Sunday, December 03, 2006

Dragons

The classroom bit... There has long been a fascination in the West for all things "Oriental" and this desire has been played out in many fields. The idea of 'the Orient' is usually as a mystical, colourful, sensual, ritualistic place, spanning from the Middle East with the pyramids in Egypt to the Far East of Asia and the temples of Japan. Our society seems to hold an interest in all things "other" and Orientalism was an artistic tradition that utilised the aesthetic traditions and motifs of those far off foreign lands to fulfill a European need for fantasy. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was almost unheard of for anyone but merchants to make the perilous journey to Asia. Traditional Blue & White pottery and earthenwares were brought back to Europe in huge quantities to satisfy popular demand. Native British potteries, mainly in the Staffordshire region then decided to cut out the middle men and started to produce their own oriental style wares and so began the rise and rise of well known names like Bow, Worcester and Caughley. For the Victorians and then the Edwardians, the Far East had become a place where more and more people could travel and souvenir wares flooded the nations homes. There was another surge in oriental inspired design in homegrown European art and crafts. The Aesthetic movement drew heavily upon Japanese design and the phrase "Japonism" is often used to describe pieces of this time and type. Design motifs like fans, freizes, cherry blossoms, water lilies, finches and dragons were applied to all sorts of things from wardrobes to tea sets. For pottery and porcelain, oriental inspired design had begun two centuries earlier with what is now called 'Chinoiserie'. The fashion for Chinoiserie design has come and gone several times over the past few centuries and in various incarnations and it found popularity once again in the deco period of the 1920s/30s. Artists and artisans have often used loosely oriental looking scenes - sometimes direct copies of Chinese or Japanese originals, or more frequently, fantasies based on oriental motifs such as: pagodas, fences, chrysanthemums and people with pointy hats carrying parasols. In the original Chinese and Japanese designs, these motifs were used like a language and often symbolised ideas that the people who saw them would recognise and be able to interpret, much like religious symbolism in early Western art. The visual symbolistic language of the originals was lost in translation however when it was copied and ammended towards western tastes. Powell Bishop & Stonier began their association with oriental inspired design with their Aesthetic movement pieces in the late 1870s and 1880s. Their 'Oriental Ivory' range utilised familiar western interpretations of oriental design such as those already mentioned. On an ivory coloured base, they applied numerous chinoiserie/japonism/aesthetic designs, often using a transfer print, coloured enamels and gilding. Victorian design is often labelled as heavy, clunky and OTT in it's application, but the Aesthetic movement and simultaneously, the Arts & Crafts movement began to lighten the mood and gave design, room to breath. Mid-Victorian design often filled every available inch of space with pattern and colour, but as the century progressed, we can see a trend towards more roomy compositions, often assymetrical. Fans, frames and freizes were strong structural devices that sat next to organic foliate designs. This juxtaposition is perhaps the Aesthetic movement's most obvious signature style. When Art Deco came along, assymetry seemed to fall out of favour to more symmetrical and geometric design. Some potteries took this change on board more easily than others and perhaps it was something to do with this that Bishop & Stonier finally found that the wolf at their door would not go away and the company was bought out by George Jones (although they continued to use the Bisto trademark). Interestingly, George Jones had produced many similar wares to Bishop & Stonier for many years, but they seemed to be able to adapt more easily to the more angular, jazzy styles that started to infiltrate the market from the 1930s onwards and ultimately saw designers like Clarice Cliff and Charlotte Rhead take centre stage.
My collection... I have several pieces in my Powell / Bishop & Stonier collection that have oriental-type designs. Some of my Oriental Ivory pieces I have already discussed in a previous post but as discussed, the oriental theme was re-interpreted in the 20th century in Art Deco designs. One example of this is a baluster vase which has a freize of dragons and oriental wheels, banded by a Greek key design. Below the freize are fruit and flower vignettes on a ground colour of black. Black seemed to be a popular colour for Art Deco design because of it's strong graphic quality which drew attention to form and individual motifs. When described like this, it appears to be rather a mish-max of design ideas and indeed, it is not to everyones taste.
Another Bisto piece in my collection is a globe shaped vase which again has black ground and a large green and red dragon winds its way around the entire body. It crys out to be handled and turned around in your hands so that your eyes can trace the design. I have another vase of exactly the same body shape, again with a black background, but this time with pastel coloured flower heads; the flowers are transfer printed and individually hand-painted in enamels. Although this vase again is not to even's taste, it does have an integrity to the design. It's almost an Art Deco interpretation of Chintz.
Some patterns were so popular (notably the 'Willow pattern') that they were used for absolutely everything and in so many variations that they are almost iconic; the Blue & White Willow pattern has come to represent a certain type of Englishness and English style found on countless pine dressers across the land. The Indian Tree pattern was another extremely popular pattern that many potteries used. One chinoiserie design that Bishop & Stonier used was the so-called Tea House pattern which showed two japanes figures standing outside a house whilst another figure looks out from a window. Cherry blossom, or prunus trees frame the scene. The benefit of using and re-using patterns was that for customers who could not afford to buy a whole dinner service in one go, they could keep going back to a retailer to build up their collection.
I have a couple of items in my collection that use the Tea House pattern, but have different colour variations. Most recently I acquired a large and splendid coffeepot, which is part of the Oriental Ivory range. The pattern is in a pinky red and turquoise type blue colouring, with gilded highlights. The body shape is quite plain and tends towards the Art Deco, but the pattern design is hinting back to Victorian Chinoiserie tastes. The design and colour of this piece fits very well in a 21st century modern home, and the turquoise colour is very "now". I have a dinner plate with the same pattern, but the pottery body colour is whiter than the ivory coffeepot.
Another piece in my collection, is a side plate, with a spiral ribbed design. This time the pattern is in a iron red and green colouration, again with gilding.

About Me

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Sometimes, life doesn't turn out the way you expected. And sometimes, it is exactly as it was 'meant' to be. But whilst i'm not a believer in fate or fatalism, I do believe that life is a both a learning experience and an obstacle course to be climbed and clambered over in the most creative way possible! In doing so, you'll get to where you should be even if it's not where you'd imagined.
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