During the second half of the nineteenth century the British ceramics factory Minton enlisted the talents of many gifted designers and artisans to produce works in a range of ceramic bodies of great technical virtuosity and innovative design. Among the outstanding ceramic artists lured to Minton was Marc-Louis-Emmanuel Solon, a former principal designer and decorator at the Sèvres factory in France. Solon commenced working at Sèvres in 1862 where, among other things, he perfected the technique of pâte-sur-pâte, the form of decoration upon which his reputation is founded. Pâte-sur-pâte is a laborious ceramic decorating technique in which translucent layers of slip (diluted clay) are applied to the ceramic body. Each layer is allowed to dry before the next one is applied and slowly the design is built up. The finished work is fired and glazed, resulting in a surface reminiscent of cameo.
Solon exhibited ceramics at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 and Colin Minton Campbell of Minton’s bought some of his work that year. This was probably when the two men first met. In 1870 Solon left France because of the Franco-Prussian War and settled in Britain. He joined Minton in October that year, remaining with the firm until he retired in 1904. Solon became one of the firm’s most prominent artists, noted for his work in pâte-sur-pâte and training several artists in the technique.
Following the astonishing success of the 1851 and 1862 London International exhibitions, the commissioners of the Great Exhibition of 1851 inaugurated a series of annual International exhibitions, the first of which was held in 1871. Minton exhibited to high praise. One area singled out for improvement, however, was the firm’s pâte-sur-pâte. The Art-Journal Catalogue of the International Exhibition (1871, pp. 47–8) noted that although the examples are ‘generally very bold and effective … they are certainly wanting in that delicate gradation in the shadows which characterise the very best examples of our neighbours the French’. Two vases by Solon were illustrated in the 1871 Art-Journal Catalogue with the caption observing that it was a fortunate circumstance that Minton & Co. were able to secure the services of M. Solon’ (p. 75).
For the Second Annual International Exhibition of 1872 Solon created a tour de force in pâte–sur- pâte. He produced a clock garniture of three vases decorated with allegorical figures of time. The central vase forms the clock. Flanking the dial are representations of the past, looking backwards, and the future, looking forwards. The dial represents the present and is decorated with figures personifying the hours. The side vases are decorated with representations of night, in a starry sky with a crescent moon, and day, in a sunburst of light. Although such objects were designed for mantelpieces, the backs of the side vases are also decorated, each with a different trophy ornament.
The Clock garniture was one of the 1872 Exhibition highlights and accorded a full-page engraved illustration in the Art-Journal Catalogue (p. 6). The accompanying text described them as ‘graceful in form, but their merit principally consists in the ornamentation’. The centre of the clock face was never pierced to fit the hands and a clock mechanism was never fitted since the garniture was probably intended purely as an exhibition piece for display; however, the price charged by the London china dealer Thomas Goode to cover the 250 guineas paid for the garniture may also have deterred any buyers.
Christopher Menz, Senior Curator of Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).