The Potters Craft, by Charles F. Binns

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It can scarcely be believed that maiolica was a novelty but it can easily be understood that a piece of white porcelain, viewed in the light of the contemporary knowledge of enamels, would appear of marvellous quality.

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Palissy essayed to imitate this wonder but attacked the problem from the standpoint of an opaque glaze. He spent fifteen years in experimenting but never realized his ideal. He did, however, produce a palette of marvellous colored enamels.

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He was a close student of nature and modeled all kinds of natural objects, glazing them in the proper hues. He also designed and made vases and service pieces, some with figure embossments. The story of his struggles is readily accessible to any who are interested.

Palissy left little or no impression upon the ceramic art of his time but in recent years some work has been done in colored glazes fusible at a low temperature. This ware is sometimes sold under the name of maiolica but it is more nearly an imitation of Palissy.

The clay was of the type commonly used for the manufacture of stone-ware and appears in three colors, brown, gray and cream. The ware was made on the wheel and embossments more or less elaborate were subsequently added. The unique feature consisted in the method of applying the glaze. This was simply common salt, thrown into the heated kiln and volatilized.

The salt vapor bathed the glowing pottery and combined with its substance, thus producing the delightful orange-skin texture known as salt glaze. The knowledge of this method was conveyed to England in the seventeenth century and gained wide acceptance there. The English potters preferred to use clays which were almost white, and after glazing a decoration in brilliant colors was sometimes added. Naturalistic treatment was not attempted but conventionalized subjects were used with almost the effect of jewelry.

The temperature at which this work can [22] be produced varies with the clay.

Binns, Charles Fergus (Daddy Binns) – American Studio Ceramics | Internet Antique Gazette

Many fusible clays will take a salt glaze but the beauty of the product depends to a large extent upon the purity of the body. This necessitates a hard fire, for white-burning clays always need a high temperature for vitrification. The early potteries of England were dependent largely upon clay effects. Some little enameled ware was made and is known as English Delft; but the bulk of the work was slip painted, incised, marbled or embossed.

Each of these methods is capable of an intelligent application and all are within the reach of the artist potter. The production of porcelain is the goal of the potter.

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  • The pure white of the clay and the possibility of unlimited fire treatment exert a profound influence upon the imagination while the difficulties of manipulation only serve to stimulate the energy of the enthusiast. For present purposes not much is to be learned from the soft porcelains of France nor from the bone china of England. German and French hard porcelain are but developments of the Chinese idea and therefore need not be studied apart from their prototype.

    The earliest date of Chinese porcelain is unknown. The records of the nation are very ancient but their meaning is often obscured by the fact that in the Chinese language the same word was used of old to denote both porcelain and earthenware. Specimens dating from only the tenth century A.

    They are coarse and heavy in structure but are aglow with vibrant color. The finest porcelains date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and these are the ideals towards which every modern potter looks. Broadly it may be stated that two methods prevailed.

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    • In the former the glaze itself was charged with color or the coloring matter was applied to the clay beneath the glaze. In the latter the porcelain was finished as to body and glaze and the decoration was applied at a subsequent and much lighter burn. The first named class is called single-colored porcelain; the second has several names such as the famille rose and famille verte as defined by Jacquemart. In the single-color class it is evident that the potters were not at all sure of their results. In many museums there are to be found examples of ox-blood red, more or less fine, and, with them, other pieces which were intended to be red but which failed in the fire.

      The wonder is, in these cases, that the pieces, even though failures, are beautiful. The knowledge required for the production of these wares is largely scientific; at the same time it is not to be believed that the Chinese had any special scientific training. They evidently traveled a long and tortuous path before the goal was reached, in fact, they often fell short of it altogether, but they had plenty of time and unlimited patience.

      The modern potter is, if less patient, more fortunate in that the course has been marked out with more or less accuracy and, if the landmarks of science be heeded, a certain degree of success may be attained. This single-color work is the true field of the ceramist.

      Anyone possessing the power of using a pencil, and with a large stock of patience, may produce over-glaze decoration, but to prepare glazes of many hues and to consign them unprotected to the fury of the furnace, requires skill, patience, courage and enthusiasm. During the last twenty years a new school has arisen which combines in a measure the advantages of the two Chinese methods. Colors are prepared from refractory materials and upon clay or soft burned biscuit ware, scenes, in more or less conventional form, are painted, or else a design purely conventional in character is applied by the artist.

      The ware is then glazed and subjected to the severe fire which all porcelain undergoes. The result is that the porcelain and the painting are united in a sense that can never be the case with over-glaze treatment.


      The colors become part of a purely ceramic unit; the spirit of the artist is fixed by the fire. To this class belong the porcelain of Copenhagen and the recent product of Sevres. These, of course, represent the result of much arduous training and many tedious experiments. Both the training and the experiments are necessary to some extent for every worker, not only because pottery clays vary much in composition, but because individuality can only be [26] obtained by the preparation, in the laboratory, of the desired compounds.

      The Chinese, doubtless, stumbled upon many of their successes by accident, helped by the fact that the character of the fire employed influenced many of their colors.

      Catalog Record: The potter's craft | HathiTrust Digital Library

      This will be explained in a later chapter. They were, however, quick to seize upon that which was good. Many fanciful names were given to the rarest colors, such as "the violet of wild apples," "liquid dawn" and "the red of the bean blossom. In the over-glaze treatment, the type named "famille verte" is characterized by a clear green glaze or enamel over a design in black.

      [Wikipedia] Charles Fergus Binns

      The whole is painted over the porcelain glaze and the green enamel is so soft that it is often decomposed on the surface. When a broad black mass is covered with green the decomposition gives rise to prismatic colors and occasions the term "raven's wing black. Well known to collectors also are the rose-back plates. These belong to the "famille rose" in which the characteristic note is a delicate rose pink. This color [27] is prepared from gold and when it is placed upon the back of an egg-shell plate a tender rosy transparency is imparted to the piece.

      One of the best known of the single colors is the pale sea green named celadon by the French.

      Charles Fergus Binns

      This color in China was called "the sky after rain" and was considered both rare and valuable. The porcelain of Copenhagen is the product of scientific skill and artistic taste. In the studios attached to the Royal Manufactory there has grown up a tradition of work and criticism which is fostered by ladies of birth and position. Many of these paint upon the porcelain themselves and so constitute a school which has become world famous.

      Natural objects are, for the most part, chosen and, as the palette of colors is, owing to the intense fire, quite limited and low in key, a tone of quiet atmosphere pervades the painting. This is accentuated by the use of the air-brush to distribute a ground color upon the ware in graduated strength. At the National Manufactory of Sevres there has been some attempt to follow the Copenhagen method but to a greater extent the work is along the lines of conventionalized form.