Printer Friendly

City and countryside, history and the potter's art: David Palmer has made a study of the history of pottery.


Oriental thinking, and indeed all pre-industrial thinking, knows that though nature may seem hard-hearted and her laws inexorable and cruel, yet she herself is the raw material you are working with and of which you yourself are necessarily part.

Michael Cardew. (1)

FROM ITS ORIGINS, the making of pottery has reflected the development of mankind's relationship to nature and to the evolution of the urban dweller. The shaping and firing of clay as a container for daily use, superseding the hollow form of the hand and consolidated the revolutionary transformation from the semi-nomadic life of the direct appropriation of needs from nature, into settled communities. (2) Upon an increasing productivity in agriculture, a division of labour emerged giving rise to cities and towns of the great riverine civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China, in the process separating makers more immediately bound to nature, including potters, from urban craft industries, such as the carvers and shapers of hollow formed vessels, sacred objects and stores of wealth reflective of the accumulation of surplus of the urban centre. (3)

In the countryside, with the further discoveries of the smelting of ores, of gold and silver, copper, tin and iron, only the kilns of the potters of China kept pace, culminating in the 'dragon' kilns of the potter farmers of southern China, fingers of fire on the hillsides, eventually able to produce as many as 50,000 pots in a single firing, developing high-fired stoneware, porcellaneous wares and porcelain, pots emulating and rivalling the appeal of the vessel, containers of more precious materials; jade, alabaster, bronze, silver or gold. (4)


Whether reflecting the utility of the container forms of nature, of basketry, precious stones or metal ware, or aspiring to the glaze techniques of potters of disparate cultures, as maiolica is of Persian tin glazing and in its turn of Chinese porcelain, (5) pottery in its essential character may be seen as the mimetic art, part of an evolving global network of inspiration, emulation and innovation. By the early Middle Ages, Chinese ceramics, the tribute of Tang and Song emperors had reached such excellence as to exceed silk as the principal export, (6) inspiring maritime trade voyages as far as Korea, Japan and the Philippines to the East and the new Islamic Empire of the Persian Gulf to the West, connecting these twin centres of world civilisation. (7)

By introducing improved early planting and more drought-resistant rice strains, thus permitting double cropping and the farming of upland areas, the Song dynasty provided a large section of peasant farmers able to till their own land, a basis for significant increases in the production of foodstuffs providing the necessary support for a parallel rise in industrial production in coal, iron and steel, and an efflorescence in the production of pottery. (8) With widespread reforms encouraging a more meritocratic administrative beaucracy, this scholar gentry, overseers of large country estates, residents of the capital of Kaifeng, formed a social elite with the time and means for cultivating discerning aesthetic tastes, including contests for the best tea bowl for frothed white tea, the Hare's Fur bowls of the communal kilns of the farmer-potters of distant Kiangsi province being considered the most beautiful and appropriate. (9) Such bowls carried the introduction of tea drinking into Japan at the turn of the 13th century, the glaze of these then treasured objects becoming fabled as 'tenmoku', the Japanese name for the mountain range of 't'ien mu shan', close to the monastic site of their discovery by visiting Japanese monks. (10)


Following the fall of Kaifeng in 1125 to northern nomadic invasion, the fleeing dynasty, in keeping with a general demographic movement southwards, established a new capital at Hangzhou, closer to the rich agricultural deltas of the lower Yangtze, a city eventually to flourish as a commercial centre of a million inhabitants, and by report of Marco Polo, the most beautiful city on earth, able to boast of innumerable restaurants, tea houses, taverns and banquet halls. (11) In the countryside, many styles of pottery proliferated, Ding, Lonquan, Ru, Jian and Jun, all providing for local everyday, tributary and export markets, as well as the Imperial kiln located immediately south of Hangzhou where the innovative 'Guan' style, finely potted and dipped in as many as 5 layers of glaze to produce a carefully controlled crackled effect, provided the finest ware for use at the court. All such wares, simple in form and glaze demonstrated remarkable new assurance of skill and control of the firing process reaching an unrivalled aesthetic standard in stoneware.


By 1276, however, the Mongol militarists encirclement of Hangchow and the defeat of Song sea power brought an end to the dynasty and an end to the finest age in the production of pottery. (12)

Europe, and particularly England at that time displayed unusual concentrations of craftsmen in the towns and cities where an independent and politically powerful monastic order, without parallel in China, drew upon the artisanal skills of a multitude of workers: metalsmiths, masons, carpenters, sculptors, wood carvers, weavers and stained glass workers, with potters only more marginally contributing glazed and slip-trailed floor tiles, plain tiles for roofs, ridges and louvres in the construction of the great cathedrals of the High Middle Ages.

Here in general the working of metal may have maintained an ascendency as the tableware of choice to the detriment of the development of the potter, or 'crocker's' work. (13) The two crafts however may well have overlapped with potters in clay borrowing from the metalsmith the lead and copper, in powder and slip, to provide the typically decorative yellows and greens which gave new vitality to the appearance of unglazed kitchenware that had persisted since early neolithic times. (14) The refectory and baronial hall express the communality of the age, and in the kitchen, the pitcher as an icon of the age, broad-based, sturdy and functional, thumbed in decorative effect as if planted, the capacious expression of the surplus of the harvest, its ultimate meaning at the zenith of the age of agrarian life.

In Japan, the resolution of the warring condition of the 'Sengoku', Japan's 'Wars of the Roses', during the Momoyama period culminated in the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, 1605-1868, a consolidated feudal aristocracy of daimyo lordships and their samurai coordinated into a coherent national force overseen by emperors, shoguns and their retinues from the great administrative cities of Edo, Kyoto and Osaka. (15) The emergent new order asserted itself in pottery as a radical departure from Chinese precedents in new forms of the tea ceremony and a new aesthetic of associated bowls and containers found in a variety of mould-made forms, 'mis-shapen' shoe-form tea bowls and painting in bold abstact brushwork, a form of art much closer to nature than the 'classic' compelling symmetry the potter's wheel allowed. Oribe's decorative symbolism, including plovers, plum blossoms and glaze pools suggestive of stream and shade represented man's place in nature as one of ease and harmony, a view more appropriate to shogun, daimyo and samurai freed from the exertions of labour than to a peasantry whose lives were little changed, in the process expressing the ascendence of a new order and a distinctive Japanese identity to be cultivated and protected for the next two and a half centuries. (16)


At this time in England a new method of production was emerging in the form of factories supplied by a reserve of labour separated from its tenuous subsistence life on the land by the force of private enclosure and the loss of communal rights of grazing and gathering. The new production process became no less apparent in the making of pottery than elsewhere and appears in 1685 in the Fulham Pottery of the London pottery owner John Dwight, claiming a patent on the making of pottery in the German style, of 'white slip and iron dip' salt-glazed stoneware. Despite Dwight's original aspirations and innovations to the emulation of porcelain, this German-style ware remained the basis of his pottery's output. (17) By the middle of the 18th century however, the focus of innovation had shifted to Staffordshire, where the earthy simplicity of saltglazing, most suited to its origins in the brewing industry, became further refined in the general aspiration to porcelain of a new domestic ware fully developed by the machinery and organisation of Josiah Wedgewood, turning 'a peasant craft into an industry', (18) and founding a new kind of city; the industrial metropolis.


The effects of this development in expanding world trade, was soon to confront Japan in the form of warships seeking coal as fuel for their steam-driven engines. (19) Their demanding presence, culminating in the political revolution of the Meiji restoration of 1868, signalled the surrender of the 'sakoku' or 'closed country' of Tokugawa Japan to these new methods and means of productive power. Land reform decrees of 1872-73 compelled the peasant farmers unable to purchase their land into work in the emerging factories in a movement of rapid industrial development determined to catch up to the technological pre-eminence of Europe and North America. In the countryside craft traditions of centuries took on new appearances as the Shigaraki potters for the first time turned their hands to the use of glazes, bold copper pours to attract a sale in the burgeoning urban tea trade, an inspired but ultimately failing struggle to match the productive capacity of the machine age.


Out of the continuing global impact of such revolutionary transformations of rural and urban life, East and West, Shoji Hamada set sail for England in 1920 with his friend and inspirer Bernard Leach, in a counterflow movement to set up the first Japanese-style climbing kiln in St Ives on the Cornish peninsula in the far west of England. Upon arrival they found themselves in a situation of relative vitality, a self-sufficient local economy unencroached by large scale industrial production, a working population of a distinct independent spirit still directly engaged with nature on the extractions of primary materials; of fish from the sea, of tin mining, of small-scale, arable and pastoral farming. (20)

Leach set up his pottery on a hill among fields overlooking the town, poised between 'East and West', between the town and the countryside, between art and craft, and set about the task of unifying them, frequently succeeding with new expressions of bold abstract symbolic motifs, at home as much in the city as the countryside, the highest achievement to date in the West of pottery as a conscious form of art and perhaps the final significant presence of this form of art as part of daily life.

Leach's pottery has now fallen into disuse under social conditions transforming the cottages of the former agricultural workers into the whitewashed trophies of capital accumulated elsewhere. Their new and occasional occupants, survey a scene of abandonment; a landscape drained of manual labour, the sea emptied of fish, the last mine closed, the community disintegrated into dependency on the outsider visitors, the pyrhric victory of the city over the countryside, urban capital dominating rural life, a culture in decline. For Leach's art of everyday utility, of libidinal tactility which completes its most essential meaning for maker and user, brought into being in conditions of a people still living and working, like the potters themselves in a close engagment with nature, such transformations offer little beneficial effect.

In the present, within the prospect of the incorporation of living, labour into the monopoly power of a fully automated production process, of the totalisation of urbanised life (21) and an impending catastrophe in the relationship between humankind and nature, the integrity of the art crafted pot, symbol of the unity of labour and nature, the source of all wealth, the work of 'heart, head and hand', of utility and beauty at the intersection of agricultural and industrial production, provides a reminder that the separation of the power of labour over production and estrangement from nature, is the condition of the unforeseen and perhaps an uncontainable power of nature over mankind, a world in descent.


(1.) Cardew, Seth. Michael Cardew. A Pioneer Potter. Collins, London, 1985.

(2.) Chang, K. C. The Archaeology of Ancient China. Yale Univ. Press, 1968.

(3.) Childe, V.G. Crafts Specialization & Social Evolution: Essays in Honor of V.G. Childe. Ed. B. Wailes. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press 1996.

(4.) Vickers, Michael. Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware & Pottery. Oxford Univ. Press, 1994.

(5.) Watson, Oliver. Ceramics from Islamic Lands. Thames & Hudson, New York, 2004.

(6.) Hudson, G. F. The Medieval Trade of China, in Islam and the Trade to China. Univ. of Pennsylvania ed. D.S. Richards, 1970.

(7.) Abu Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System. A.D. 1250-1350 Oxford U.P. 1989.

(8.) Liu, James T.C. Change in Sung China. Raytheon, 1968.

(9.) Mowry, Robert. Hares Fur, Toirtoise Shell and Partridge Feathers: Chinese Brown & Black Glazed Ceramics. 4001400. Harvard U.P. 1996.

(10.) Plumer, James M. Temmoku, A Study of the Ware of Chien. Tokyo, 1972.

(11.) Gernet, Jacques. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion. Macmillan, 1962.

(12.) Davis, Richard L. Wind Against the Mountain: The Crisis of Politics and Culture in Thirteenth-Century China. Harvard U.P. 1996.

(13.) Edwards, Rhoda. London Potters circa 1570-1710 Journal of Ceramic History # 6, 1974.

(14.) Pierce, J. E. Medieval Pottery, London-Type Ware. London & Middlesex Archaelogical Society, Special Paper No. 6, 1985.

(15.) Norman, E.H. The Emergence of Japan as a Modern State. Insitute of Pacific Studies, 1941.

(16.) Gerhart, Karen. The Eyes of Power: Art and Early Tokugawa Authority. 1999.

(17.) Green, Chris. John Dwight's Fulham Pottery, London. 1999.

(18.) Mountford, A.R. The Illustrated Guide to Staffordshire Salt-Glazed Stoneware. Praeger, 1971.

(19.) Sugiyama, Shin'ya. Japan's Industrialization in the World Economy. 1859-1899 London, 1988.

(20.) Symon, Alison. Tremedda Days, A View of Zennor. 19001940. 1992.

(21.) Lefebvre, Henri. The Urban Revolution. Verso, London, 2003.


D.M.S. Palmer is an Independent writer and lives in New York City. This article is dedicated to William Marshall, Cornishman, Master Potter, 1923-2007. Photograph. Credits: Chlorite Vase. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpoint Morgan, 1917 (17.190.106) Photograph [C]1999. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Storage Jar decorated with Mountain Goats: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1959 (59.52). Photograph [C] 1982 The Metropolitan Museum. Pear- shaped Jug & Baluster Jug; John Edwards, Museum of London. Foliated Dish, Southern Song; Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London University. Oribe dish The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Purchase. F1973. 6a-e Stoneware Bottle, Hamada Shoji; Hamada Potter, Kodansha, 1990.

David Palmer has made a study of the history of pottery
COPYRIGHT 2007 Ceramics Art & Perception Pty. Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Palmer, David
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jul 1, 2007
Previous Article:About a thousand chickens aka more meets the eye: Erin Jackson gives some reasons behind her installation works.
Next Article:Oxides stains: Cathy Keys reports on her research aimed at extending a palette of ceramic oxide colour finishes.

Related Articles
Pueblo pottery: continuity and change: Lucy Lewis.
A model ceramics program.
Faces in history found in strange places.
Interpretations of Pueblo pottery making.
Where the elephants Roam. (Culture Center).
Ellen Masule: master potter.
Feeding the soul.
Essential clay: classic and contemporary ceramics Galerie Besson, London.
Raw earth.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters