Sunday, October 9, 2016

Decorating Black Basalt Ceramics: A Revolutionary Little Machine

Chronica Domus
These early black basalt ceramics are decortaed with an array of engine-turned designs
Photo: Chronica Domus


I had intended to write about this subject for quite some time and a comment made on my last post from loyal reader and fellow blogger GSL finally convinced me to get my skates on and actually follow through.  So here today, for your enjoyment and edification, is my laywoman's attempt at explaining how the delightfully incised decorations often seen on early black basalt ceramics have come to be.

As readers of this blog might have noticed, I have a bit of a problem crush obsession with black basalt ceramics.  I regularly find myself reaching for these utilitarian and handsome objects to use at our table, as flower receptacles, or even as a Christmas tree holder.  As GSL so astutely noticed when I posted on my sweet peas recently, the vessel I used to hold my blooms is decorated with a cross-hatch design.  He wondered how it had been made.

Chronica Domus
The geometric cross-hatching on this black basalt vessel sparked GSL's interest and his question on how such a design was achieved on early ceramics
Photo: Chronica Domus


It was the genius of Josiah Wedgwood in 1763 that introduced the world to the ornamental engine-turning lathe which was enthusiastically installed in his Staffordshire pottery that very year.  Mr. Wedgwood had first set eyes on the lathe at Matthew Boulton's Birmingham metal workshop and was immediately enthralled by the possibility of adapting it to decorate his ceramics. By rotating the leather-like surface of an earthenware article, the potter was able to embellish the surface with a series of exacting ribs and patterns with great precision. The results would bring Josiah Wedgwood fame among his extensive circle of wealthy clientele.
A frame from a video made by British Pathé illustrating how a design was cut into the body of one of Wedgwood's pots using the ornamental engine-turning lathe
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I adore the graphic engine-turned decoration on these neo-classically inspired Wedgwood tea wares with finials depicting Sybil the ancient Greek oracle
Photo: Chronica Domus


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A detailed look at two sugar basins skillfully executed on the Wedgwood lathe
Photo: Chronica Domus


Interestingly, Josiah Wedgwood's shrewd business instinct led him to market black basalt tea wares to fashionable ladies who had adopted the curious custom of bleaching their hands with arsenic. As you can imagine, juxtaposing porcelain-like skin against the dark-bodied teapots and milk jugs served to highlight his patron's vanity to great effect.

Chronica Domus
A trio of early-nineteenth century black basalt milk jugs showcasing 
three distinct engine-turned decorations
Photo: Chronica Domus


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A closer look at the intricate engine-turned pattern on a helmet-shaped milk jug circa 1820
Photo: Chronica Domus


Perhaps some of my own pieces of  black basalt were purchased from the Wedgwood & Byerley showrooms in St. James' Square, London
Source

It did not take long until Wedgwood's contemporaries followed his lead and acquired their own engine-turning lathes.  The firms of William Baddeley and Hackwood & Co. are two that adopted this form of decoration but neither could rival the quality of Wedgwood's designs.

A beloved pair of Hackwood & Co. slop bowls display a graphic zig-zag design which is not as finely executed as the Wedgwood examples in my collection
Photo: Chronica Domus


During my research for this post, I came across an intriguing photograph of the nineteenth-century ornamental engine-turning lathe in situ at the basalt room of the Wedgwood pottery in Etruria.  The lathe has now been moved to the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, a place I've been fortunate enough to have visited on my travels many years ago.


What excites me most about the image is the object in the potter's hand.   It appears to be a very similar example of my basalt vase which is shown in the following photograph:

Chronica Donus
A favored piece in my collection is this small vase which highlights the supreme skill of the potter who adorned it with a band of engine-turned acanthus leaves and geometric fluting
Photo: Chronica Domus


Ornamental engine-turning was by no means Wedgwood's only method of decorating his world-famous ceramics, but it is a particular favorite of mine as the designs still appear fresh and exciting, if not slightly contemporary, two-hundred years on from their manufacture.

I hope you have enjoyed learning about the process of how these varied patterns found their way onto such handsome ceramics.  And, of course, my thanks to GSL for his intriguing inquiry which is what ultimately led me to finally write this post.  I do hope I've managed to unravel the mystery of the cross-hatching for you.

For those of my readers that might be interested in learning more about Josiah Wedgwood and his world-renowned company, and see the very same ornamental engine-turning lathe discussed in this post in action, I would gently encourage you to view this two-part film found here, presented by Associated British Pathé.


16 comments:

  1. I share your fondness for Wedgwood black basalt and have many engine turned pieces. Skinners Auctions in Boston frequently has pieces for sale. Luckily for my purse, I missed a great sale last Friday.

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    Replies
    1. Oh, I'm green with envy that you are in close proximity to such a good auction house. I too have scored some lovely basalt pieces (not shown in this post) at a local auction house that no longer hosts American and European decorative art sales to my great annoyance. Perhaps it's a good thing as I've run out of cupboard and shelf space.

      What are some of your favorite pieces in your collection?

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  2. I love your black basalt and watching those 2 Wedgewood films was a treat. 7 separate firings from start to finish with all that highly skilled handwork and to see it packed in straw encased in barrels stacked on the lorry and off they go.
    In a former life, I toured well over a thousand different manufacturing facilities from steel mills to book binders and I always loved having the operations manager show me how they produced their product.
    Excellent post!

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    1. Hello GSL,

      I enjoyed watching those barrels stuffed with goodies and straw too (one was even destined for San Francisco). In fact, when that film was made in the 1950's, not much had changed since Wedgwood's early days when ceramics were shipped across the globe in wooden barrels.

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  3. Hello CD, How beautiful your basaltware is, and how fascinating the process by which the intricate guilloche designs are created. It is curious how in general we admire the slight imperfections in antiques, but in this case it is the perfection of the engine-turned engravings upon the otherwise hand-made pieces that is the star attraction.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim,

      So pleased that you too found the process of decorating these beautiful ceramics interesting. As I wrote at the beginning of the post, I had intended to write on the subject but second-guessed myself wondering if anyone would actually be as intrigued and interested as I was to read about it. So glad GSL spurred me into action!

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  4. CD,
    I enjoyed knowing more about this collectible. I love black basalt but apart from knowing Wedgewood made some, I didn't know how it was made. Very interesting and so beautiful in the details accomplished.
    karen

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    1. Hello Karen,

      Yes, Wedgwood was by no means the only firm that manufactured black basalt ceramics but it was far superior to others' attempts in both decoration and color (some of the pieces I own by other companies look a little more brown in tone and the decoration is not as crisp).

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

      Delete
  5. So interesting! And perfect for the Bay Area, the tech connection and all. I agree, still looks so modern.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Lisa,

      Well, for the "tech connection" alone, it's time to start your black basalt collection. I know you'll find somewhere in your house to place a piece or two.

      Delete
  6. How did I miss this? Guess I've been out of more loops than two this month. I love the exquisitely SIMPLE of these pieces---the wants-to-shine of the matte surfaces, and the unerringly-symmetrical cuts and stripings.

    I even know how it FEELS, for I prevailed upon a salesman to hand me down a couple of pieces of the black---I didn't see the word "basalt" anywhere upon the list, but very similar to yours.

    I even bent low and watched for ever so long as the pieces rode the wide belt the length of the room to that great glowing maw at the end, where they endured their trial by fire.

    And I love that you call it a "sugar basin." I seldom hear or say the word "basin" any more (interrupting train of thought for a major frisson of deja vu in the typing of this sentence. Have I told you this before?), and depending upon generations of the family, it referred variously to that old white enamel pan, the red rim chipped away by time and busy hands, OR the bathroom sink, called so by the elders of the family---I suppose a transition from the pitcher-and-bowl sets in bedrooms and washrooms of their day.

    Must get me back to my little chores---some of the kiddos coming tomorrow to make "Halloween Houses"---I hope on the patio, for there's paint involved. I was inspired by a very creative lady who does the most charming vignettes and tableaux for all seasons.

    http://www.purplechocolathome.com/2016/09/halloween-paper-mache-houses.html

    I enjoy her over-the-top artistry at almost everything so much, and everything she does is so enormously, sumptuously opulent, it takes a while to take it all in. I'd just like to have the SPACE it must take to store all those lovely things.

    And note I said Inspired By---She creates Tiffany, whilst we could set up shop at Dollar General.

    Happy Autumn!

    r

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    Replies
    1. Hello racheld,

      I think we should start a revival of the sugar basin instead of the bowl, don't you?

      Delete
  7. Dear CD,
    Your black basalt collection is so handsome. There is something almost Etruscan about the appearance. They also have the advantage of being relatively affordable (at least those items made in the 19th century) to the average collector. I admire Blue John too, but alas, those items are rarer and are priced way beyond my means.
    Best,
    KL Gaylin


    .

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    1. Hello KL Gaylin,

      How astute of you to have noticed the Etruscan influence in these pieces, which is what draws me to them also. In fact, Josiah Wedgwood built his pottery business in a place in Staffordshire he called Etruria, named after the Italian town. He was very influenced by Etruscan art which is a feature of his early ceramics. The Wedgwood family also took up residence in Etruria and named their house Etruria Hall.

      As for Blue John, how I'd love to own a pair of urns made of this rarefied stone. As you say, beyond my means.

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  8. Thank you for this fascinating and enlightening lesson, I was not aware of how engine turning was actually done. As you know, we share a predilection for basalt, and I've collected it for years. Damn housekeepers keep breaking it, though, including most recently a lid of a pot pourri that was a personal favorite. Ah well. As for Blue John I saw several magnificent (and jaw-droppingly priced) specimens of it yesterday at NY's inaugural TEFAF show. Needless to say, while I own several dozen basalt objects narry a Blue John one is in my collection...much as I'd like to have some. I'll keep with the far more economical basalt for now. Reggie

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    Replies
    1. Hello Reggie,

      Where would we be without the genius of Mr. Wedgwood and his beautiful engine-turned designs! I think I would have fainted had I found a favorite basalt piece broken by a clumsy housekeeper. As you know, we have our own little issues to deal with here on the West Coast and I just pretend it will never happen. I suggest you get your housekeeper a batch of 'Quake Hold' which I use on whatever is being displayed on our mantelshelf. I even place it beneath lids to secure them to their bases. Your housekeeper can then dust around the objects without fear of breakage.

      How exciting TEFAF has reached New York. I'll keep hopes high that one day you'll run into a Blue John piece that is affordable. You just never know what's out there sometimes.

      Delete

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