Two new books examine ceramics from different points of view

One is a technical and stylistic analysis; the other a cultural critique. Both are well worth a read


The eighteenth century was a boom time for ceramics in Britain. At the beginning of the century, potters with small kilns were producing cheap, rough earthenware and salt-glaze vessels for a local clientele, while the aristocracy collected Chinese porcelain, but ate off silver plates. By the end of the century, every aspiring middle-class home had its porcelain tea-service, and Josiah Wedgwood’s “basalt” vases were rivalling Greek originals in the houses of the great. Meanwhile, the fortunes of tin-glazed Delftware rose, peaked and fell, leaving kitchen dressers up and down the country laden with blue and white.

We are so comfortable with this episode in British history that we no longer really question it. As tastes change, we may abandon our inherited Staffordshire cream-ware and collect contemporary salt-glazed pieces, without concern for the historical context in which these forms and techniques first arose. Yet, as these two books under review show, this history is fascinating. It is the story of the making of modern, industrial Britain, of the triumph of a merchant middle class which produced as its first hero a potter from Burslem.

European ceramics by Robin Hildyard is the more conventional book. Written as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Decorative arts series”, it provides a useful guide for the general reader to the V&A’s own collection of ceramics, embedding these examples in a wide-ranging history of European ceramics from the Middle Ages to the present day. By analogy with other art forms, it unfolds the history of ceramics as a sequence of stylistic and technical developments, from earthenware, stoneware and tin-glaze to the invention of porcelain and the impact of industrialisation, with individual innovators blazing new trails. The main text elegantly, if densely, weaves a coherent narrative from a mass of details, but there are also helpful thematic, two-page spreads which highlight particular techniques or personalties. The pots are the stars of the show: beautifully photographed, they are so glossy you can imagine touching them. Sarah Richards’s book is, at first, more forbidding, with its dull grey cover and sparse, black and white illustrations. Part of a series entitled “Studies in design and material culture”, published by Manchester University Press, it opens on a resolutely academic note, full of inverted commas questioning the practices of “politeness” by which structures of “civilised” living are “renegotiated” and so on. What interests Sarah Richards is less the pots themselves than the opportunity their particular history offers to investigate a more general social and economic transformation. As you read on, however, what an opportunity this history turns out to provide. From the perspective of changing notions of “china”, Ms Richards is able to discuss the persistence of alchemical ideas alongside Enlightenment ideals; eighteenth-century geology and mineralogy; the birth of capitalism; the impact of the East India Company on ideas of barbarism and politeness; nascent Romanticism and the cult of sensibility; changing notions of femininity; the new design of houses; cutlery; attitudes to death and contemporary knowledge of poisons; taxonomy and the origins of evolutionary theory; cooking skills in Yorkshire; toilet habits in Bristol; the cultural role of imitation; the fashion for masquerade and so on. Her book vividly resuscitates a world in transition from diaries, probate records, paintings, advertisements, newspaper stories, inventories, letter and plays. Even family accounts turn out to be rich in human texture.

Occasionally the effort of managing so much source material and making it yield grist for her theoretical mill cause the reader to smile. When she writes, “It is also the case that at times of social discord the artefacts which support polite and civilised structure can be utilised when such structure start to unravel, and the artifacts themselves turned to destructive purposes”, you would be forgiven for failing to recognise a good plate-smashing row.

But, in general, this book has a great deal to fascinate a pot lover, not east the opportunity to recognise how far we have moved in our cult of the hand-thrown and individually designed, from the aspirations of our ancestors.

Robin Hildyard, European ceramics (V&A Publication, London, 1999), 144 pp, 30 b/w ills, 170 col. ills, £25 (hb) ISBN 1851772596

Sarah Richards, Eighteenth-century ceramics (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1999), 58 b/w ills, £45 (hb) ISBN 071904465, £15.99 (pb) ISBN 0719044650

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Fancy and functional'