Harper's new monthly magazine, 61 / 1880
It must be to all thinking minds an assured fact that what was half-sneeringly spoken of two years ago as the ceramic mania, or even less dignifiedly as a whim of fashion, a new extravagance for the wealthy to indulge in, has developed among up into a decided art industry.
Since the Centennial Exhibition it is easy to trace its steady growth, until, as Mr. Sparks aptly remarks in his excellent book on pottery-painting, "it has got to be a mark of inculture to be wholly ignorant of ceramic art."
Many things have tended to make us, as a people, grow suddenly enthusiastic over any new line of culture, be it in the drama, art in its technical sence, or, as in this instance, the renewing of an industry and art as old at least as the court of the great Rameses II. Sometimes, to our shame be it added, this interest and enthusiasm dies as soon as the fashion for them passes. What has taken many years, in countries whose age and learning make ours seem but a new-born babe, to work out and perfect, we expect to jump into after a few months' labor. Perhaps because being so quick to see excellence when it is reached in others, we re also quick enough to copy that excellence, ignoring the imperfections and failures that have combined to bring forth the perfection we admire and recognize.
To-day in almost every family in our larger cities one member at least has taken up pottery or porcelain painting; and yet, considered as an art and not as a pastime, not one in five thousand can even reach anything but mediocrity. It is a pleasant and a harmless occupation for the young ladies of the present day, and to those more fortunate ones who do not look to it as a visible means of support, no doubt it seems as easy as it is desirable.
There is surely a certain amount of pardonable pride in being able to set out your lunch or dinner table with a service of your own handiwork, and your friends are all surely too well bred to do anything but praise, although the drawing may be out, or the coloring harsh and crude. Try to sell one of your pretty "services," my dear young amateur, at any of the leading shops or sales-rooms, and you will find they are not what you have fondly believed them to be. You are not a Dieul, nor a Hélène de Haugest-Genlis, nor a Longglacé, Bèranger, or a Bracquemond in embryo, or indeed anything more than a humble imitator of any one of these giants in the ceramic world.
So much has been better said and better written in this connection that I fear my few personal experiences, failures, and successes may seem as commonplace as a twice-rold tale that will scarcely bear repeating, but they may at least be of some service in defining very simply and concisely what was to me for a long time an ununderstood distinction and difference; that is, what constitutes the peculiarities of over-glaze and under-glaze.
The work most familiar to us as taught in America during the last three or four years has all been on the over-glaze, that is, painting in mineral colors on either pottery or porcelain which has already received a fire glaze or enamel, so that the article is equally fit for use before as after decoration.
Few pieces in over-glaze, unless of exceeding fineness in finish, need more than one firing, this fgiring being of sufficient intensity to soften the glaze already on the article, thus allowing the colors to sink into it, and when it rehardens, renders them durable and impervious to most outside accidents. Some firers - the best, such as the Doultons, Mintons, Copelands, of London, and Bennett, of this city - have an extra glaze of their own manufacture, which resembles more nearly than anything I can call to mind a large vat of thick buttermilk, into which they dip the article to be fired, taking a great care that it flows well and evenly over the entire surface; it is then placed in the kiln, and when taken out has a most beautiful and durable glaze. Different dirers have different modes of preparing their enamels, and in doing work to receive this extra finish it is well to bear in mind the effects produced when completed.
For instance, the Doulton glaze is of a yellowish tint, thus making all whites and pinks appear of a creamy body. Minton's is more thoroughly white, though, if anything, inclining to a cold gray shade; while Copeland's is of a bluish-white, though, if anything, inclining to to a cold gray shade; while Copeland's is of a bluish-white, and therefore, as a rule, more to be desired than either of the other two. When once one has had work fired in this way, all other methods seem "flat, stale, and unprofitable," fornot only are the beauty and effectiveness of the work enhanced, but its durability is increased; no amount of ordinary heat, wear, or tear will affect the works thus fired. I have two specimens illustrating the two methods. The one done in the ordinary way I first mentioned is uneven and gritty to the touch, and where the color has been used the glaze is much less brilliant than on the plain surface; it also will accept scratches, and in time wear down and off. The other is perfectly smooth, there being no perceptible difference between the painting and the surface; the colors are much more clear, pleasant, and lasting, while it is impossible to deface the glaze in any ordinary way. Both pieces were finished at the same time, and have been in equal use; the latter is as perfect to-day as when it first came home to me, while the other already wears the look of having seen service.
If your work is of more than usual delicacy and fineness, it is often desirable to subject it to a second painting and a second firing. This is especially true when carmines, red, or purples are used, as you can never be quite sure how they will appear when fired, and you can in this way rectify any imperfections. I remember when studying in Paris under M. Bernard, at one time an artist and master at Sèvres, that no piece was allowed to leave the atelier without going through at least three firings; but the work done there was of exquisite delicacy and minutiæ. It is also a well-known fact that the best work of the Chinese and Japanese, than which nothing can be finer, is sometimes passed through twenty firings and more, of different degrees of heat. When it is requisite to raise your work on over-glaze, two firings are a necessity, the first for your flat colors and outlines, then second for the raised portion of your design. This raising is done by using white enamel mixed with the fat oil and very little turpentine, until it becomes as thick as ordinary flour paste. It should be laid on with a full brush, first one layer, which must be allowed to harden perfectly, then another and another, until it reaches the desired solidity. This is not at all easy to do, as any little overhurry or an imperfect firing is apt to bring your time and patience to naught, especially if tried upon a surface of any considerable size.
The best colors for over-glaze painting are Le Croix's, either in tubes or powders; the former are better for a beginner, and in my estimation equally good at all times, for unless you can have your powders reground for you en masse, it is not only very fatiguing, but almost impossible, to grind them to a sufficient smoothness yourself, to say nothing of the delicacy required in obtaining the right proportion of paint and medium. The tubes come prepared for use, and only need a slight diluting with turpentine to run very evenly. The over-glaze colors change very little, if any, in fiding, save one or two, such as carmine tendre, coral red, orange, and violette de fer. Of course every one must learn by personal experience what these changes amount to, and also the quantity of medium - that is, fat oil, turpentine, or aniseö-seed oil - the colors require in mixing.
Another advantage to be found in over-glaze painting is the facilities the colors give one in procuring bright and varied hues. In Le Croix's list can be found not only every fundamental color, but every shade or semi-shade of each. Of course this allows one a great latitude, and renders the result most satisfactory.
The painting on under-glaze is essentially different from the process I have just tried to describe. The vase, plaque, tazza, or whatever the article may be, designed for decoration, either in pottery or porcalain, is in what is called the biscuit, that is, fired thoroughly, but not glazed, so that the surface remains almost as porous as when it left the potter's hands. Both pottery and porcelain look very much alike in this state, and are equally pleasant to paint upon. It is necessary to cover your article with a thin lukewarm wash of size before applying the colors, otherwise they would sink into the ware and be lost.
The colors used in under-glaze painting are differently prepared from those for the over-glaze. The best, if you can procure them, are Copeland's, in Staffordshire, though those put up by Howell and James, at from eighteenpence to two shillings per bottle, are much used and very good. They consist of a powder so exceedingly fine that no extra grinding is necessary. The difficulty in over-glaze painting lies in getting it well fired, and also in there being a lack of brilliant colors; the reds in particular are generally dull and unsatisfactory, though Mr. Goode, of Minton's, showed me a red as vivid in color as the Poincetta; but they refuse to sell it or tell the secret of its manufacture. Thse colors are mixed with fat oil and turpentine to a moderate consistency, and laid upon the ware quickly and very evenly; the ware being so porous, it is somewhat difficult to accomplish this successfully, as it soaks up the color almost as you apply it. Yellows, greens, dark blue, buff, gray, brown, and pale crimson are the most sure colors in under-glaze. White is not desirable; it is apt to crack or split in the firing; therefore leave what you wish to appear white uncolored except for the shading; the glaze will be sufficiently heavy to make it appear in harmony with the remainder of your design. Under-glaze work is always put through two firings, though only one painting is necessary; the first dries out the oily matter in the mixing mediums, the second receives the glaze and returns you your article in a completed state of beauty. One must also bear in mind continually the different apprearance of the colors when first put on and when fired. The powders are most deceptive in color; for instance, a color so intense and positive as mazarin blue, in powder is a pale greenish-gray; black appears a purplish-gray; Vandyck brown, Quaker gray; chestnut brown, a light chocolate tint; deep crimson, the palest rose-color; and ultra marine, while in powder seemingly an azure blue, when applied has all the apprearance of ivory black. Indeed, each color deepens several degrees as you mix and use it, and it requires skill and experience to learn how they will come out when fired. I own to a decided partiality for under-glaze work; there is a softness, a depth, and certain tenderness about it that you do not find in over-glaze. Very many of the finest specimens of old and modern faience or porcelain painting combine the two methods, under-glaze colors first for a richness and depth of tone, then, when fired, over-glaze colors for fine finish and brilliant effects. This mode is very often found most successful, and at a recent exhibition of amateur ceramic artists, held at Howell and James's, of Regent Street, London, many of the finest prize exhibits were done in this way.
Mr. Sparks, the master of the Lambeth School of Art, speaking ex officio, does not advise those who take up this study simply for pleasure to go into the under-glaze painting; it is more often than not disappointing, and is really better adapted for artistic work, per se, than for an idle amusement on a summer's afternoon. Mr. bennet, late of Coultons', whose beautiful work has won him a high place among us, was, I believe, the first one to paint and fire under-glaze in this city, if not in this country, though he did not desire to teach the art of fire work of that description that might be brought to him. I was told at the Doulton's however, that they were in negotiation with several prominent people of Boston to send out one of their good artists and firers, in which case we shall be able to have any amount of under-glaze well fired, though it is a decided drawback not to be able to do your work within a stone's-throw of the kiln.
At the Doultons', n Lambeth, London, where I wandered at "my own sweet will," I was much interested and pleased with their latest experiments and successes in producing what, for lack of a better name, they call modern plat sur plat. The clay when moulded into the desired shape is kiln-dried, that is, slightly hardened without being passed through a regular firing. It is then taken to the designing-room, where the artist sketches upon it in pencil or India ink the design to be carried out; from thence it goes into the coloring-room, where the workers employed are girls and women, and here the color is laid on. But these colors are prepared in a unique and original manner: first, a soft, almost running paste of clay is made, mixed with a medium known only to themselves; this is then remixed with the different colors desired, these colors having been prepared beforehand with a medium, so that the preparation when finished resembles a thin batter of different tints; this is applied with a very stubby brush upon the traced pattern. Each worker has but one color on her palette, and when all of that shade is put on, whe passes it to the next, and so on until it is completed. Before each apprentice is a small pencil drawing of the design when finished, and there is usually one good-sized colored plate of it as well. The article then passes into another room, where an artist - also a woman - with a sharp instrument, half knife, half pencil, cuts away all superfluous edges or roughnesses, and returns it again to the coloring-room if a solid background is to be laid on. It is then set to dry, and when fired comes forth not only beautiful in color and design, but that color and that design have become an indissoluble part of the article, as the firing fuses the two clays together, and the glaze gives it an even enamel. The colors employed in this work are manufactured by the Doultons, and are all low and fade in tone. Very beautiful specimens of raised work were shown me, done by this same process, the figures and flowers modelled by Tinworth. These specimens were much and most justly admired at the Paris Exhibition; they are certainly exquisite and a novelty, if one can call the partial reviving of an old method a novelty. I followed a piece of this work from the drying-room to the final putting away to harden, and most interesting it was, not the least agreeable feature about it being decided care and interest the young girls take in it. The younger ones - those from twelve to fourteen - are given the handles and rims to decorate, as they are in geometrical patterns and not difficult to follow, and so it passes on into the more experienced hands.
The incising work is also most done by girls. Miss Barlow, the clever animal designer, draws her design upon the soft clay, always in outline; it is then incised or cut down by a fine steel point, and the groove thus formed is filled with desired color, usually dark blue or brown, and then fired. It is said of Miss Barlow that she never makes a first sketch, consequently seldom repeats herself. She watches intently the subject she wishes to reproduce, be it dog, cat, or goat, and then from her memory draws at once upon the clay. Her designs gave won her a fair reputation, and she is considered an artist of decided ability.
In this most rough and imperfect sketch it has been impossible to do more than describe in a general way the precise practical differences between the two methods of painting on pottery or porcelain. I can only hope that to some few it may be a little rush-light of advice in the midst of some of the difficulties sure to be met with by any one who takes up this work not simply con amore - difficulties I have often experienced myself, and only worked out of through great tribulations.