17 April 2013


As well as thinking about how I decorate my own ceramics, I've been reading about the Victorian pottery painting craze.  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. 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 (left), although for  Minton's he developed a series of naturalistic transfer printed illustrations of flowers and birds.

Minton's art pottery studio burned down in 1875 and it wasn't replaced, but by then the craze was 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 pottery-painting 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 (below) for the beginner at very high prices (the cheapest set cost what a shop worker earned in a month).

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.)  Although professional craftspeople understandably distance themselves from amateurs, amateurism is the submerged nine-tenths of the craft iceberg and deserves more study.

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, who at the RCA in 1901 started the first-ever practical pottery class; 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. 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.