“Beyond Representation: China’s Influence on European Ceramic Design” by Mary White

Mary White is on the Committee of the English Ceramics Circle.  With her husband Peter, she collects Chinese and European, particularly English, ceramics influenced by the Chinese porcelain that flooded into Europe from the C17 onwards.

 The title of Mary’s talk, “Beyond Representation”, comes from the view of C17 Chinese scholars, that art and artists should strive to adopt the principles and emulate the achievements of the ancient Chinese masters.  Mary focused her talk on the scholar, civil servant, historian, collector and connoisseur Zhou Lianggong (1612-1672), who typifies the collectors and patrons of contemporary artists who stimulated the development of traditional Chinese blue and white porcelain.

 Zhou lived through the turbulent period of the collapse of the Ming dynasty (1644), and its gradual replacement by the Qing.  As an eminent scholar, he reached the highest levels of civil administration, holding extensive responsibilities.  When the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, the foremost centre of ceramics production, were sacked, and imperial orders for pottery collapsed, producers were quick to exploit the emerging market among the wealthy and powerful scholar-administrators.

 Chinese artists traditionally looked to the past for inspiration and guidance.  Patronage of new artists by the scholar-administrator class led to an explosion of manuals such as “The Mustard Seed Garden of Painting”, containing guidance on everything artists should be painting, and how they should represent it.  Mary used the portrait of Zhou to demonstrate the approved iconography of the time:  the harmony of the female Yin (represented by the earth and water) and the male Yang (represented by mountains symbolising heaven and eternity).

 Thus landscapes were the predominant subject of art, with water; mountains dwarfing human figures; contorted, weather-worn rocks (symbolizing change), pine trees (strength, longevity), bamboo (resilience) and prunus blossom (rebirth, new beginnings).  Landscapes frequently included isolated pavilions, often with a lone hermit/scholar seeking solace and contemplation in idealized nature.

 Scholars and their pursuits were also important subjects – generally as participants in the natural scene.  The scholar was frequently pictured at his desk engaged in painting and calligraphy, with ink stones, brushes, brush pots and paper, often with a group of friends, attended by the much smaller figure of a servant.  Poetry, music, chess andtea-drinking, with its extensive paraphernalia and formalities, were important cultural activities.   The scholar was often depicted in a boat, since waterways were often the most convenient way of travelling into the countryside.

 The explosion of manuals like the “Mustard Seed Garden” stimulated production of woodcuts of paintings;  these were used to transfer the images to porcelain. Jingdezhen was a forbidden city to Europeans, to safeguard the secrets of porcelain-making; however through trade between Canton and Europe, orders and commissions increased. Chinese forms and decorations developed from the traditional tiny tea vessels to esoteric items like sugar casters ordered by Europeans, and scenes would include women, birds and figures from western mythology such as Orpheus with his lute.

 Important English producers making early copies of Chinese porcelain were Bow, Bristol, Worcester, Vauxhall, Chelsea, Liverpool and Limehouse, in the mid-C18. European imitators sometimes misunderstood the symbolism and misinterpreted the images:  hermits’ pavilions became churches or houses, and the natural landscape became dominated by human figures. By the late C18 the European taste for a wider range of colours, with Chinese influence perceptible in details within predominantly European scenes.

 Mary illustrated her talk with slides of ancient Chinese paintings, and with examples of both original Chinese porcelain and later European copies.  The enthusiasm with which her talk was received was reflected in the range of questions from the audience, who clearly found the topic very interesting and enjoyable.

“Rene Lalique from Gold to Glass” by Will Farmer



Yet again the annual discovery day proved a popular event, not least because the speaker, Will Farmer, has proved in both his many television appearances and his previous visit to Haywards Heath that he is extremely knowledgeable and hugely entertaining.  This year his topic was “Rene Lalique from Gold to Glass” and was accompanied by an extensive number of photographs of the work described.

The morning session focused on Lalique’s early life as a silversmith and jeweller and how he became a leading light in the evolution of Art Nouveau.

Born in 1860 Lalique left his home in north eastern France and was apprenticed with the goldsmith Louis Aucoc, on the outskirts of Paris.  However in 1878 he left France and enrolled at the Crystal Palace School of Art in Sydenham, because at this time the UK was the centre for progressive artists and designers.

Returning to Paris in 1880 he found that French taste had become less traditional and that interest in innovation was much increased.  As a result his earliest work in wallpaper and fabric design was well received, however he decided to focus on jewellery for the next 30 years.   Initially Lalique worked as a freelance and nameless designer for the top Parisian houses, however having acquired a fully functioning workshop he began direct sales.  His imagination and inventive designs of broaches and decorative hair combs proved very popular with the fashionable ladies of Paris in the late 19th century.  Will showed photos of a wide range of the clever use of ivory, bone and semi-precious stones which elevated Lalique to the top of his profession.  However it was stressed that many of the more exotic pieces were designed to be admired rather than worn, which didn’t always please the critics.  The first major showing of his work was at the 1887 Paris Exposition but under the names of the established houses he worked for.  He subsequently took on additional workshops and built a workforce of 30 skilled workers and 1891 saw his first use of glass.  His reputation soared, particularly when Sarah Bernhardt who by that time was deemed the world’s finest actress became his best client.  He also began to supply Samuel Bing who was deemed the father of the Art Nouveau because of his shop La Maison de L’Art Nouveau.  He was also adopted by Calouste Gulbenkian, the Armenian born English businessman and philanthropist, who became an avid collector.  By 1900 when he first exhibited under his own name at the Paris Exhibition, Lalique was the undisputed leading designer of decorative and creative jewellery.  It is estimated that over 50m people attended the exhibition and Lalique was the star.  Indeed his influence was so great that the “rules” of French jewellery design were changed to include what were referred to as his ‘vulgar’ materials, bone, ivory and glass.

After lunch Will moved on to the area more familiar to the general public, Laliques’ work with glass. While he was already well known for including innovative glass designs and enamels in his jewellery and had designed the glass doors of his new premises in Paris in 1902, it was his work when commissioned by Cote to design perfume bottle labels which really changed his life.  It became quickly apparent that rather than just designing the label it was possible to create a bottle which attracted attention.  This could be deemed the birth of packaging as a marketing tool and he subsequently worked for a number of perfume manufacturers.  Cote subsequently commissioned Lalique to design the doors for the new shop opening in New York which provided a whole new audience and in 1910 Lalique exhibited in Buenos Aires.  In 1911 he closed all his jewellery workshops to concentrate on glass and amongst all the other work being undertaken produced virtually all the glass bottles and medical equipment needed by the French military from 1914-1918.  At the end of the war Lalique opened a 12 acre factory and went into mass production.  Because full lead crystal proved so difficult to work with given the focus on design he worked with both blown and moulded glass.  Between 1920-1930 he designed over 700 vases etc and at its peak the factory was producing 2,000 pieces a day.    At the 1925 Paris Exhibition the work of Lalique was all over the place, with designs for Sevre, bottles for the perfume houses, his own pavilion and the central huge glass fountain.  Sadly everything was disposed of and the fountain dismantled at the end of the exhibition.  Nevertheless his place at the forefront of the Art Deco movement was secured.   Maybe the pinnacle of his success were the illuminated coloured glass columns  which he incorporated when commissioned to design the dining room and ‘grand salon’ of the SS Normandie, at that time the finest new trans-Atlantic liner.  Less well known but equally impressive is the glass work within St Matthew’s church at Millbrook on Jersey.  Will showed a number of photos of both, with the glass font at the church producing the “Ah” moment of the afternoon.

In the early 1930’s Lalique began to design motor car bonnet emblems incorporating electrical diodes which caused them to glow at speed.  These are now as much sought after as all Lalique pieces.  By the end of that decade Lalique employed over 600 at his main factory but the Nazi invasion halted progress and much of the finest work disappeared or was destroyed.  Rene Lalique died in 1945 but the company continues to evolve and produce a wide range of designs both old and new.

Lilique was a master craftsman and designer whose influence on the decorative arts of the late 19th and entire 20th centuries cannot be overestimated and Will Farmer provided a wonderful insight into his subject with the benefit of wonderful illustrations.  He also reminded us that while there are examples of Lalique’s work in all major world museums the finest collection is that of one of his most loyal customers and benefactors in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon.