Pottery is among the oldest crafts known to mankind, one that through time has flowered into an art form. Besides pottery’s utilitarian purposes, many types of fine pottery are sought after as antiques and collectables.
A brief history
Pottery originally served to store and transport water in the Neolithic era, when nomadic hunter-gatherers in Africa and the Middle East began settling down and practising agriculture. These were simple, hand shaped pots, fired in a primitive kiln, a hole in the ground beneath a bonfire.
The invention of the potter’s wheel was a technological leap. Bronze Age potters (circa 3000 B.C) used a slow wheel, a platform that let them move pots while working. A century later came the fast wheel that spun on its axle, allowing the potter to draw out pots from lumps of clay, a vastly speedier process.
Over time, these basic methods grew more refined and efficient. Potters from different cultures added decorative processes to pottery, transforming this humble craft into an art.
Several pottery shaping techniques have developed over time:
Hand-building is the oldest method of shaping pottery in which earthenware is shaped by hand or thrown on a potter’s wheel. Granulate pressing involves pressing partly dry, granular clay into a mould. This is typically used to make ceramic tiles and plates. Injection moulding is used to manufacture tableware and is ideal for producing difficult shapes such as cups. Jiggering and jolleying is an 18th century technique used respectively to produce flatware (plates, for example) and hollow-ware (cups).
Earthenware is the most common type of pottery. Reddish brown earthenware, familiarly known as terracotta, is used to make plant pots. It is inexpensive and can be made waterproof with glazing.
Stoneware is hardier, being fired at higher temperatures. It is more opaque and typically comes in muted tones of grey-brown.
Porcelain, made with kaolin (a white clay), was first developed in ancient China and is valued for its lustre and delicate looks.
Pottery is decorated with varied techniques, etching designs, glazing, burnishing and adding colourants. Additives impart different textures to pottery.
Wedgwood and Coalport are internationally renowned pottery manufacturers. The Adams family were famous potters from 18th century England, whose designs are now recreated by Wedgwood. Native American potter Maria Martinez popularised traditional Pueblo-style pottery. Tatsuzo Shimaoka from Japan was famed for his innovations on traditional Japanese styles.
Trademarks etched on the bottom of pottery items are used to identify their creator, date of manufacture and place of origin. Books on pottery trademarks help collectors hunting for rare and valuable pottery collectables.