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