A History of Pottery
The production of pottery is one of the most ancient arts. The oldest known body of
pottery dates from the Jomon period (from about 10,500 to 400 BC) in Japan; and even the
earliest Jomon ceramics exhibit a unique sophistication of technique and design.
Excavations in the Near East have revealed that primitive fired-clay vessels were made
there more than 8,000 years ago. Potters were working in Iran by about 5500 BC, and
earthenware was probably being produced even earlier on the Iranian high plateau. Chinese
potters had developed characteristic techniques by about 5000 BC. In the New World many
pre-Columbian American cultures developed highly artistic pottery traditions.
After general sections on basic pottery types and decorating techniques this article
focuses on the development of Western pottery since the beginning of the Renaissance. For
detailed treatment of ancient Western and non-Western pottery, see Chinese art and
architecture; Egypt, ancient; Greek art; Islamic art and architecture; Japanese art and
architecture; Korean art; Mesopotamia; Minoan art; Persian art and architecture;
pre-Columbian art and architecture.
TYPES OF WARES
Pottery comprises three distinctive types of wares. The first type, earthenware, has been
made following virtually the same techniques since ancient times; only in the modern era
has mass production brought changes in materials and methods. Earthenware is basically
composed of clay--often blended clays--and baked hard, the degree of hardness depending on
the intensity of the heat. After the invention of glazing, earthenwares were coated with
glaze to render them waterproof; sometimes glaze was applied decoratively. It was found
that, when fired at great heat, the clay body became nonporous. This second type of
pottery, called stoneware, came to be preferred for domestic use.
The third type of pottery is a Chinese invention that appeared when feldspathic material
in a fusible state was incorporated in a stoneware composition. The ancient Chinese called
decayed feldspar kaolin (meaning "high place," where it was originally found);
this substance is known in the West as china clay. Petuntse, or china stone, a less
decayed, more fusible feldspathic material, was also used in Chinese porcelain; it forms a
white cement that binds together the particles of less fusible kaolin. Significantly, the
Chinese have never felt that high-quality porcelain must be either translucent or white.
Two types of porcelain evolved: "true" porcelain, consisting of a kaolin
hard-paste body, extremely glassy and smooth, produced by high temperature firing, and
soft porcelain, invariably translucent and lead glazed, produced from a composition of
ground glass and other ingredients including white clay and fired at a low temperature.
The latter was widely produced by 18th-century European potters.
It is believed that porcelain was first made by Chinese potters toward the end of the Han
period (206 BC-AD 220), when pottery generally became more refined in body, form, and
decoration. The Chinese made early vitreous wares (protoporcelain) before they developed
their white vitreous ware (true porcelain) that was later so much admired by Europeans.
Regardless of time or place, basic pottery techniques have varied little except in ancient
America, where the potter's wheel was unknown. Among the requisites of success are correct
composition of the clay body by using balanced materials; skill in shaping the wet clay on
the wheel or pressing it into molds; and, most important, firing at the correct
temperature. The last operation depends vitally on the experience, judgment, and technical
skill of the potter.
In the course of their long history potters have used many decorating techniques. Among
the earliest, impressing and incising of wares are still favored. Ancient potters in
Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, northern India, and the high regions of Central Asia (where
primitive terra-cotta figures associated with religious cults were produced) frequently
decorated wares with impressed or incised designs. A notable incising technique developed
more recently was that of Korean potters working in the Koryo period (918-1392). These
artisans began by ornamenting their celadon wares with delicately incised and impressed
patterns and later developed elaborate inlaying by filling incised lines with colored slip
(semiliquid clay). Black and white slip was used most effectively for inlaying colored
porcelains. Decoration of this sort generally depends more on the skill of the artisan
than on the complexity of the tools being used.
An especially popular type of decoration involved the sgraffito, or "scratched,"
technique used by Italian potters before the 15th century. This technique, which is
thought to have reached Italy from the Near East, was probably derived from China, where
it was first used during the Song (Sung) dynasty (960-1279). By the 16th century Italian
potters working mainly in Padua and Bologna had developed great skill in sgraffito, which
entailed the incising of designs on red or buff earthenware that had been coated with
ordinary transparent lead glaze, usually toned yellow or, sometimes, brown, copper, or
green. After firing, the wares were dipped into white clay slip so that a dark pattern
could be cut on the surface. By cutting through the white slip, the artist produced a
design on the exposed red or buff body. Pigments were also sometimes applied. After a
further coating of lead glaze the ware was fired a second time.
A sound knowledge of glazes--both utilitarian and decorative--is vital to the potter. The
origin of glazes and glazing techniques is unknown, but the fine lustrous glazes developed
in China surely began with a simple glaze that served to cover earthenware and render it
watertight. Chinese potters used two kinds of glazes, one composed basically of feldspar,
and another produced by fusing silica of quartz or sand by means of a flux, generally of
Chinese potters regarded glazes and glazing techniques as having prime importance; under
the Han emperors they made great efforts to improve this technology. The use of lead glaze
increased, and wood ash was incorporated to impart a dullish brown or gray green coloring,
somewhat blotchy and occasionally iridescent. These effects were entirely natural, as no
coloring matter was added to the composition. Glazing techniques were modified under
successive dynasties. Colored glazes were developed and used to brilliant effect by Tang
(T'ang) and Song potters, and a great diversity of brightly hued wares appeared over the
Many connoisseurs feel that the pure white porcelain, called blanc de chine, which first
appeared during the Ming dynasty, is the most serenely beautiful of all Chinese ceramics.
Dehua (Te-hua) potters in Fujian (Fukien) province, working during the 17th century,
produced their blanc de chine masterpieces in the purest white porcelain coated with a
thick white glaze.
Salt glaze, used by English potters during the early 1700s, may well have been known to
the Chinese but was not used by them. Near Eastern potters glazed wares in ancient times.
Potters in Mesopotamia and Iran commonly used an alkaline glaze made of quartz mixed with
sodium and potassium. An admixture of colored metallic oxides, mostly lead, was introduced
Painting on pottery and porcelain became richly colorful in many regions and periods.
Decorative brush painting directly on the baked clay reached its zenith in China during
the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), whose artists were highly skilled at painting in fired
colors. For a long period Chinese ceramic artists had used only black or brown pigment to
decorate wares that were then covered with clear glaze. It is believed that the appearance
in China of 13th-century brush-decorated wares from Persia sparked a change. These works,
painted in blue cobalt under the glaze, inspired the brushwork of the Chinese and the
resulting so-called blue-and-white style.
Ming artists also excelled in painting over the glaze, using brilliant enamel colors. The
overglaze technique, which evolved over two centuries, demanded correct preparation of the
enamels, skill in application, and the proper (low) firing temperature. The overglaze
enamel decorations executed during the reign of Chenghua (1465-87), which were never
surpassed in China, incorporated flowers, foliage, and figure subjects against backgrounds
of arabesques and scrollwork. Designs enclosed within dark blue outlines were filled in
with brilliant color. Enamel decoration of superb quality was also executed in Japan
during the Edo period (1615-1868) by celebrated artists and potters of the caliber of
Kenzan, Kakiemon, and Ninsei.
In the ancient Aegean the potter's art developed continuously from the Neolithic period
and through the periods of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, culminating, in ancient
Greece, in a unique type of painted pottery, which reached its height between the 6th and
4th centuries BC. The finest Greek pottery, especially Attic vases, was exquisitely
proportioned and often decorated with finely painted relief work. Unlike artisans in
Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia, the Attic potters did not apply heavy glaze to their
wares. The unique gloss commonly seen on Attic pottery and similar wares made elsewhere in
Greece still baffles those who have tried to determine its formula and method of
application. Neither a glaze nor a varnish, it is more marked on some areas, such as those
painted black, than on others. Some experts conjecture that it may be attributed to illite
or a similar clay mineral in a weak solution that was thinly applied to the surface of
wares or mixed into the black "paint" used by the artists.
In the Islamic world ceramic decorative art flowered with the creation of a great
diversity of painted wares. Painted luster decoration on pottery originated in Mesopotamia
and spread to ancient Egypt; later, under Islam in Persia, this type of decoration on
white-glazed wares became incredibly brilliant. Islamic luster-painted wares were later
imitated by Italian potters during the Renaissance.
MAJOR TRADITIONS IN THE WEST
After the fall of the ancient Roman Empire potters in Europe produced little other than
repetitive utilitarian wares until the end of the Middle Ages.
A distinctive type of earthenware known as majolica, which was derived from Chinese
porcelain, appeared in Italy during the last quarter of the 14th century. It is now
believed that this type of painted earthenware was inspired by the Hispano-Moresque
luster-decorated ware of Spanish origin introduced to Italy by Majorcan seagoing traders.
Majolica ware, whether thrown on the wheel or pressed into molds, was fired once to obtain
a brown or buff body, then dipped in glaze composed of lead and tin oxide with a silicate
of potash. The opaque glaze presented a surface that was suitable to receive decoration. A
second firing after decoration fixed the white glaze to the body and the pigments to the
glaze, so that the colors became permanently preserved. Frequently, the beauty of these
wares was increased by dipping them in a translucent lead glaze composed of oxide of lead
mixed with sand, potash, and salt. When certain luster pigments and enamels were used in
all-over painting, wares had to be specially fired at low temperature. Application of
metallic luster pigments required great skill because these colors were extremely volatile
and needed special handling.
Luca della Robbia (see della Robbia, family) did not, as has been held, invent the enamel
tin-glazing process; nevertheless, his work raised majolica production from a craft to
high art in Italy. Not only did he use blue and white enamels in decorative work, but, as
a sculptor, he also used the majolica technique to add brilliance to the surface of his
productions. By the beginning of the 15th century Italian potters had abandoned the old
familiar processes, and a revolution in style and techniques was under way. The severe
style as followed principally in the school of Tuscany continued to the end of the 15th
century, but rules and principles slackened until the inclusion of human figures in
designs, previously frowned upon, was accepted. At the end of the 15th century Faenza
became the thriving center of a reinvigorated pottery industry in Italy. A new, rich
decorative style, known as istoriato, fired the imagination of potters, reaching its
zenith in the workshops of Urbino.
In early 17th-century England attractive slipwares were produced, including the
slip-decorated earthenware that was a speciality of the Toft family of potters. A kind of
tin-glazed earthenware was also produced in the Netherlands, principally at Delft,
beginning in the mid-17th century. Termed delftware, it was among the first European wares
to be decorated with motifs inspired by Chinese and Japanese models.
Eventually, European potters, who much admired the porcelain of the Far East, attempted to
imitate it, but the formula remained elusive. Francesco de Medici, grand duke of Tuscany,
produced an inferior type of soft-paste porcelain in his Florence workshop during the 16th
century. In March 1709, Augustus II of Saxony announced that his ceramist Johann Bottger
(1682-1719) had discovered how to make porcelain. The first European royal porcelain
manufactory was consequently established at Meissen (see Meissen ware) near Dresden,
Germany. Throughout the century following the discovery of the porcelain formula--when,
despite the utmost precautions at Meissen, the secret leaked out--many rival factories
were set up in Europe. Germany, Austria, Italy, France, and England soon had factories
engaged in the production of wares much like those of Meissen.
Porcelain figures were first produced in Meissen as table ornaments; the earliest examples
were formed as part of sweetmeat dishes. Many splendid wares issued from the royal
factory, but none were more admired than the finely modeled and decorated porcelain
figures imitated by almost every German, Austrian, Italian, and English factory of note.
Widespread interest in figures of both pottery and porcelain has continued to the present.
Johann Joachim Kandler (1706-75), a master modeler, was the most notable of the artisans
engaged in this work at Meissen and rivaled the famous Franz Anton Bustelli (1723-63) of
Nymphenburg (see Nymphenburg ware).
The methods used to produce porcelain figures as developed by Kandler imparted a new
dimension to the art. German porcelain figures were usually produced from molds, which, in
turn, were cast from an original master model made of wax, clay, or, occasionally, wood.
The use of molds facilitated unlimited reproduction. Because the figures shrank during
firing, allowances had to be made in their sizes; they were also provided with a small
venthole in the back or base to permit excess heated air to escape. Because different
factories placed these holes differently, their positions help determine the provenance
and authenticity of given pieces. When considerable undercutting was necessary, porcelain
figures were usually made in sections, using separate molds. Portions of elaborate groups
and single figures were later joined by a specially trained assembler (known as a
"repairer") who usually worked from a master model.
Europe's second hard-paste porcelain factory began operations at Vienna in 1717. In the
late 1700s at the royal Sevres (see Sevres ware) factory in France, potters experimented
until they developed a remarkably white, finely textured body. Sevres wares were painted
in unique colors that no other European factory could duplicate. The bleu de roi and rose
Pompadour of Sevres wares captivated all Europe and, with the products of Meissen and
Vienna, inspired English potters.
The finest English porcelain--both soft- and hard-paste--was made between about 1745 and
1775. The first English porcelain was probably produced at Chelsea (see Chelsea ware)
under Charles Gouyn, but his successor Nicholas Sprimont, a Flemish silversmith who took
over management in 1750, was responsible for the high-quality wares, especially the superb
figures, for which the factory became famous. Factories at Worcester (see Worcester ware),
Bow, and Derby also produced wares that rival those of the Continent.
Led by the ambitious, energetic, and enterprising Josiah Wedgwood and his successors at
the Etruria factory, English potters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries became
resourceful and inventive. Wedgwood's contributions consisted mainly of a much improved
creamware, his celebrated jasperware, so-called black basalt, and a series of fine figures
created by famous modelers and artists. After Wedgwood, other potters of the first half of
the 19th century developed a number of new wares. Of these, Parian ware was the most
outstanding and commercially successful.
The name of this ware was derived from Paros, the Greek island from which sculptors in
ancient times obtained the creamy or ivory-tinted marble that Parian ware resembled. The
first examples of this new product, described as "statuary porcelain," issued
from Copeland and Garret's factory in 1842 and were immediately acclaimed. Two varieties
of Parian ware were produced: statuary parian, used in the making of figures and
reproductions of sculpture, and hard-paste, or standard, parian, from which hollowware was
made. Statuary parian, incorporating a glassy frit, is classified as soft porcelain.
Standard parian, with a greater proportion of feldspar in the composition but no frit, is
hard porcelain. Early parian statuary was ivory-tinted due to the presence of iron in the
feldspar devoid of iron silicate. Suitable deposits were eventually located in Sweden and
Ireland. Both English and American potters either obtained details of the original formula
or worked out their own, and the resulting production of Parian wares on both sides of the
Atlantic was enormous.
Among the most beautiful and successful wares invented by 19th-century potters were those
decorated in what came to be known in England as pate-sur-pate, a paste-on-paste technique
devised sometime after 1870 by Marc-Louis Solon (1835-1913) of Minton's in England.
Pate-sur-pate, involving both modeling and painting techniques, was stained Parian ware
decorated with reliefs in translucent tinted or white slip, the colors being laid one upon
the other. Solon was inspired by a Chinese celadon case decorated with embossed flowers
that he had admired in the museum at Sevres, where he worked for a time. At first his slip
painting on biscuit porcelain simply peeled off; he was successful, however, when he
applied layers of slip to a damp surface. Minton wares decorated with pate-sur-pate became
the most costly and coveted ceramic ornaments produced in England in the last quarter of
the 19th century. Only a few English potters mastered Solon's complex technique, although
the work of his pupil, Alboin Birks, rivaled that of the master.
By the late 19th century, with the development of machinery and the introduction of new
technologies, the age of mass production dawned and the potter's art consequently
suffered. Western ceramic wares declined markedly in quality of materials and decoration.
Florid designs, gaudy coloring, and inartistic shapes became fashionable, and the
resulting decadence continued into the 20th century. Not until the 1930s were signs of
revival in the form and decoration of ceramics discernible, principally in the productions
of artist-potters who were active in Western Europe and the United States. Many of these
artist-potters arrived at their innovations by way of continuous experiment with materials
and techniques. Others sought inspiration from primitive types of Japanese pottery or in
the forms of ancient American Indian traditions. Since the end of World War II the design
and decoration of ceramics in both Europe and the United States, especially ornamental
wares, has been largely influenced by individual artist-artisans. Commercial products,
such as tablewares, have tended to reflect the styles and patterns developed by these
potters, whose work has often shown striking originality.
Charles Platten Woodhouse
Ringling Asian Art Center.