Victoria and Albert Museum Curator's Talk: French Art Pottery

With seven floors and seven miles(!) of gallery space, the Victoria and Albert Museum is truly somewhere to spend hours getting lost amongst the exhibits. But, there are more focused ways to experience the vast and eclectic collection of fine and decorative arts. For instance, the museum runs a programme of public talks, often given by the curators themselves. These are rare opportunities to gain insights from the people who know the most about the objects on display. What’s more, these talks are usually free, with no booking required – simply turn up at the designated time and place. Find out about upcoming talks here.

Yesterday (14th August 2014) I was lucky enough to hear Rebecca Wallis, Curator of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass, speak about French Art Pottery from the 1860s to 1920s. 

We began in Room 101, which is dedicated to the decorative arts of Europe and America throughout the nineteenth century, to get a feel of the styles that Art Pottery both grew out of, and reacted against. The ceramics in this room showed potters beginning to experiment with new designs, but historical quotation was still at the fore.

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Part of a Dinner Service Painted with Animals in Japanese Style, c. 1866, Shown at the International Exhibition Paris, 1867. France, Creil; commissioned by F.-E. Rousseau; designed by F.-J.-A. Bracquemond; made by Lebeuf, Millet et Cie. Earthenware, printed. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by François-Eugène Rousseau.

This service, for example, utilises the new availability of Japanese objects following the opening of Japan in 1853; however the shapes of these ceramics continue to follow Western precedents, and the Japanese designs are transplanted from drawings to ceramics (Bracquemond used drawings by Hokusai as reference material). Therefore, at this stage, ceramicists were still primarily interested in Japanese motifs rather than techniques. Artists such as Bracquemond were beginning to work with ceramics factories, but they did not yet see pottery as an artistic avenue of its own.

Next we looked at the changes that Art Nouveau brought about, and as Room 101 included all aspects of design, we were able to see Art Nouveau ceramics juxtaposed with posters and furniture, discerning the stylistic continuity between the mediums.

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Posters by Mucha, Toulouse-Lautrec, and more. Room 101, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Moving to Room 145, which contained only ceramics, we looked at a number of examples of different types of fin de siècle Art Pottery.

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Case 15, Room 145, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Rebecca explained that two contemporary Japanese pots were included in the lower shelf – to illustrate the striking similarity to the western-made ceramics.

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Porcelain jar and vase with flammée glazes. Japan, Yokohama, c. 1900-10, made by Miyagawa Kozan. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Porcelain vases with flammée glazes. France, Choisy-le-Roi, c. 1895-1900, made by Ernest Chaplet. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The main innovation in art pottery was in the perspectives of the makers of the pots: ceramics was no longer a side-venture but at the forefront of their artistic practice – an art in itself. Prestige was gained by the complicated and risky glazing techniques, which required extreme care and precision in order that the works stayed in one piece.

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Background: Stoneware bottle vase. France, Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye, c. 1895, made by Georges Hoentschel, carved and modelled, glazed and gilded. Foreground: Stoneware vase. France, Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye, c. 1890, made by Jean Carriès, with incised decoration and coloured glass. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

There is an independence and individuality that is lacking in the earlier works, which follow a prescribed design. In this vase by Georges Hoentschel, the gilding on the neck reveals the artist’s hand. It is this type of aesthetic touch that ensures that these pieces still look remarkably contemporary today.

Rebecca reminded us that although we were separated from the ceramics by the display case glass, in practice they are tactile objects that the owner would enjoy through use and physical touch. This partition is, of course, a necessity in museums; but curator’s talks are excellent opportunities to – metaphorically – dismantle the barrier between the artwork and the viewer, and enrich your understanding of collections and curating.

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After the talk, I visited the Ceramics Study Galleries, which were opened in 2010 and are designed to make the V&A’s permanent collection more accessible, both to the public and to the museum’s curators. Meticulously arranged but stacked like sardines, the pieces on show here reminded me of the proliferation of ceramics. Even Art Pottery is part of the industry that produces ceramics to be sold and consumed in multiple editions. Therefore, these galleries not only demonstrated the breadth and variety of the types and styles of pottery, but also brought to mind the busy atmosphere of the world’s fairs of the previous two centuries, which were so important to the development of the trade and framed the viewing and consumption of ceramics. 

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