Although isolated examples of Chinese porcelain were known to have filtered through to Europe in the Middle Ages it was not until the establishment of the various East India Companies from the early 16th century onwards that these elegant wares began to arrive in any considerable quantity. They were soon accorded a status equal to if not greater than that enjoyed by the precious metals. Indeed they so thoroughly enchanted the Europeans, for long accustomed to rather heavily-potted and thickly-glazed, utilitarian earthenwares, that they were even accredited with supernatural powers. Admittedly the robust, local products may have appeared rather lacking in refinement beside this hard, white and resonant body which, in correct conditions, permitted the transmission of light through its walls, thereby appearing luminous. The wealthiest and most eminent collectors willingly succumbed to the allure of the coveted porcelains and there came a time when the apotheosising assumed such magnitude as to provoke some writers to seriously question the notion that such an exquisite substance could be extracted from so prosaic and unremarkable a commodity as common clay. It was, instead, widely postulated that for those artisans seeking to induce the special qualities of porcelain it was obligatory to observe a host of unlikely alchemistic customs and wherever possible to invoke the favour of a resourceful and well-disposed deity.
A degree of this charisma remains, and it is not at all surprising to observe that lately a great deal of critical attention has been directed towards the works of a group of younger English potters. The members can be identified not necessarily by a formal proclamation of brotherhood or by a binding manifesto, but more simply by a shared concern for making unusually fragile, paper-thin pots in finely-pinched or meticulously-moulded porcelain. Remarkable enough in themselves, the sense of wonderment engendered by the fineness and fragility of these pots, is intensified by the realisation that they are, stylistically as well as technically, at such great remove from the overwhelming majority of ceramics by earlier English studio potters. The fact is that we have become firmly attuned to the best English studio pottery as extolling the virtues of the Leach tradition. For many decades we have been able to discern a mainstream of vigorously thrown stoneware vessels which assimilated the dual influences of the Far East and an indigenous tradition of earthenware.
As one traces the course of English studio pottery it is not an easy matter to locate notable and sustained excursions into the complexities of porcelain manufacture, although it is quite obvious that a number of potters (with Bernard Leach prominent among them) have, from time to time, used porcelain clay with success. It also becomes evident that the outstanding potter in England to have worked consistently in porcelain and to develop a recognisable and highly-personalised idiom in the use of that clay is Lucie Rie. Born in 1902, Lucie Rie spent her formative years in Second World War Vienna where she was exposed to the functionalist principles of design which were receiving strenuous promotion at the time. Amongst those ceramics for which she is most admired today are the thin-walled bowls in raw-glazed porcelain (fig. 7). With sensitive and tightly-controlled bands of sgraffito decoration they exhibit a sophisticated precision of form and an apparent vulnerability of fabric.
These elements, and particularly the last, provide a link with the porcelains of Mary Rogers, Jacqueline Poncelet and Sheila Fournier, who are key figures in the revival in England of an interest in the making of porcelain.
The porcelains of Mary Rogers can be interpreted, with justification, as celebrations on an intimate scale of the phenomenal process of germination and growth or more generally, of the forces and rhythms of nature. Her two larger bowls (fig. 1 & fig. 2) spring jubilantly from their short, narrow feet and bloom into reasonably capacious but essentially decorative vessels. The largest (fig. 1) is astonishing for its elaborate convolutions, and together with its diminutive counterpart (fig. 3) is evocative of a certain billowy species of marine alga. The bowl (fig. 2) with a widely-flared rim suggests the shape of the lily flower and has deployed over its interior surface a flickering pattern of spiralling lines in pale-green and brown stipple which can be seen in soft silhouette through the clear-glazed walls.
Unlike Mary Rogers’s bowls which are based on organic structures, the slip-cast pots by Jacqueline Poncelet (figs 4, 5 and 6) have imposed upon each of them a subtle and rather classical geometry. They are detached and abstract and seem to have been conceived in a state of objectivity and cool cerebration. They exude that sense of stern and irrefutable exactitude which is usually associated with those immaculate polyhedric models, familiar to all students of geometry.
Poncelet prefers to make her pots in bone china which is not a true porcelain but a hybrid incorporating bone ash as a fluxing agent to achieve a paste of exceptional plasticity. Bone china was first made in England in the middle of the 18th century and since that time its manufacture has been confined to an industrial rather than a studio situation. Likewise, this potter has successfully adapted the slip-casting process to the making of her delicate, individual pots which she later painstakingly carves with ordered patterns in total harmony with the three-dimensional forms they inhabit. Bone china can be very thinly potted but does have the tendency to distort slightly during the firing process. This is a trait welcomed by Jacqueline Poncelet as the means of softening and providing unexpected variation to the otherwise rigid and symmetrical forms. The method of carving the dry, un-glazed surfaces in low-relief recalls the egg-shell porcelain of China which was reputedly of unsurpassed beauty and fragility. Indeed, the very complexion of Poncelet’s pots invites comparison with the microscopically-pitted, low sheen on the shell of an egg, and in so doing infuses with a whiff of credibility the ancient belief that porcelain was a blended substance of ‘plaster, egg and oyster-shell, sea-locusts and other similar creatures’.
The three wheel-thrown, porcelain bowls by Sheila Fournier (fig. 8) bear an obvious family resemblance and impress for their graceful simplicity and for the delicacy of the sharply-incised decoration which traces gliding circuitous paths the full span of the shallow interior. These lines converge, pass through the ovoid apertures in the walls of each bowl then resume their lyric journey across the gentle curvature of the outer surfaces. Possibly the more conventional of the ceramics so far discussed, these bowls by Sheila Fournier are, nevertheless, agreeably unassuming and particularly beautiful objects.
The sensuous beauty of the material has continued to exercise a disarming and totally beguiling influence over a long succession of collectors. Even the modern nervous system will respond with spontaneity and warmth in spite of the stupefying assaults on its every fibre by the proliferation of artificial and imitative materials concocted by technological man. In this respect one can readily cite the delicate porcelains of Mary Rogers, Jacqueline Poncelet and Sheila Fournier.
Geoffrey Edwards, Assistant Curator, Department of Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1977).