work and in many cases with an entire extinction of its artistic spirit. Even the hand-work that still remained was largely affected by the growing dominance of machinery; and the painting, gilding and decoration of pottery and porcelain, in the first half of the 19th century, became everywhere mechanical and hackneyed. During the latter half of the 19th century another influence was fortunately at work. Side by side with the increasing mechanical perfection of the great bulk of modern pottery there grew up a school of innovators and experimentalists, who revived many of the older decorative methods that had fallen into oblivion and produced fresh and original work, in certain directions even beyond, the achievements of the past. The 20th century opened with a wider outlook among the potters of Europe and America. In every country men were striving once again to bring back to their world-old craft something of artistic taste and skill.
Technical Methods.—All primitive pottery, whether of ancient or of modern times, has been made by the simplest methods. The clay, dug from the earth’s surface, was or is prepared by beating and kneading with the hands, feet or simple mallets of stone or wood; stones and hard particles were picked out; and the mass, well tempered with water, was used without any addition. From this clay, vessels were shaped by scooping out or cutting a solid lump or ball, by building up piece by piece and smoothing down one layer upon another or by squeezing cakes of clay on to some natural object or prepared mould or form. The potter’s wheel, though very ancient, was a comparatively late invention, arrived at independently by many races of men. In its simplest form it was a heavy disk pivoted on a central point to be set going by the hand, as the workman squatted on the ground; and it may be seen to-day in India, Ceylon, China or Japan, in all its primitive simplicity (see fig. 1). This form of potter’s wheel was the only one known until about the Christian era, and then, in Egypt apparently, the improvement was introduced of lengthening the spindle which carries the throwing-wheel and mounting on it near the base a much larger disk which the potter could rotate with his foot, and so have both hands free for the manipulation of the clay (fig. 2). No further advance seems to have been made before the 17th century, when the wheel was spun by means of a cord working over a pulley; and though a steam-driven wheel was introduced in the middle of the 19th century, this form remains the best for the production of fine pottery.
A prevalent misconception with regard to the potter’s wheel needs correction. For anything beyond very simple shapes it is impossible to carry the work to completion on the wheel at one operation as is generally imagined. All that the potter can do while the clay is soft enough to “throw” on the wheel is to get a rough shape of even thickness. This operation completed, the piece is removed from the wheel and set aside to dry. When it is about leather-hard, it may be re-centred carefully on the wheel (the old practice), or placed in a horizontal lathe (since 16th century) and turned down to the exact shape and polished to an even, smooth surface. The Greek vase-makers were already adepts in what is often reckoned a modern, detestable practice. Many Greek vases have obviously been “thrown” in separate sections, and when these had contracted and hardened sufficiently they were luted together with slip, and the final vase-shape was smoothed and turned down on the wheel, and even polished to as fine a degree of mechanical finish as the modern potter ever attains. So too with the Chinese; many of their forms have been made in two or three portions, subsequently joined together and finished on the outside as one piece. Indeed it is remarkable how the Greeks and Chinese had discovered for themselves many devices of this kind which are generally held up to opprobrium as the debased methods of a mechanical age. Always it should be borne in mind that the shaping of pottery by “pressing” cakes of clay into moulds is much older than the potter’s wheel, and has always been the method of making shapes other than those in the round. The modern method of “casting” pottery by pouring slip, a fluid mixture of clay and water, into absorbent moulds seems to have originated in England about the middle of the 18th century; and this too is a genuine potter’s method which does not merit the disapproval with which it has been generally regarded by writers on the potter’s art.
In all ages the work of the “thrower” or “presser” has been largely supplemented by the modeller, who alters the shape, and applies to it handles, spouts or modelled accessories at will.
|Fig. 3.—Early Greek pottery-kiln, about 700-600 B.C. (from a painted votive tablet found at Corinth, now in the Louvre). The section shows the probable construction of the kiln.|
Firing.—The firing of pottery has become in modern times such a specialized branch of the manufacture that the student can only be referred here to the technological works mentioned in the bibliography at the end of this article. It is, however, necessary that we should briefly describe the earlier forms of potters’ kilns used by the nations whose pottery counts among the treasures of the collector and the antiquary. Here again we now know that the primitive types of kiln used by the potters of ancient Egypt or Greece have not vanished from the earth; it is only in the civilized countries of the modern world that they have been replaced by improved and perfected devices. The potters of the North-West Provinces of India use to-day a kiln practically identical with that depicted in severest silhouette on the rock-tombs of Thebes; and the skilful Japanese remain content with a kiln very similar to the one shown in fig. 3. This Greek type of kiln was improved and enlarged by the Romans, and its use seems to have been introduced wherever pottery was made under their sway, for remains of Roman kilns have been found in many countries (see fig. 4). With the end of Roman dominance we have ample evidence that their technical methods fell into disuse, and the northern European potter of the period from the 6th to the 12th century had to build up his methods afresh, and improved kilns were invented.
|Fig. 4.—Roman kiln found at Castor. The low arch is for the insertion of the fuel; the pots rested on the perforated floor, made of clay slabs; the top of the kiln is missing,—it was probably a dome.|
The general type of medieval potter’s kiln is illustrated for us in the manuscript of an Italian potter of the 16th century, now in the library of the Victoria and Albert Museum (fig. 5). Kilns of a different type, horizontal reverberatory kilns, were used for making the hard-fired pottery of
- I tre libri dell’ Arte del Vasajo, by Cipriano Piccolpasso of Castel Durante, A.D. 1548.