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.
The ewers retain the form prevalent for ordinary use, which is hardly worthy of their surface-decoration, but the toilet-ware, of which a few specimens are given in Plate XXXI. is also excellent in general form, and reflects great credit on its manufacturers, in regard both to material and workmanship. If we compare such objects as these with the showy but commonplace crockery which we find decorated with ribbons and bunches of flowers, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that strictly pictorial representations of nature are quite unsuitable to the true conditions of design in ceramic art; and we find this principle realised not only in the Classic age, but in all the best periods of manufacture which have succeeded it. The early Italian majolica, though differing widely in sentiment of design and quality of material from antique pottery, embodies no realisms in its ornament. Portraits (so-called) are indeed introduced in the 'marriage-plates' of that period, but they are little more than conventional representation; and I question whether they would ever have been recognised without the addition of a label or other device on which the name of the fair bride 'Elena diva,' or 'Bella Marta,' was usually inscribed.
To this early period of Italian majolica (about the first half of the sixteenth century) I would especially draw attention, as realising in its manufacture some of the rarest artistic qualities which can be associated in ceramic manufacture - viz., beauty and vigour of form, thorough harmony of colour, and propriety of ornament. Some ex-quisite specimens may be seen at the Kensington Museum, and cannot be too carefully examined by those who desire a standard of excellence in the art which is there so ably illustrated.
The ancient wares of Gubbio, of Urbino, and Faenza, are especially famous. From the name of the latter place the French word faience is derived, but was subsequently applied to a very different species of manufacture. The term Raphaelesque is sometimes given indiscriminately to the majolica of Raphael's own time and to that which was produced years after his death, but which was painted in imitation of his pictorial works. However interesting the latter may be by reason of its connection with the inventions of so great an artist, it can hardly be recommended as a model for modern imitation. The colour was generally excellent, the drawing bold and masterlike; the traditional shapes of the majolica vessels were in most cases preserved, and thus lent an additional charm to the effect. But such surface-decoration is, after all, an incomplete picture, and must appear to any one acquainted with the original works in the light of a rude and clumsy copy.
Some of the purest majolica of Raphael's time is that decorated with the delicate and elegant arabesque, in which we trace the spirit of that decorative ornament which graces the Loggie of the Vatican. Even the rudest specimens of this ware are admirable in their scheme of colour and in motive of ornament. The ground is generally white - not the crude white of modern porcelain, but a mellow creamy hue well adapted to relieve the colours laid over it; these are generally raw sienna and Indian yellows, scored with lines of reddish brown; of blues there are several shades, light indigo being most chiefly, and turquoise most sparingly used : light copper green and Indian red complete the list of tints. The ornament is swiftly but spiritedly drawn in a series of fantastically-conceived figures, which terminate in light tendril-shaped lines and buds of colour. Where the human figure is introduced, it is sketched roughly, but with evident knowledge. The general form of dishes, plates, salt-cellars, and other specimens of this ware is well accentuated, but not rigidly symmetrical in outline. There is no compass accuracy about them; nor is the material of which they are composed uniformly faultless. In some parts the glaze may be a little thinner than in others, and here and there we may perchance light upon an air-hole. The colour on the right side of a platter may be less forcible than it is on the left. But all these are defects of little moment in the eyes of an artist who recognises the dexterity and cunning of the hands that moulded the clay and decorated its surface. He feels instinctively, and perhaps without reflecting why, that the imperfections of manual labour are preferable to the cold and expressionless accuracy which can be ensured by the help of a machine. At present, however, the price of artistic labour obliges us to rely almost entirely upon machine-printing for the decoration of our crockery, and therefore the treatment of the original design becomes of the highest importance. * We have, moreover, reached just such a point of excellence in the manufacture of stone ware as our French neighbours have attained in the production of hard porcelain. We possess great executive skill with but little conceptional taste. In designing and executing the cheaper kinds of hard porcelain, the French far surpass us. Some very good toilet-services, bed-room candlesticks, and chimney-piece match-boxes were imported some years ago, and I believe are still brought from France, although they are sometimes stamped with British trade-marks. These articles are made of a thin white porcelain, the surface of which is decorated with figures, etc, printed in a fine brown outline, and then filled in by hand (before the second firing) with flat colour. These figure-groups are generally of a quasi-classical character: dancing nymphs, gladiatorial fights and chariot races, are the favourite subjects. Sometimes a single head appears as a medallion on the side of a little vase. The drawing is usually very fair in execution. There is no shading, the folds of drapery, etc, being expressed by outline only. The colours are well selected, and, considering the very low price at which it is offered for sale, this toilet ware is a great improvement on anything of the kind which has been produced for ordinary sale during the last twenty years. It appears to be supplied in London at the toy and fancy warehouses rather than by regular dealers in china. A specimen to which I have just referred bears the letters 'B. Co.' on a sort of trade mark. This china is probably manufactured at Limoges, where many such articles are produced in porcelain at a price with which our manufacturers cannot hope to compete. But in the manufacture of earthenware, regarding both cheapness and quality, England still stands unrivalled.
* Mr. W. S. Coleman, in his figure-subject designs for modern ware, manufactured by Messrs. Minton & Co., has realised much of the true spirit of old majolica. But these examples being each 'hand-painted' by the artist himself are necessarily expensive. It is much to be regretted that such designs have not been reproduced by mechanical aid, for ordinary sale.