National Art Training School (later the Royal College of Art).

The extract below comes from an article in The Times about the Studio. It indicates that pottery painters in the Studio recognised that their art was different from painting on paper or canvas. Minton’s products are favourably compared with those of Sèvres, for whereas at Sèvres the pottery paintings "give light and shade and the illusion of distance and relief", at South Kensington "it is maintained that pure decoration should only form a pattern on the surface. These are nothing more than the principles of the old Italian majolica painting, and nearly the whole art practiced in the studio is in imitation of this or of the Japanese school, which also, though not entirely, deals in purely superficial decoration."


The Studio burned down in 1875 and it wasn't replaced, but by then the craze was well established. It was especially popular with ladies, for whom it was an acceptable recreation and rather more demanding than sewing or embroidery.

To feed the craze, the retailers Howell and James put on annual exhibitions with prizes in the west end of London, There were "how-to-do-it" books, often recognising that the hobbyist didn't know either how to paint or what to paint and so including patterns with detailed instructions on colour and treatment; and there were artists' suppliers, like Lechertier and Barbe, who sold handy sets of materials for the beginner at very high prices (the cheapest set cost what a shop worker earned in a month).

A plate entered in Howell and James' pottery painting competition, 1887

Many pottery painters in industry, though by no means all, were women and so the amateur lady and the professional were ranged along a spectrum and might move from the "amateur" room to the "artist" room at Howell and James's big annual exhibition, rather as the evening class tyro and the full-time studio potter are ranged along a spectrum today. Studio pottery arguably occupies a similar place in modern culture to pottery painting in the 1880s and there are historical links between them . (The subject of pottery painting is covered in Cheryl Buckley's Potters and Paintresses and Moira Vincentelli's The Gendered Vessel.)

Painting was big in the pottery syllabus of the art schools of the period, taught by, among others, John Sparkes at the Lambeth Art School, Richard Lunn at the Royal College of Art and Alfred Powell at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Painting for the pottery industry was later important in the Burslem and Hanley art schools.


The dominant style of pottery painting was naturalistic, sentimental and often incredibly sickly. Although the artistic ladies were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, they appear to have been completely ignorant of Arts and Crafts design principles.

The pottery painting craze drew forth many articles from the press from the 1870s to the 1890s. Below is one that was published in The Leicester Chronicle and The Bristol Mercury on 7 June 1879, in “The Ladies Column” by "Penelope". "Penelope" reviews the fourth annual exhibition of painted china at Howell and James, who exhibited 1,350 pieces by lady amateurs and professional artists. “Penelope” is particularly interested in the potential for genteel employment offered by pottery painting at a time when ladies were not supposed to work but when many ladies did not have enough to live on.

The article is most interesting for its opinion of the quality of contemporary china painting. Not surprisingly, in a branch of art expanding so rapidly and a show that exhibited everything entered, its quality was mixed and it is obvious that many exhibitors had neither inspiration nor ability. "Penelope" puts it more politely than that, but her meaning is plain:
"I find that a great many people who have had no training, and can only just draw a little in a school-girl sort of way, without any great love of art or knowledge of composition, think that they can paint on china, and that have only to get a box of colours and a white plate to produce a great effect. In this they are entirely mistaken, China painting is a branch of art which requires special study and direction, after the facility for drawing has been acquired. The best artists will, of course, make the best china painters, and I do not recommend anyone to attempt it until they have gone through a careful course of study, and are pretty sure as to their correctness of outline in drawing, either form the living human form, or from nature herself, as seen in growing trees and flowers. This once achieved, the subsequent study for the special work of painting on china is simply technical, and can be accomplished in a short time.”
She recommends schools that will provide the proper training and a book, Amateur Pottery and Glass Painter by Campbell Hancock. Hancock’s book was one of the earliest on the subject, others coming out fairly regularly for the next thirty years. He came from a long line of Staffordshire potters and applied his expertise for the benefit of keen hobbyists and aspiring professionals:
"Here is surely a more profitable occupation for our young ladies than the endless production of the piles of needlework to which at present their talents are too often exclusively confined. Moreover, pottery painting affords a profitable resource for those whose circumstances necessitate their making some contribution to the household expenses.”
Many ladies with a passion for pottery painting not only could not paint but had no idea what to paint:
“’What shall I paint’ is the first question asked by the tyro,” said Hancock. “To this the answer is — Let the first essays be made in monochrome on the glaze — that is to say, with one colour heightened by one or two others. Photographs of casts or bas-reliefs afford good copies for this purpose; there are also now photographs of flowers to be obtained at many of the best photographers' shops, which are eminently suitable for the beginner's first lessons.”
Probably with them in mind as well as the professional, William Morris set out his principles of pottery making in The Lesser Arts (1877). His ideas are familiar, though he is far too prescriptive for the post-modern mind, e.g. a complete ban on moulding and printing and an insistence on roughness. Nevertheless, it's interesting to read the passage again:
"First. No vessel should be fashioned by being pressed into a mould that can be made by throwing on the wheel, or otherwise by hand.
"Second. All vessels should be finished on the wheel, not turned in a lathe, as is now the custom. How can you expect to have good workmen when they know that whatever surface their hands may put on the work will be taken off by a machine?
"Third. It follows, as a corollary to the last point, that we must not demand excessive neatness in pottery, and this more especially in cheap wares. Workmanlike finish is necessary, but finish to be workmanlike must always be in proportion to the kind of work. What we get in pottery at present is mechanical finish, not workmanlike, and is as easy to do as the other is hard: one is a matter of a manager's system, the other comes of constant thought and trouble on the part of the men, who by that time are artists, as we call them.
"Fourth. As to the surface decoration on pottery, it is clear it must never be printed; for the rest, it would take more than an hour to go even very briefly into the matter of painting on pottery; but one rule we have for a guide, and whatever we do if we abide by it, we are quite sure to go wrong if we reject it: and it is common to all the lesser arts. Think of your material. Don't paint anything on pottery save what can be painted only on pottery, if you do, it is clear that, however good a draughtsman you may be, you do not care about that special art. You can't suppose that the Greek wall-painting was anything like their painting on pottery; there is plenty of evidence to show that it was not. Or take another example from the Persian art; it is easy for those conversant with it to tell from an outline tracing of a design whether it was done for pottery-painting or for other work.
"Fifth. Finally, when you have asked for these qualities from the potters, and even in a very friendly way boycotted them a little till you get them, you will of course be prepared to pay a great deal more for your pottery than you do now, even for the rough work you may have to take. I'm sure that won't hurt you; we shall only have less and break less, and our incomes will still be the same."
The craze spread to the USA. There Charles F. Binns, who has a good claim to be called the father of studio pottery, encouraged enthusiasts to work in clay and not just to decorate glazed blanks.

Charles F. Binns, the father of studio pottery.
"The wave of interest and even enthusiasm for handicraft which is sweeping through the land" he wrote in 1906, "has touched in its passage almost every one of the applied arts in so far as they are capable of being handled by an individual who is not equipped with many tools or endowed with the skill to use them. In this enthusiasm and even endeavor there is danger."
"This feeling has caused china-painting to give place to pottery-making. The former consisted in buying finished china and painting upon it with ready prepared colors using, probably, some published design or drawing. Some of the work done under these conditions was, and is, good, even excellent, but it is executed by persons who are artists through and through and who would do well in any medium. The fact remains that the bulk of the work was copying of the poorest quality. During the last three or four years the quality of this production has much improved. Many of the weakest have abandoned the occupation of china-painting and those who have held on to it have purified their work through the pain of practice. ...
"When, however, the attempt is made to work in the clay itself, liberty is found. Not immediate success, necessarily. In fact success can only be secured through long and arduous training, but liberty has a different source. It springs from the consciousness of honest effort."
By the start of the 20th century, the philosophy of William Morris had thoroughly pervaded the art schools in Britain. It revolutionized the Royal College of Art. By 1900, a cohort of teachers associated with the Art Workers Guild had introduced for the first time direct working in materials, rather than the production of detailed drawings that were to then be farmed out to artisan makers. Richard Lunn was among them. Although he taught pottery painting, his course was the first in Britain where students could made, fire and glaze their work themselves. He also ran a course at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, where Alfred Hopkins was appointed to teach throwing pottery on the wheel, the first thrower in any art school. In the same year, 1916, William Askew, a master thrower late of Doulton's, was appointed to teach throwing at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

Richard Lunn in his studio at the Royal College of Art, c.1910