Arts and Crafts Essays/Fictiles
EARLIEST amongst the inventions of man and his endeavour to unite Art with Craft is the Fictile Art. His first needs in domestic life, his first utensils, his first efforts at civilisation, came from the Mother Earth, whose son he believed himself to be, and his ashes or his bones returned to Earth enshrined in the fictile vases he created from their common clay. And these Fictiles tell the story of his first Art-instincts, and of his yearnings to unite beauty with use. They tell, too, more of his history than is enshrined and preserved by any other art; for almost all we know of many a people and many a tongue is learned from the fictile record, the sole relic of past civilisations which the Destroyer Time has left us.
Begun in the simplest fashion, fashioned by the simplest means, created from the commonest materials, Fictile Art grew with man's intellectual growth, and Fictile Craft grew with his knowledge; the latter conquering, in this our day, when the craftsman strangles the artist alike in this as in all other arts. To truly foster and forward the art, the craftsman and the artist should, where possible, be united, or at least should work in common, as was the case when, in each civilisation, the Potter's Art flourished most, and when the scientific base was of less account than was the art employed upon it. In its earliest stages the local clay sufficed for the formative portion of the work, and the faiences of most European countries offer more artistic results to us than do the more scientifically compounded porcelains. In the former case the native clay seemed more easily to ally itself with native art, to record more of current history, to create artistic genius rather than to be content with attempting to copy misunderstood efforts of other peoples and other times. But when science ransacked the earth for foreign bodies and ingredients, foreign decorative ideas came with them and Fictile Art was no more a vernacular one. It attempted to disguise itself, to show the craftsman superior to the artist; and then came the Manufacturer and the reign of quantity over quality, the casting in moulds by the gross and the printing by the thousands. Be it understood these remarks only apply to the introduction of porcelain into Europe. In the East where the clay is native, the art is native; the potter's hand and the wheel yet maintain the power of giving the potter his individuality as the creator and the artist, and save him from being but the servant and the slave of a machine.
Between faience and porcelain comes, midway, Stoneware, in which many wonderfully, and some fearfully, made things have been done of late, but which possesses the combined qualities of faience and porcelain—the ease of manipulation of the former, and the hardness and durability of the latter; but the tendency to over-elaborate the detail of its decoration, and rely less on the beauty of its semi-glossy surface than on meretricious ornament, has rather spoiled a very hopeful movement in Ceramic Art. Probably the wisest course to pursue at the present would be to pay more attention to faiences decorated with simple glazes or with "slip" decoration, and this especially in modelled work. A continuation of the artistic career of the Della Robbia family is yet an unfulfilled desideratum, notwithstanding that glazed faiences have never since their time ceased to be made, and that glazed figure work of large scale prevailed in the eighteenth century. Unglazed terra cotta, an artistic product eminently suited to our climate and to our urban architecture, has but partially developed itself, and this more in the direction of moulded and cast work than that of really plastic art; and albeit that from its dawn to this present the Fictile Art has been exercised abundantly, its rôle is by no means exhausted. The artist and the craftsman have yet a wide field before them, but it would be well that the former should, for some while to come, take the lead. Science has too long reigned supreme in a domain wherein she should have been not more than equal sovereign. She has had her triumphs, great triumphs too, triumphs which have been fraught with good in an utilitarian sense, but she has tyrannised too rigidly over the realm of Art. Let us now try to equalise the dual rule.
G. T. Robinson.