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Ceramics: Blue and white, all right!

A round-up of some recent books on porcelain, pottery and delftware

Ceramic collectors with abundant means usually choose to fish in well-stocked waters, a tendency which was evident even from the middle of the nineteenth century when the more patriotic taste for Wedgwood, Staffordshire pottery and Worcester porcelain were added to the traditional aristocratic and bankers’ craving for Continental porcelain. It is not difficult to see why First Period Worcester, with its sumptuous ground-colours and superb painting by artists from Chelsea were found acceptable by admirers of Sèvres and Meissen. But as with English pottery, collecting in Britain ran out of steam between the Wars, and was taken up with renewed energy in America where the largest collections are now to be found.

Worcester porcelain 1751-1790: the Zorensky collection forms a selected catalogue of a great American collection which happily suffers from none of the limitations associated with the genre. Started as recently as 1970 with the intention of achieving pre-eminence by representing the widest spectrum of the factory’s products, the collection already numbers in total some 1600 pieces, charting the progress of the factory before it changed direction to embrace first austere Neo-classicism and then the painterly richness of the early nineteenth century. The discrimination shown by the Zorenskys is also evident in their enlightened choice of the well known authors, Simon Spero and John Sandon, whose unique collaboration brings together a vast repository of knowledge about English porcelain and Worcester in particular. Not surprisingly, they were among many other dealers and experts who were instrumental in building the collection; and if the Zorenskys do have any idiosyncratic tastes, these have not been allowed to interfere with the overall balance of a collection which, in its taxonomic basis, would be the envy of any museum.

There are many ways to divide such a large body of material, parts of which must necessarily overlap. Here the authors have tried to let it fall naturally into groupings most useful for the collection—by period, pattern, style, influence or shape—groupings which form the chapters and the backbone of this book. Each chapter is prefaced by an excellent introduction which, for example, in the case of Chapter 12, “Outside decoration”, comprises a masterly analysis of the work of James Giles. An appendix deals thoroughly with redecoration, a hazard inseparable from those classes of porcelain which have been collected for a hundred and fifty years. In the miniature essays which, in the best American manner, form the 680 illustrated catalogue entries, the breadth of the authors’ knowledge is everywhere apparent, notably in their familiarity with the Oriental and Continental porcelains on which so much Worcester was based. Where words fail, the outstanding colour illustrations with muted backgrounds, soft lighting and sharp focus, clarify and evoke. The catalogue is rounded off with a comprehensive table of marks, selected bibliography, elementary glossary and full index.

What especially distinguishes this book from the many previous books on Worcester is the inclusion of introductory essays by each of the authors. Mr Sandon’s “History of the Worcester factory”, which ends rather abruptly in 1790, interweaves and relates extensive documentary evidence about the factory’s struggles with the development and changing styles of its products. Mr Spero’s “England in 1751” deals at length and in a lively manner with the political, social and artistic climate in which the Worcester factory was conceived. Since Worcester followed hard on the heels of London porcelains of the 1740s and was eventually to capture the continuing market for Gold Anchor Chelsea in the 1760s, this essay must be essential reading for every student of early English porcelain.

The quality of a collection is not always well served by its publications. Sèvres: porcelain from the Sèvres Museum 1740 to the present day is a faithfully, if perhaps needlessly, translated version of a work by Marie-Noelle Pinot de Villechenon, originally published by the Musée National de Céramique as Sèvres: une collection de porcelaines 1740-1992. Essentially a promotional picture book illustrated by a text which constitutes a brief, and not too accurate, history of the factory, the work is chiefly notable for its glamorous photographs.

Most new books on ceramics are aimed, to a greater or lesser degree, at collectors; and those afflicted with the bug for blue and white, be it Chinese porcelain, delftware or printed Staffordshire pottery, must rank amongst the most fanatical. The dictionary of blue and white printed pottery 1780-1889 (Vol I) by A.W. Coysh and R.K. Henrywood admirably serves a narrow section of this demanding market, combining an indispensable source-book with a dictionary of makers and marks. Although the publishers might have taken the opportunity to amalgamate this reprint with its supplementary Volume II produced in 1989, nonetheless they have made the vast amount of information contained in either volume affordable by even the most impecunious collector.

Blue and white of a different kind forms the basis of the long-awaited catalogue of delftware in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Delftware: the tin-glazed earthenware of the British Isles by Michael Archer. The facility with which the unfired surface of delftware could be inscribed, dated and painted enabled potters in England from the early seventeenth century onwards to use their inexpensive wares to commemorate famous persons and events. In the nineteenth century these humble recorders of British history attracted the antiquarian interest which in turn gave rise to early specialist literature such as E.A. Downman, Blue dash chargers (1919). The first monograph, F.H. Garner’s English delftware of 1948, was followed by important works by Anthony Ray, Lipsky and Archer and Frank Britton from the 1960s onwards, feeding a rapidly growing collector’s market for delftware which, perceived as a rich vein of British folk art, especially took hold in America. In 1994 John Austin’s British delft at Williamsburg set a new standard for museum catalogues.

Unlike Worcester porcelain or transfer-printed Staffordshire pottery, the full range of shapes and painted patterns of British delftware can never be encompassed in a single book. The V&A collections, however, which have been acquired continuously since 1853 and are now generally held to be the best and most comprehensive, have the strongest claim to a major catalogue which embodies the fruit of some thirty-five years’ study by the acknowledged expert in the field. It is copiously illustrated with 1500 black and white photographs and 350 colour plates, showing at least one view of every object: but if any part of this splendid book might be improved, it is the reproduction quality of some of the silhouette colour plates, a number of which are closely juxtaposed without regard to the comparative scale of the objects. A scholarly fifty-one page introduction takes the form of highly informative essays on the use, manufacturing technique and stylistic influences of delftware, as well as a history of the V& A collections. Following the format of the Lipsky and Archer Dated English delftware (1984) and John Austin’s recent Williamsburg catalogue, Michael Archer has arranged the material in groups according to shape, starting with the numerous flatwares which formed the staple output of every delftware factory, and including the magnificent series of seventeenth-century chargers. What has survived, of course, may not represent the full range of utilitarian wares, but the scope of this catalogue is highly impressive. Each group of wares is prefaced by an introduction, while each object carries a conventional museum catalogue entry followed by penetrating analytical discussion. “The catalogue of tiles”, which effectively forms a second part of the book, adds significantly to the existing specialist literature. Appendices detailing known caches of excavated material, the chronology of factories, fascinating and hitherto neglected “notes on collections and collectors’ labels” and a comprehensive bibliography put the cap on a work which, serving both as the best book and catalogue of the best collection, will remain unrivalled for the foreseeable future.

Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'Blue and white, all right!'