"The Allure of Lustre" - Stephen and Caroline Atkinson-Jones

01 Aug 2006

The use of metals to create a lustrous surface on ceramics dates back to the 9th century in Iraq and by the 12th century the technique was being used in Persia. The centres of Deruta and Gubbio in Italy produced marvellous pieces in the 16th century and by the 19th century the famous wares of Sunderland and Swansea were in production in Britain inspiring makers such as William De Morgan and Bernard Moore with their work.

During all this period, the surface of the lustre depended on the metals within the glaze and the extraction of oxygen from the kiln. The whole process is very difficult to control and few potters attempt to use it in their production work. I am in awe of Jonathan Chiswell- Jones, who achieves consistently good results from this process.

During the 1920's new materials inspired designers. It became fashionable to incorporate bakelite, plastics, chrome plating etc into their work. The use of sharkskin, ebony, ivory and exotic woods was being used by Sue et Mare and Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann to great effect. For the first time in history, manufacturers sent their designers to colleges rather than training them in house.

 

Ruby & Gold Lustre Bowl by Stephen and Caroline Atkinson-Jones

Even the ceramics industry, always slow to respond to new ideas, sent staff to the Burslem School of Art. The director, Gordon Forsyth, was an eminent potter and designer and had great vision for the future. His pupils duly returned to the factories and within a few years names such as Clarice Cliffe for Wilkinsons, Susie Cooper for A.E. Grays and Eric Slater for Shelley China all had a great impact on the wares being produced in Stoke on Trent. They too wanted to use new techniques and a new form of Lustre was invented.

This Lustre was applied onto the already glazed surface and relied on Lavender oil to create the localised reduction atmosphere needed for the colours. The shine was created from the glazed surface underneath and soon this process became very popular during the Art Deco and Moderne periods. Other quality factories such as Malling and Carlton followed as did the Wedgwood factory using the skills of Daisy Makeig-Jones. Even Carlotte Rhead designed wares for Burgess & Leigh during this time.

It cannot be emphasised enough that these pots were very beautiful and spectacular. They also sold for large amounts of money and are now, very collectable. However, as with other aspects of design, innovation attracts copiers. I have seen over the years wonderful ideas being copied and losing much of the zest of the idea.

 

Hinged Boxes by Stephen and Caroline Atkinson-Jones

 If we look at fashion, designers such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes have had their ideas copied within hours of appearing on the catwalk. The watered down ideas then appear in the more expensive high street shops and in turn these ideas are copied by the budget shops. The result is that the idea bares little resemblance to the original and has become either ludicrous or bad taste, using awful fabrics with no colour sense.

Exactly the same happened to ceramics in the 1930's and the lustre production moved into the back street potteries who had little design awareness, technical ability or understanding of colour theory resulting in work with the fairground image often referred to when describing lustreware. These wares were often given as prizes or sold in cheap emporiums.

In 1939, the decoration of ceramics was banned by the government due to lack of manpower and unnecessary embellishment during the war years. After 1945, this ban continued into the 1950's and decorated ceramics were produced for export only. The launch of the festival of Britain in 1951 showed new images and decoration from factories such as Midwinter & Ridgeways and suddenly lustreware became very unfashionable.

We have always loved lustres and the colours one can create from this process. We have created our own colour range over the years and have developed many new techniques which rely on multiple firings to produce spectacular results.

 

Small Vases by Stephen and Caroline Atkinson-Jones 

We try to concentrate on simple elegant forms to use as a vehicle for the complicated decorations. The forms are always created using the golden section and logarithmic spiral (skills I learnt whilst studying at the Royal College of Art) to ensure perfect proportions are achieved with each piece.

We believe that good design is the combination of function and aesthetics as one. We fine tune an idea, changing something slightly each time until we cannot push the idea further, either by design or the limitations of the materials used. One has to go through the pain barrier before one can be satisfied that enough has been done, otherwise there is no point in realising the idea.

I can produce good pots and sell them forever, but that is not why we do what we do. There is within us, a burning desire to always push an idea along, always push the materials beyond what is considered safe.

What will happen next? Who knows? First we produced crystalline glazed work, then complicated sculptural forms decorated with engobes, then specialist tableware, now lustreware. I can think of much easier ways to earn a living but non so rewarding as the manipulation and decoration of clay.