This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
FROM the earliest periods of civilisation down to the present time, there is, perhaps, no branch of manufacture which has undergone such vicissitudes of taste and excellence of workmanship as that of pottery. In ancient Greece, within the space of a few centuries, it not only grew from a species of rude handicraft into a refined and graceful art, but declined again so emphatically in style and quality that the purest Greek vases in Pliny's time had become of immense value, and were frequently exhumed from the tombs with the same kind of zeal which inspires a modern antiquary.
In the Middle Ages, Italy produced, under the general name of majolica, some of the most beautiful specimens of the ceramic art which the world has seen; but the excellence of that ware was continually varying, sometimes with the local materials at hand, sometimes with the chemical knowledge, and sometimes with the patronage of the day. In later times, the design of our own English pottery has been subject to like influences. The qualities which distinguish old Chelsea, Derby, Worcester, and Plymouth china are well known to connoisseurs. But they are qualities which, whether good or bad, are characteristic of their age, and are not likely to be reproduced in our own time. For many years past the manufacture of Oriental ware has been steadily deteriorating, and this fact, I fear, is in a great measure due to the increased facilities of our intercourse with India, and to the bad influence of modern European taste on native art. Ignorant people, who sneer at what they consider to be the artificial value set on quaint pieces of old crockery, little know what artistic merit is frequently embodied in their designs, or by what exquisite details of pattern they excel the inventions of the nineteenth century. I believe the time will come when some of those rare examples of ancient work will be worth their weight in gold, and will be sought after, not so much to fill the cabinet of the antiquary or adorn the studio of the painter, but to serve as models for future imitation, when we shall have learnt that the principles of good design are not confined to mere objects of luxury, but are applicable to every sort and condition of manufacture. Does not Nature herself teach this great truth ? The tender plants which we cultivate in a greenhouse must once have grown wild somewhere. They may surpass the flowers of our English hedgerows in fulness of leaf or delicacy of hue, but the humblest daisy or buttercup which springs on the hill-side is really a work of High Art, perfect after its kind, planned with a specific intention, and in direct accordance with one great scheme of grace and harmony.
It is much to be regretted that all this is lost sight of in the system of modern English design. At the china-shops, especially, we shall find that almost every article which, from its general form or association of colour, approaches a standard of good taste, is either made in a rare and expensive quality of material, or has been prepared in so refined and laborious a manner, as to render it exceedingly costly. Now, perfection of quality and excessive accuracy of workmanship may add to the luxe, but never to the spirit of true art. On the contrary, I believe that there may be a sickly kind of high finish and an ignoble symmetry in design which will detract from its merit if it be good, and render it contemptible if it be poor. I have before me at the present moment two specimens of foreign pottery - one a preserve jar of Indian manufacture, the other an Algerine or Moorish plate. I doubt whether the most skilful craftsman in Staffordshire or at Sevres could devise any object more thoroughly artistic in design, or better adapted for their respective purposes; and yet they are roughly-executed pieces of native ware, produced at a price doubtless not greater than that which we pay for the commonest mugs and platters at a village fair. I bought them of a London curiosity dealer for some few shillings apiece. I suppose they could not have been made here for as many guineas.
The plate, or rather circular dish (for it is deep and capacious), is made of a coarse clay covered with an opaque glaze. In the centre, or hollow portion, is painted on a white ground, and in various colours, a very remarkable pattern. The idea seems to have been taken from a ship, for there are masts and sails, and pennants flying, and portholes, and a patch of bluish-green below, which, I presume, must be accepted as typical of water. But in such a hurry has the artist been to make his dish gay with colour and a pleasant flow of lines, that no one can say which is the bow and which the stern of his vessel - whether we are looking at her athwart or alongships - where the sea ends and the ship's side begins; and, finally, what relation the improbable hulk bears to the impossible rigging. The whole thing is, pictorially considered, absolute nonsense, and yet, as a bit of decorative painting, excellent. The design, such as it is, has been sketched in, evidently by hand, rapidly but with great spirit; the outline has been first made in brown colour, and the spaces thus marked out are filled in sometimes with flat and sometimes with accidentally gradated tints of blue, violet, green, and yellow. The picture, if we may so call it, is then enclosed in a sort of scallop-pattern border, and the outside rim of the dish is further decorated with a sort of rough-and-ready triangular patchwork of green, white, and yellow, arranged alternately.
The Indian preserve jar is somewhat more refined in regard both to material and style of decoration. The ground colour here is that beautiful hue which one might call green when opposed to blue, and blue when opposed to green. On this a floriated pattern is drawn in black outline, and so profusely distributed that scarcely a quarter of an inch square is left uncovered by it. There are stalks and leaves, tendrils, buds, and flowers - none of a strictly botanical character, yet all sufficiently suggestive of nature to be graceful. The stalks and leaves are of vegetable green, the tendrils are white, the buds alternately yellow and rose-pink, and the flowers of a delicate carnation gradated into light-grey. All this ornament is executed in enamelled colour, slightly relieved, but unshaded and conventional in shape; and on the ground thus formed are introduced at opposite sides of the circular jar four lemon-coloured discs, about three inches in diameter, decorated with Indian characters in light red, and outlined, like the rest of the ornament, in black. The base of the jar is bordered with yellow leaves, lapping over each other. The effect of the whole is excellent; and although, I fear, it would violate some scientific theories of chromatic harmony, one may well dispense with theories in so admirable a result.
Now, if a French or British modern porcelain-painter had taken a ship or a fair flowering plant for his model, he would have gone to work in a much more knowing way. We should have seen a sloop or cutter - drawn in unexceptionable perspective - scudding with reefed topsails before the wind, or firing a salute to the port-admiral; all the tackle would have been correctly indicated; and there would have been a mountainous coast-line, or a setting sun, or a group of clouds by way of background. In like manner, the flower-painting would have been naturalistic, with shaded leaves and picturesque entanglement of stems, and, maybe, a bunch or so of ribbon to tie them up with. And the European designer would have flattered himself on his enlightened skill, and felt inwardly grateful that he had received what is called an art-education, instead of remaining in barbaric ignorance, like the poor Bengalese or Algerine potters. But, in point of fact, his work would have been - nay, is - inferior to their work, and will remain so until our schools of design form a new standard of taste, and become more emphatic in their teaching.