Aspects of Ceramic History
This review appeared in Ceramics in America 2012
Gordon Elliott’s Aspects of Ceramic History is a collection of papers written over a long career researching the grand flowering of ceramic activity in Staffordshire in the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries. The wide-ranging topics include historiography, technology and the industrial revolution, labor relations, identification and authentication, and Continental influences and connections. The best-known actors of the day animate these essays—the Elers brothers, Josiah Wedgwood, John Dwight, Herbert Minton—as well as contemporary chroniclers Simeon Shaw, Enoch Wood, and Robert Plot; newspaperman and worker’s advocate William Evans; and international figures such as philosophe and porcelain engineer Comte de Milly and Italian author Cipriano Piccolopasso.
The collected essays begin with an account of Elliott’s experience in the mid-1950s, when the field of ceramic history was beginning to professionalize; at age seventeen, Elliott was a junior staff member of the Hanley Museum, excavating a Romano-British kiln site at Stoke-on-Trent. The final paper, originally presented in 1996, examines links between Wedgwood and his French contemporary de Milly. In the interim, Elliott became keeper of ceramics at the Potteries Museum, a professor in Staffordshire University’s department of art and design, and head of the university’s master’s program in ceramic history, where he remains an honorary research fellow. The chapters in Aspects of Ceramic Historyoriginated as readings for that program. His earlier publications include The Design Process in British Ceramic Manufacture, 1750–1850, and Potters: Oral History in the Staffordshire Ceramic Industry.
Elliott’s essays span a number of disciplines and methodologies to get at not only the history of ceramics manufacturing in and around Staffordshire, but also the history of the telling of that story. He examines early traveler accounts, historical potter and observer journals and letters, as well as current literature to form a clearer picture of the state of contemporary knowledge and practices. His research has led to a number of insights:
—Unlike other industries, the potteries did not benefit from the efficiencies of industrial revolution steam power until the nineteenth century. Except in tile making and grinding, the piecemeal layout of most potteries mitigated against the implementation of centralized power.
—A stream of French immigrants brought technical advances to the potteries beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century and had a significant effect through the nineteenth century.
—Wedgwood did not “single-handedly transform” British pottery into a sophisticated industry. He was fully aware of de Milly’s pioneering documentation of Meissen porcelain manufacturing, which the Frenchman observed firsthand during a military campaign in the 1750s. Wedgwood himself owned a copy of de Milly’s Treatise on Porcelain, as confirmed by Elliott’s discovery in the Hanley Reference Library of Wedgwood’s “modest bookplate pasted on the inside face of the outer cover” of his personal edition of the Treatise.
In fact, Elliott’s methodology often involves a critical reading of historical texts measured against his field experience and hands-on experimentation. The writing is most vivid when Elliot brings the reader into the process of his research, narrating its unfolding, as in his confirmation of the pioneering use of slip-casting by the Elers brothers to make their red finewares and belying the often repeated claim of a seventeenth-century diarist that they left Bradwell because they had depleted their clay supply:
In reality as late as 1975 the red clay deposits in the area were far from being exhausted. What struck me was the absence of impurities in the form of grit and rotted vegetation . . . . Most clays, without alkalis, require inconveniently large amounts of water to bring them to a creamy pourable consistency. I was, to say the least, surprised to find that a castable state was achieved with an amount of water normally found in slip made with an alkaline content . . . . When this mixture was poured into a mould casting times were not much less impressive than those associated with chemically-based formulae; all without the need for chemicals. In a matter of hours, I was able to totally endorse Wedgwood’s account of the Elers’ achievements [pp. 21–22].
Elliott refers here to Wedgwood’s assertion—in a document in the Wedgwood company archives—that the Elers brothers introduced the lathe turning of teawares cast in plaster molds to British ceramics.
Aspects of Ceramic History is not a book with an edited, coherent manuscript. It lacks a contextualizing introduction or concluding framework to weave together the stand-alone chapters prepared for graduate classes. Although the fourteen essays (plus a reprinted translation of de Milly’s 1771 Treatise on Porcelain) have introductory synopses, these vary in length, focus, and integrating logic, at times leaving readers on their own to navigate among Elliott’s various streams of inquiry. The images at the end of each essay portray diverse and engaging material—patent drawings, account books, nineteenth-century photographs—as well as tools and, of course, many ceramic objects. They are among the richest features of the book, though it would have been helpful had they been placed within the body of the text.
Self-published, Aspects of Ceramic History suffers from many editorial lapses, especially repetition. The same material is quoted and referred to in multiple essays, sometimes to make similar points. Elliott’s cursory (two-sentence) introduction to the volume offers a disclaimer that rather understates this shortcoming. Redundancy, editing lapses, and layout inconsistencies diminish the pleasure of the material presented. It undermines the credibility of the author to see misspellings, font shifts, scant or missing endnotes, and many missed commas—reading some sentences takes a few tries.
In addition, some interesting assertions seem tossed off and lack citations. For example, “for the Chinese, hardness, not translucency nor whiteness was of the first importance. However, the European market for Chinese porcelain at its highest level expected nothing less than a material that was white and translucent” (p. 134). While this might be known to some with specialized knowledge, it was new to me. Such cultural recontextualizations are rich with implication, and this one particularly so. It seems significant that secondary characteristics of this most precious material could be taken as its essence abroad. The quest to engineer true porcelain engendered one of the great technology races of its time, with tremendous effort, patronage, secrecy, and intrigue. It is uncanny (if we follow Elliott) that it was undertaken to achieve qualities seen as subordinate by its originating culture. This would seem to call for further discussion, or at least a citation for a curious reader to pursue.
The lack of editorial resources brought to bear on this book made me think that this reflects not only the limitations of this particular project but the sadly marginal place ceramics holds in the wider culture. If this were a history book about a more mainstream subject—say, Caribbean piracy or the American founding fathers—the book might have received much more production support. The complexity and richness evoked by Elliott’s chronicling of his lifelong experience researching this difficult material, his hands-on approach, and his critical scholarship were enough for me to overlook the book’s flaws. In order to fully appreciate this contribution to the field of ceramics, perhaps Aspects of Ceramic History is best read as it was originally written: one essay at a time.
Stonepool Pottery, Worthington, MA
Gordon Elliott, The Design Process in British Ceramic Manufacture, 1750–1850 [Stoke-on-Trent]: Staffordshire University Press, ); Gordon Elliott, Potters: Oral History in the Staffordshire Ceramic Industry(Leek, Staffordshire, Eng.: Churnet Valley Books, 2004).