To the 1st century BC

To pot or not to pot

Archaeological evidence, together with the example of primitive tribes in recent times, suggests that the earliest containers used by neolithic man range from hollowed out pieces of stone or wood to more elaborate artefacts such as bags of animal skin and, above all, baskets. Basketry is one of the earliest crafts to be developed. Almost every region of the world has suitable materials, in grasses, reeds or willows, and the resulting object is both cheap and light.

But baskets are not good for containing liquids. For that purpose early technology soon finds another material which is cheap, widely available and (by comparison with stone) relatively light. This material is clay.

Not all societies have developed the useful craft of pottery. Nomads tend not to be potters. The technical demands of pottery do not fit well with life on the move, and pots are too fragile for a nomadic existence. Equally, in areas where nature provides admirable pots in the form of gourds, the potter's trade seems an unnecessary labour.

But most communities, tending their crops in the Neolithic revolution, soon discover the technique and use of pottery. With one remarkable exception, at Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic (where models of animals and a Venus figurine have been dated to about 25,000 years ago), the earliest examples come from the Middle East, the region where agriculture first develops. Pottery fragments from about 6500 BC have been found at Catal Huyuk in Turkey.

The earliest wares at Catal Huyuk are made by one of the standard methods of primitive potters. Rings or coils of clay are built up from a circular base. The walls of the pot are then smoothed and thinned (by simultaneous pressure on the inner and outer surfaces) before being fired in a bread oven or in the most elementary of kilns - a hole in the ground, above which a bonfire is lit.

Early neolithic pottery is usually undecorated. Where there is decoration, it takes the form of patterns cut or pressed into the damp clay.

The potter's wheel: 3000 BC

When a pot is built up from the base by hand, it is impossible that it should be perfectly round. The solution to this problem ia the potter's wheel, which has been a crucial factor in the history of ceramics. It is not known when or where the potter's wheel is introduced. Indeed it is likely that it develops very gradually, from a platform on which the potter turns the pot before shaping another side (thus avoiding having to walk around it).

By about 3000 BC a simple revolving wheel is a part of the potter's equipment in Mesopotamia, the cradle of so many innovations.

Greek vases: 6th - 5th century BC

The Greeks develop by far the most sophisticated tradition of early pottery, and Greek vases survive in greater numbers than any other ceramic group of comparable age.

During the period of greatest distinction, from about 550 to 480 BC, the potters of Athens and the surrounding district of Attica are the most accomplished in the Greek world. It is they who perfect the decorative style known as black-figure and then introduce the subsequent red-figure technique. Crucial to the success of both is the discovery of the Attic potters, in the 6th century, that an attractive warm colour can be given to the undecorated surface of a pot by the addition of red ochre to the clay.

In the mid-6th century the vase painters decorate the surface of the pots with figurative scenes from mythology in black silhouette. This is done by painting on a mixture of iron-rich clay and potash before the vase is fired. In this black-figure style, detail is achieved by incising lines within the silhouette to allow the reddish clay to show through.

The painters become extremely proficient in this technique, but pale details on solid black figures are the reverse of any normal drawing convention. The fashion rapidly changes after about 530 BC, when the black is first used for the opposite purpose - to form the background against which the figures will stand out in the natural colour of the vase. This is the red-figure style.

The red-figure style is a much more realistic convention. Many of the most popular scenes on vases involve mythical heroes or revelling satyrs. Such figures, to a Greek audience, seem natural if naked. The reddish-brown colour of the pottery is appropriate to Mediterranean skin, and a few linear additions to the figure provide convincing modelling for the limbs or for the suggestion of a thin garment.

From about 530 to 480, the period considered the high point of the Greek ceramic achievement, the red-figure style prevails.

Greek vases are essentially practical objects. They are made in more than a dozen standard shapes, each with a specific purpose - for storing wine or olive oil or precious unguents, for heating or cooling liquids, for pouring and drinking. Their makers are essentially craftsmen, and the potters and vase painters do not have the same prestige as painters or sculptors. But it is significant that by the 6th century it is normal for the potter to be named on the vase (with an inscription in black letters).

Often the potter alone is named. Sometimes both he and the painter are given ('Ergotimos made me; Kleitias painted me'), and on occasion a rare master has both skills ('Exekias painted and made me').

Glazed ceramics: 9th - 1st century BC

In all the early civilizations, from Mesopotamia and Egypt onwards, pottery is a highly developed craft. An outstanding achievement is the Greek ceramic tradition of the 6th and 5th century BC. But technically all these pots suffer from a major disadvantage. Fired earthenware is tough but it is porous. Liquid will soak into it and eventually leak through it. This has some advantages with water (where evaporation from the surface cools the contents of the jug) but is less appropriate for storing wine or milk.

The solution is the addition of a glaze. This technological breakthrough is made in Mesopotamia in the 9th century BC for decorative tiles. It is not adapted for practical everyday purposes until many centuries later.

A glaze is a substance, applied to the inner or outer surface of an unfired pot, which vitrifies in the kiln - meaning that it forms a glassy skin, which fuses with the earthenware and makes it impermeable to liquids.

But glazes, which can be of any colour, also have a highly decorative quality. It is for this purpose that they are first developed, as a facing for ceramic tiles, in Mesopotamia from the 9th century BC. The most famous examples are from the 6th century palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.

Glazed pots make their appearance in the Middle East in about the 1st century BC, possibly being developed first in Egypt. The characteristic colour is green, from copper in the glaze. Pottery of this kind is common in imperial Rome a century later.

By this time glazed pottery is also being manufactured in Han dynasty China. It may be that the development occurs independently in the Middle East and in China, but by now there could also be a direct influence in either direction. Rome and China are already linked by the Silk road, and glazed ceramics are attractive commodities.

African terracotta figures: from the 5th century BC

The longest surviving tradition of African sculpture is figures in terracotta. Cast metal is the only other material to withstand the continent's termites (fatal to the carved wood of most African sculpture). But the superb Metal sculptures of Nigeria, beginning in about the 12th century, are of a much later period than the first terracottas.

West Africa, and in particular modern Nigeria, provides the longest and richest sequence of terracotta figures. They date back two and a half millennia to the extraordinary Nok sculptures. By around the 1st centuryfigures of a wonderful severity are being modelled in the Sokoto region of northwest Nigeria.

Terracotta heads and figures have been found in Ife, dating from the 12th to 15th century - the same period as the first cast-Metal sculptures of this region. At Jenne, further north in Mali, archaeologists (followed unfortunately by thieves) have recently unearthed superb terracottas of the same period.

One extraordinary group of terracottas is the exception in this mainly west African story, in that they come from south Africa where they are the earliest known sculptures. They are seven heads, found at Lydenburg in the Transvaal. Modelled in a brutally chunky style, they date from about the 6th century AD.

Powerful terracotta figures in traditional style continue to be made in Africa in the 19th and 20th century, contemporary with the superb carved wooden figures which survive from those two centuries.

Unlike European painting or sculpture, style does not greatly change over the years in African tribal art. So it is a safe assumption that the astonishing imaginative range of African carving familiar to us today was just as evident many centuries ago, though the objects themselves have now crumbled to dust.

1st - 13th century AD

w'wng pottery: 7th - 9th century AD

T'ang is the first dynasty from which sufficient pottery survives for a Chinese style to become widely known in modern times. The surviving pieces are almost exclusively ceramic figures found in tombs. They represent the animals (particularly horses, but also camels) and the servants and attendants needed by the dead man in the next life.

The eclectic nature of Chinese religion is well suggested in the range of attendants considered helpful. A general by the name of Liu Tingxun, buried at Loyang in 728, is accompanied by two Confucian officials, two Buddhist guardians and two ferocious-looking earth spirits of a more Daoist disposition.

Vigorously realistic in style, with bright and often dappled glazes, T'ang horses and tomb figures are among the most delightful and recognizable of styles of pottery.

But the T'ang potters make another contribution of much greater significance in ceramic history. They discover the technique of the thin white translucent ware known as porcelain. There is much argument about the date of the first porcelain, for there is no precise agreement on how to define it (it is most commonly described as white china so thin that it is translucent and makes a ringing sound when struck). Other definitions involve the relative proportions of ingredients such as kaolin and porcelain stone.

Wares produced in north China during the T'ang dynasty, from as early as the 7th century, have the characteristics of porcelain. From the start they are widely appreciated. In a summer palace of the 9th century, far away on the Tigris at Samarra, broken fragments of T'ang porcelain have been found. The earliest known example of a foreigner marvelling at this delicate Chinese ware derives from the same century and region.

In 851 a merchant by the name of Suleiman is recorded in Basra, at the mouth of the Tigris, as saying that the Chinese have 'pottery of excellent quality, of which bowls are made as fine as glass drinking cups; the sparkle of water can be seen through it, although it is pottery.

Islamic pottery: 9th-12th century AD

The first sight of T'ang Pottery and porcelain, reaching Mesopotamia in the 9th century AD, seems to have brought home an obvious truth, always known in the far east but largely forgotten in the west since the days of classical Greece - that Pottery can provide objects of great beauty as well as practical items for everyday use.

Tradition dates this discovery to a day when some T'ang bowls are presented to the caliph Harun al-rashid in about800. Certainly fine ceramics begin to be produced in Baghdad soon after this date. And Islamic potters of the 9th century rediscover an ancient technique, that of tin enamel, which is of great significance in the history of ceramics.

Tin enamel is a form of glaze, containing an oxide of tin, with which earthenware is coated before being painted with colours. When fired, the glaze and the pigments fuse to give a bright and glowing appearance. The technique is first discovered in this same region, Mesopotamia, nearly two millennia before the days of Harun al-rashid.

Tin glazes are used by Assyrians and Babylonians, from the 9th century BC, for their famous figurative Wall tiles. But the technique appears to have been forgotten until Islamic potters in Mesopotamia reinvent it, in an attempt to imitate the richly coloured T'ang earthenware arriving from China.

During the following centuries tin glazes spread through the Muslim world during a very creative period of Islamic Pottery. They are used in the prosperous and lively western extremity of Islamic civilization, that of medieval Muslim spain, and from here they eventually reach Christendom - inspiring great interest in Renaissance Italy.

The route of that last leg of the journey gives tin-glazed wares their first European name. In about 1400 they are exported from Spain to Italy by merchants of Majorca. They become known to the Italians as Majorca-ware, or Majolica.

Pottery of the Song dynasty: 10th - 13th century AD

Of the many arts which thrive in China at this time, Song ceramics are outstanding. The simple shapes of the pottery and porcelain of this dynasty, and the elegance of the glazes (usually monochrome), have set standards of refinement admired in subsequent centuries throughout the world.

Among the best known of these wares are the celadons, with their thick transparent green glazes, which are made at Longquan, near the southern Song capital of Hangzhou. Also influential are the black wares known as temmoku, popular with Buddhist monks for the tea ceremony and exported in large quantities for this purpose to Japan.

13th - 17th century

Japanese pottery and the Tea Ceremony: 13th - 16th c. AD

Zen priests are linked with two very characteristic elements of Japanese culture: the exquisite simplicity of Japanese ceramics; and the polite formalities of the Tea Ceremony for which much of the pottery is designed.

In 1223 a Zen monk takes a Japanese potter, Kato Shirozaemon, to China to study the manufacture of ceramics. This is a period, in the Song dynasty, when the Chinese potters have achieved a perfection of simplicity. The Japanese, in the same vein, will evolve their own styles to rival this perfection.

The Japanese potter, returning home, establishes himself at Seto. This rapidly becomes a centre for the manufacture of pottery, with as many as 200 kilns in the district. Seto has retained ever since the status of the classical pottery region of Japan.

Much of the early Seto output is temmoku - stoneware cups and bowls with a black or iron-brown glaze, in direct imitation of the contemporary Chinese style. This becomes much in demand with the increasing popularity in the samurai class of the Tea Ceremony, in which a mood of rustic simplicity is required. But the most famous Japanese simplicity, that of raku, is the result of Korean rather than Chinese influence.

Raku: AD 1588

Tanaka Chojiro, one of a family of Korean potters living in Japan, is making bowls of a very recognizable kind. They are moulded by hand rather than thrown on a wheel, so their shape is uneven. They have a thick lead glaze, usually dark in tone but sometimes dappled or enlivened with a flash of colour. They seem primitive, but their apparently accidental beauty is of a kind to excite a connoisseur. They are perfect for the Tea Ceremony.

One such bowl is shown in 1588 to the influential Tea Master of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Tea Master awards its makers a gold seal inscribed with the single word raku ('felicity'). The bowls have found their name. And the Tea Ceremony has its best-known ware.

Kakiemon porcelain: 17th century AD

In the following century Japan makes another major contribution to the history of ceramics. In about 1644 Sakada Kakiemon, a member of a family of potters with kilns at Arita in northwest Kyushu, introduces to Japan the Chinese system of overglaze painting. In the 1670s his two sons, known as Kakiemon II and Kakiemon III, are producing exquisite wares of milky white porcelain, often square or hexagonal in shape, decorated with elegant and brightly coloured motifs of plants and birds. The decoration, covering relatively little of the surface, stands out with a special intensity against the white background.

This happens to be exactly the period when the Dutch are beginning to import Japanese wares to Europe, where the Kakiemon style becomes highly influential

Kakiemon plays an important part in the decorative style of the first European porcelain factories, just as Chinese blue and white determines the development of tin-glazed earthenware in Delft. In both cases the Dutch are the chief importers, and it is from the Netherlands that the fashion spreads. Meissen, leading in the quest for porcelain, is the first factory to make use of the Kakiemon style. But a craze for Kakiemon also travels early to England. When William and mary arrive, in 1689, the queen brings with her an extensive collection. And Kakiemon motifs are much imitated by the earliest English porcelain factories, particularly Chelsea.

But this is three centuries after the arrival in Europe, also from the east, of tin-glazed earthenware.

Majolica faience and delftware: 14th-17th century AD

Majolica, the first Tin-glazed earthenware seen in Europe, reaches Italy in the 14th century when the painters of the region are moving into the heady excitements of the Renaissance. By about 1500 ceramic artists recognize the potential of large dishes decorated with vividly coloured scenes. This style, unprecedented in ceramics, becomes known as istoriato, meaning embellished with a story.

The scenes are of the kind which better-known artists of the time are painting in fresco or tempera. Indeed the designs of great artists often feature in Majolica, copied from engravings. Such dishes are displayed in cabinets rather than used for a meal. They are an aspect of Italian Renaissance painting.

The earliest and most productive centre of the istoriato style is Faenza. Italian pottery of this kind reaching France becomes known as faience. When the French themselves begin to produce Tin-glazed earthenware, the word enters general use. Potteries manufacturing faience are in business in Lyons (employing Italian potters) and in Rouen before the middle of the 16th century.

At much the same time Italian potters establish themselves in the Netherlands, the third great centre of European Tin-glazed earthenware. There is a factory in Antwerp by 1525. But it is a little further north, in Holland, that a highly distinctive and popular style emerges.

In the early 17th century Delft becomes a centre of the developing ceramic industry. It is a period when the Tin-glazed earthenware is beginning to import Chinese wares in large quantities, and when the potters of the Dutch east india company are producing beautiful ceramics with blue decoration on a white ground.

The popularity of this particular style of Chinese earthenware in Holland makes blue-and-white the natural style for the potters of Delft to imitate. Their products soon have great commercial success. And Tin-glazed earthenware acquires its third and best-known European name, as delftware.

16th - 18th century

The European quest for porcelain: 16th-18th century AD

After the establishment of a Portuguese trading post on Macao in 1557, the first few examples of Chinese Porcelain (as opposed to earthenware) find their way to the courts of Europe. It is immediately appreciated that this is a commodity much finer than any European pottery. Indeed in English the early term 'china-ware' gradually becomes abbreviated and more widely applied, until china is the accepted word for any Porcelain wherever made.

There are immediate attempts to create European ceramics of this kind, but the Chinese secret proves hard to discover. Because of the translucent quality of Porcelain, experiments for the most part involve the mixing of powdered glass with the clay.

The result is a convincing imitation of true Porcelain, but slightly softer. It is first successfully made at the Medici court in Florence in the 1570s, remarkably soon after the arrival of the first Chinese examples.

During the 17th century imports of china become much more common, particularly of delicate wares to accomodate Europe's new craze of Tea-drinking. From 1664 Louis XIV grants privileges to a few potters to attempt Porcelain. Their experiments lead eventually to the great 18th-century tradition of French pottery of which Sèvres (a factory founded at Vincennes in 1738 and moved to Sèvres in 1756) is the leading example. English Porcelain begins at much the same time, at Chelsea in about 1743.

Both the French and the English Porcelain of the 18th century is of the artificial kind using powdered glass - with the frequent addition in England of ash from charred bones, beginning the specifically British tradition of bone china.

Porcelain of this kind is known as soft-paste Porcelain. It is less hard than true Porcelain (it can be cut with a file) and it is fired at a lower temperature (1200°C as opposed to 1450°C). Those who make Porcelain of this kind in the 18th century are well aware that the true Porcelain of China is different and superior.

True Porcelain contains two substances known from their Chinese names as kaolin (a very fine white clay) and petuntse (a rock which fuses at a high temperature to form natural glass). When the secret is discovered in Europe, the ingredients are at first imported from China. But they can be mined also in Europe, where they are known as china clay and china stone (or feldspar).

The secret of true Porcelain is found independently in France and England during the 1760s. But both nations are half a century behind the Germans. True Porcelain is manufactured at Meissen from 1710.

The porcelain prisoner: AD 1700-1714

The origin of Meissen porcelain is a famously macabre incident in industrial history. In 1700 the 18-year-old Johann Friedrich Böttger is arrested in Wittenberg and is brought to Dresden by order of Augustus the strong, the elector of Saxony. Böttger has committed no crime, but Augustus has heard that the young man is an Alchemist hoping to manufacture gold from base materials. If gold is to be made, Augustus wants it.

Böttger is kept a prisoner in Dresden, carrying on his fruitless experiments. In 1703 he attempts to escape to Prague. He is captured and brought back.

In this impossible predicament a solution of a kind is suggested by a Dresden scientist, Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus. He has been attempting for at least twenty years to discover the secret of True porcelain. There is evidence that he has made considerable progress, but not yet sufficient to produce wares on a reliable basis. Recognizing Böttger's talent, he suggests that he join him in a quest less hopeless than the Alchemist's for gold.

Böttger, still under guard, moves to Meissen in 1705 to work with Tschirnhaus. The work is interrupted for a year when the Swedes occupy Saxony in 1706 (Böttger is removed for safe keeping to a distant fortress).

In September 1707 Böttger is brought to Dresden, where a laboratory is established for him in a fortress. In January 1708 he achieves a practical formula for porcelain. Production begins in the Dresden laboratories in 1709. The first pieces are on sale at the Leipzig Easter Fair in 1710. Already Augustus is building a royal porcelain factory in Meissen, to which the operation is transferred in June of that year.

These first wares are red (known now as Böttger stoneware). By 1713 Meissen is producing delicate white porcelain. Coloured glazes follow within the next few years.

Böttger is passionately proud of his creations. He inspires Augustus with his vision of pieces designed by leading artists to outdo even the Chinese, and his achievement in this field gives Saxony its greatest single distinction. Yet he directs the Meissen factory from confinement in Dresden. He has the luxury of a house in the fortress, but there are guards on the door.

His tyrannical employer, still on occasion resentful that he has been fobbed off with porcelain rather than gold, finally releases Böttger in 1714. Although still in his early thirties, he is extremely ill - probably from working with kilns and crucibles in an unventilated laboratory. He dies in 1719.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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