Throughout the nineteenth century the Minton ceramic manufactory in Stoke-on-Trent, Stafford-shire, England, was at the forefront of taste and innovation. Its founders Thomas Minton, his son Herbert and Herbert’s nephew Colin Minton Campbell recognised the significance of developments in design and technology, and had the foresight to perceive design as a route to commercial success. Britain’s extensive trade networks during the early nineteenth century prompted a taste for exotic pottery that soon became the focus of collectors and, by extension, manufacturers. Designers and manufacturers were exposed to a plethora of new artistic models from China, India, Japan, Persia, Egypt and Greece, sparking a virtual china mania in Britain throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.
Herbert Minton and Colin Minton Campbell were avid collectors of English, Continental and Oriental porcelain. Their enthusiasm for good design and interest in historical precedents led to the formation of a study collection, housed at the factory, which was consulted by the Minton artists as a source for some of the factory’s eclectic designs. They also enlisted the talents of many gifted designers and modellers to produce works of great technical virtuosity and innovative design.
Among the outstanding ceramic artists lured to Minton was Louis-Marc-Emmanuel Solon, a former principal designer and decorator at the Sèvres manufactory in France. Solon perfected the technique of pâte-sur-pâte at Sèvres before moving to Britain in 1870 as a result of the Franco-Prussian War. He joined Minton in October that year and became noted for his work in pâte-sur-pâte, also training several artists in the technique, including Charles Toft (senior). Pâte-sur-pâte is a laborious ceramic decorating technique in which translucent layers of slip (diluted clay) are applied to the ceramic body. The decoration is built up slowly, with each layer allowed to dry before the next one is applied. The finished work is fired and glazed, resulting in a surface reminiscent of cameo.
Toft had been working at the Minton factory perfecting the intricate technique of Saint-Porchaire wares before working with Solon on pâte-sur-pâte production. He was a highly respected designer and modeller at Minton, who, according to a fellow modeller ‘was entrusted with all the potting that required special skill or care’. A craftsman of singular ability, Toft is known to have produced a range of vases, many of them decorated with an Islamic aesthetic and which he signed C. TOFT, as on the National Gallery of Victoria’s vase.
The Gallery’s vase, shape number 1472 in the Minton archive, is the epitome of Minton’s later nineteenth-century productions which embraced a range of exotic influences. The flattened shell shape is set on an integral fretwork stand in the Chinese manner, enamelled in dark brown to resemble gilt-wood. The pale, mauve-grey ground of the body is decorated in the pâte-sur-pâte technique with a vase of lotus flowers on one side and chrysanthemums on the other. The neck is painted with a mauve, dark brown and gilt fretwork design resembling Chinese cloisonné enamel decoration.
The strong Oriental influences in the design and decoration of this vase – its Persian-inspired form, pseudo-Chinese fretwork, cloisonné enamel work and Japanese-inspired floral designs – suggest that Toft may have been influenced by the designer Christopher Dresser. An example of this ‘Persian bottle’ form was decorated by Dresser with pseudo-cloisonné enamel decoration in 1869.
Amanda Dunsmore, Surator, Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2013).