An­tique vases

An­tiques Road­show ex­pert Marc Al­lum charts the his­tory of the hum­ble vase from An­cient Greek de­sign to Arts and Crafts

Period Living - - Contents -

When is a vase not a vase? It’s not a fre­quently asked ques­tion but it is one, once mooted, that gives you am­ple food for thought. It’s also a ques­tion that cen­tres around why ob­jects are fash­ioned in the first place and what func­tion they re­ally serve. The word ‘vase’ is used to de­scribe all man­ner of ves­sels – glass, ce­ramic, stone, me­tal or a mix­ture of medi­ums; a gen­eral ‘catch-all’ word for some­thing that might be used to hold a flower ar­range­ment or ex­ists purely for dec­o­ra­tive pur­poses. In­ter­est­ingly, peo­ple of­ten find it quite hard to ac­cept that ob­jects don’t serve a par­tic­u­lar func­tion and that their job is quite sim­ply to look pretty. It’s a conversation I’ve of­ten had on my table at An­tiques Road­show. Yet con­versely, as with many ob­jects, a vase can dis­guise a wealth of mean­ing in its pro­duc­tion his­tory, de­sign and dec­o­ra­tion. This in turn can be po­lit­i­cally in­spired or skill based, with ex­am­ples of su­perla­tively ex­e­cuted items em­pha­sis­ing a tour de force in terms of their crafts­man­ship and tech­ni­cal execution, or in­ter­pre­ta­tive rea­sons as to the form of their dec­o­ra­tion, such as com­mem­o­ra­tive vases.

His­tor­i­cally, the vase is an an­cient con­cept. It’s a ubiq­ui­tous ob­ject of vary­ing form found glob­ally and across all cul­tures and epochs. And, of course, is epit­o­mised by the idea of the highly stylised and painted Greek vase, which in­ci­den­tally is of­ten not a vase at all but a con­tainer for wine, oils and unguents. Many Greek ‘vase’ shapes, such as the lekythos, have sub­se­quently found their way into a time­less de­sign aes­thetic, con­stantly rein­vented through­out his­tory. I have in my own col­lec­tion an 18th-cen­tury Wedg­wood black basalt vase based on a lebes gamikos, or rit­ual Greek vase, copied from an orig­i­nal an­cient de­sign from the col­lec­tion of Sir William Hamil­ton. It is an ob­ject that bridges his­tory in more ways than one and is a per­fect il­lus­tra­tion ➤

of his­tor­i­cally per­pet­u­ated in­flu­ence and style.

A few vases have very spe­cific uses: a cel­ery vase, for in­stance, or a delft tulip vase im­me­di­ately springs to mind with its un­usual form of mul­ti­ple trum­pets in which the bulbs are placed. In fact, I’ve con­ducted thou­sands of val­u­a­tions over the decades and many have taken place in houses of some stature. Ex­pe­ri­ence has shown that in­ter­est­ing ob­jects some­times re­side in the odd­est places, and I have al­ways been in­trigued by the flower ar­rang­ing room or ‘vase’ room that you some­times find in older prop­er­ties. It’s in such cir­cum­stances that I have sourced quite a few gems, in­clud­ing bulb vases, hy­acinth vases, fan­ci­ful Ital­ian ma­jolica vases and Art Deco ex­am­ples.

It’s not sur­pris­ing that the vase has be­come a ve­hi­cle for de­sign­ers and artists alike. Sev­eral im­me­di­ately spring to mind but none more so than Clarice Cliff. Al­though I’m not a fan of her prod­ucts it’s not dif­fi­cult to see how her play­ful use of bold, gar­ish de­signs, un­usual ce­ramic shapes and bright colours cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of the pub­lic and, sub­se­quently, the wal­lets of se­ri­ous col­lec­tors. Her Bizarre and Fan­tasque ranges of­fered a va­ri­ety of pat­terns and de­signs that have come to epit­o­mise the Jazz Age.

Per­son­ally, I find the chal­leng­ing cre­ations of the 19th-cen­tury de­signer Christo­pher Dresser far more in­trigu­ing. His use of dif­fer­ent cul­tural and his­toric in­flu­ences, par­tic­u­larly in his ce­ramic works, bor­rowed from an­cient South Amer­ica, Per­sia and the Ori­ent, have given us a va­ri­ety of vases of as­tound­ing di­ver­sity and de­sign in­tegrity, rang­ing from those with a ba­sic art pot­tery phi­los­o­phy to com­pli­cated Aes­thetic pe­riod pieces. Other de­signs in glass and, most fa­mously, me­tal, were also ground-break­ing both in their phi­los­o­phy and their man­u­fac­ture, al­though his met­al­ware tends to be more func­tion spe­cific, such as let­ter racks and teapots. But like many

‘art pot­ters’, Dresser rooted his in­ter­est in his­tory and de­sign to ex­plore the tech­ni­cal as­pects of push­ing pro­duc­tion bound­aries and ma­te­ri­als.

Just as we strove to un­lock the mys­ter­ies of Chi­nese porce­lain in the 18th cen­tury and to sub­se­quently mimic the beauty and com­plex­ity of Chi­nese vases and ce­ram­ics from their many dy­nas­ties, we too have favoured the very best ex­am­ples of such ori­en­tal mas­ter­pieces only to see this come full-cir­cle and in­ad­ver­tently fuel the cur­rent ‘buy-back’ by newly wealthy Chi­nese col­lec­tors. Who would have thought that I would be han­dling Chi­nese porce­lain vases that are now val­ued in the mil­lions?

Mod­ern artists and pot­ters con­tinue to ex­plore and ex­ploit the idea of the vase as a medium for con­vey­ing ground-break­ing de­signs and more com­pli­cated mes­sages – Bernard Leach, Lu­cie Rie and Hans Coper, to name but a few. But it is Grayson Perry who ar­guably has taken the no­tion of the vase to a new height – as a method of con­vey­ing strong state­ments on pol­i­tics and so­cial is­sues. His wit and so­cially rel­e­vant ob­ser­va­tions seem right for the cur­rent mood. Match­ing Pair, a large duo of vases based on pub­li­cally can­vassed no­tions of what ‘leave’ or ‘re­main’ meant to them, are a per­fect il­lus­tra­tion of how a na­tional is­sue such as Brexit can be man­i­fested in some­thing both as sim­ple and yet com­pli­cated as a

ves­sel. One of my great­est re­grets is not buy­ing one of his early vases. Con­versely, our ev­ery­day con­cep­tion of what a vase is used for - ar­rang­ing flow­ers – went through a mini rev­o­lu­tion in the 1930s, largely brought about by Con­stance Spry. As a flo­ral de­signer in the 1920s, she chal­lenged the con­ven­tional wis­dom of flower ar­rangers and ex­per­i­mented with ma­te­ri­als that would of­ten be dis­carded, such as grasses and even veg­eta­bles. Out went the stiff wire-sup­ported ar­range­ments of the es­tab­lish­ment and in came mix­tures of kale and red roses. Her win­dow ar­range­ments in cen­tral Lon­don were renowned for stop­ping the traf­fic. Con­se­quently her fame pre­ceded her and her client base ex­tended to the up­per ech­e­lons of so­ci­ety; she even ar­ranged some of the flow­ers for the Queen’s Coro­na­tion. The point, how­ever, is that she de­signed her own range of trade­mark Ful­ham Pot­tery twin-han­dled vases. These have be­come col­lectable and reg­u­larly change hands in ex­cess of £100 each. With few bound­aries to dictate the rea­sons why a vase might be ei­ther me­tal or ce­ramic, save its dura­bil­ity and its abil­ity to hold wa­ter, the va­ri­ety of pos­si­ble de­signs is end­less.

The fa­mous art pot­ters Moor­croft, renowned for their intricate tube­lined pieces and of­ten ethe­real look­ing de­signs, were driven by the skill and in­ven­tive­ness of William and Wal­ter Moor­croft, par­tic­u­larly in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Their re­la­tion­ship with Lib­erty, the trend-set­ting Lon­don store, gave them fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity and a premium show­case for their now highly col­lectable vases and other ce­ram­ics.

Art Nou­veau de­signs in plated pewter by the fa­mous Ger­man man­u­fac­turer WMF ex­plore the sin­u­ous com­plex­ity of the pe­riod, of­ten with glass lin­ers. Archibald Knox’s de­signs, again for Lib­erty, also used pewter and sil­ver, of­ten with enamel ap­pliques to ef­fort­lessly blend the styles of Arts and Crafts and Art Nou­veau in a very Bri­tish and some­what Celtic tran­si­tion of taste. Whereas the de­signs of WMF have tended to be­come less fash­ion­able with a com­men­su­rate fall in prices, the Knox de­signs have main­tained a good po­si­tion in the mar­ket place. A pair of dis­tinc­tive Tu­dric pewter ‘Bomb’ vases will likely cost you around £300–400 at auc­tion. In re­al­ity, the con­cept of col­lect­ing ‘vases’ is a com­pli­cated one, mainly due to the sheer enor­mity of the field, yet many col­lec­tors spe­cialise in a genre and per­haps a par­tic­u­lar maker, such as Wedg­wood. How­ever, one thing is cer­tain: most of us will have more than one.

Above right: Grace, hand-cut, painted and gilded vase de­sign from 1880. Painted by Jan Ja­necký as a lim­ited edi­tion of 50 pieces, this is an orig­i­nal shape and painted dec­o­ra­tion that Lud­wig Moser de­vel­oped ar­tis­ti­cally in this pe­riod

Right: Smoked glass vase with enamel dec­o­ra­tions, c.1890, by Émile Gallé, France

Above: Barovier Art Glass, Mu­rano, Italy 1916-1918

Above: These ‘Yo-yo’ vases by Clarice Cliff date from around 1930. Amassed by oil­man Sevi Gu­atelli, they rep­re­sent the finest sin­gle owner col­lec­tion of Clarice Cliff ce­ram­ics to come on to the mar­ket

From left to right: An­cient Greek vase; hexag­o­nal bot­tle-shaped porce­lain vase with court scenes, flow­ers, fruits and but­ter­flies, from Can­ton, China, Qing dy­nasty, 19th cen­tury; Ja­panese vase from the Meiji pe­riod

From left: Con­stance Spry in her flower shop, June 1947; Dame Lu­cie Rie, 1988; Bernard Leach with a ret­ro­spec­tive of his work; Artist Grayson Perry and his vase en­ti­tled ‘Bad Por­traits of Es­tab­lish­ment Fig­ures’, 2012

Clock­wise from left: Dec­o­rated ce­ramic blue vase, by Christo­pher Dresser, Min­ton man­u­fac­ture, Eng­land, 19th cen­tury; Mur­rine vase made by the Toso broth­ers, Italy, 1910; White ori­en­tal blos­som vase; William de Mor­gan, 18391917; cop­per lus­tre vase at...

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