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Ceramic art has been undervalued for too long

3 April 2021

9:00 AM

3 April 2021

9:00 AM

Ceramic: Art and Civilisation Paul Greenhalgh

Bloomsbury Visual Arts, pp.512, 30

The use of ‘Ceramic’ rather than ‘Ceramics’ in the title of this book indicates Paul Greenhalgh’s passionate belief that ‘ceramic is a thing in itself: a many-headed but nevertheless singular entity, with an on-going intellectual discourse’ which he christens ‘the ceramic continuum’. He believes that this has been ‘actively denied its place as an artistic practice’ and that ‘its exclusion from the canon of art history is squarely to do with money, class and race’.

The book is a prodigious attempt to right that wrong. Ceramic, Greenhalgh says, has been seen as ‘too cheap’ (though the sale of the Qianlong Vase in 2010 for £43 million might change that), is ‘available to the point of vulgarity’, and ‘its formation is bound up with foreign cultures which ruffle nationalist ideology’. While art historians are no doubt a dubious bunch, the charge of nationalism seems curious, given that art history as a discipline was itself introduced to this country from abroad.

Although the author recognises that ceramic is ‘deeply eclectic and plays off the other arts’, the aim of this new history is to justify its individual place in civilisation alongside painting, sculpture and architecture. It takes us from ancient Greece to the wilder shores of Conceptual Art, Post-Modernism and Californian Funk; from the matchless elegance of Greek Black and Red Figure vases to a group of potters in 20th-century Amsterdam who dipped their heads in a bucket of slip and sat together while it dried.


Greenhalgh identifies three types of object — vessel, tile and figurine — which have been in use since prehistory and remain so, in one way or another, to the present day. Four transformational influences in the ‘enormous ocean of objects that is western ceramic’ provide the underlying structure of the book. These are: Classical Antiquity, for its role as the founder of European civilisation; the Islamic world, whose development of tin-glaze to provide a white ground in emulation of Chinese white clay ‘changed everything’ by making brilliant colour possible, and led to the magnificence of Italian Renaissance and Hispano-Moresque pottery; China, which discovered and exported porcelain — a material ‘which emotionally traumatised the world’; and finally the Modern (‘a sense of the Modern in the way ceramic was made and consumed’), whose beginnings he traces from the late 17th century.

Greenhalgh describes the fluctuating status of pots and potters throughout history in connection with the technical development of ceramic as an industry and the emergence of the artist potter. Ceramic has been written about almost since the Bronze Age, apparently, but not consistently accorded great cultural status. Though pots are ‘the portable manifestation of Greek civilisation’, for instance, it is not true that Greeks valued pottery as fine art (they had no word for ‘art’) and 19th-century attempts at identifying individual Greek potters by style are dismissed as ‘anachronistic wishful thinking’.

A hierarchy of art emerged with the growth of art colleges and museums in the 19th century. Greenhalgh records the various attempts since then to raise ceramic to the status of art, the rise of Art Pottery which was countered by claims of ‘function’ as its primary concern. Greenhalgh regards as ‘sentimental’ William Morris’s utopian dreams of a ‘vernacular’ (though he approves of the ‘unaffected proletarian vision’ of Chardin).

The author’s overriding argument for the importance of ceramic is that it has been ‘more bound up in communication and storytelling than virtually any art apart from literature and theatre’. He insists on the almost unbroken narrative function of pots, whose ‘raison d’être was communication’, and convincingly traces it from ancient Greece to Staffordshire figurines and the present day. His idea of the ceramic continuum is vindicated by this indestructible narrative thread, and by the survival of ancient techniques alongside modern technology. Jingdezhen in China (the subject of a poem by Longfellow of 1878) is still going strong after 800 years and distinguished contemporary potters from all over the world go there to work.

Greenhalgh is director of the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia and professor of art history and museum strategy at UEA. He was deputy keeper of ceramic and glass at the V&A, and has held posts in Canada and America. While acknowledging that ceramic is responsible for ‘some of the ugliest objects ever made’, his wide knowledge is accompanied by an uninhibited passion for pots (‘One’s first instinct with a good Roman red-gloss pot is to… lick it all over’) and a ferocious antagonism to promoters of ‘class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists’. His book is full of surprises, provocative, prickly, sometimes humorous — and astonishing value for £30.

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