Classic! A look at transfer patterns inspired by the ancient world

Ceramic artefacts are some of the most common finds recovered from 19th century Christchurch archaeological sites. Teacups, saucers, plates, dishes, bottles, jars, jugs, chamber pots, wash basins…heaps of objects related to food and drink preparation, consumption and storage as well as hygiene or personal grooming habits. However, today, we’re not talking about forms and functions. We’ll go further…travelling through transfer printed decorations inspired by Neoclassical and Romantic designs.

Once upon a time, until the invention of transfer printing, the coloured decorations on ceramics were applied by hand. The technique of transfer printing, which originated in England in the mid-18th century, allowed potters, for the first time, to mass-produce identical detailed images on ceramic vessels. Blue and white designs dominated the wide world of transferwares, although black, brown, green, grey, purple and red colours were also used in the second half of the 19th century as we’ll see.

A perfect explanation of the invention of transfer printing. Press 10/07/1935

Potteries offered a variety of patterns that reflected social and decorative trends of the time. It was well-known by everybody that the finest ceramic was imported from China. It is not a surprise, then, that Chinese designs were copied or adapted and used as inspiration. In fact, patterns like Asiatic Pheasants and Willow became very popular and they are found on Christchurch sites quite often.

Asiatic Pheasants (left) and Willow (right) plates. These designs are still in use on modern ceramics, confirming their success among consumers. Image: J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

However, the search for more interesting and original decorations began quickly. European scenes based on neoclassical and romantic themes became inspiration for decorative designs in the mid-19th century and were sold as an exotic counterpoint to the similarly popular scenes of British landscape and architecture.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries neoclassicism had infiltrated the arts and historical tradition. Ancient Greece and Rome were the inspiration. Transfer prints and stylistic trends were influenced by archaeological discoveries at ancient cities such as Pompeii, Herculaneum or Athens. Designs were dominated by horizontal and vertical lines and symmetrical proportions reflected the virtues of  antiquity, like harmony, clarity and universality. Ceramic patterns displayed temples, columns, urns, sculptures, draped figures, acanthus leaves and Greek or Roman ruins in an effort to emulate these glorious past civilizations. Neoclassical patterns are relatively common finds on archaeological sites in Christchurch, some more frequently than others.

To be honest, it was difficult to choose just a few patterns to show you today. But, finally, here we are with a selection of some of my favourite neoclassical inspired patterns uncovered on Christchurch sites!

ANTIQUE (left) and ITALIAN (right). Both patterns featured a bunch of antique vases in a central scene. The Greek vases sold to the British Museum by Sir William Hamilton attracted considerable attention over the years and were probably the inspiration for these decorations. Image: J. Garland.

ETRUSCAN was a popular name used for transferware designs showing classical vases and ewers. We know if was popular as several variations have been found in Christchurch, all of which featured a border with the repeating Greek key motif and/or an arrangement of vases in the centre of the scene. Image: J. Garland.

From the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries romanticism arose in Europe as a reaction to modernity, increasing industrialisation and rationality in general, and as a rejection of the neoclassical virtues of order, calm and harmony in particular. This artistic, cultural and intellectual movement played on the emotions, individualism and the glorification of the past and nature. Given the interest in nature, these designs often contained landscape scenes. Romantic imagery is easily identifiable on transferwares because it always follows this formula: water source as a central feature (river, lake), stylised buildings in the distance and small human figures and/or animals to provide sense of scale. Nature is also present through trees, mountains and valleys.

A wide variety of romantic patterns are commonly found on Christchurch sites, but again (sorry for my obsession today!), I chose those inspired by classical themes, which completed the romantic formula that we know with classical buildings, fountains, urns or pillared balconies. Some of these patterns, as you’ll see, were named after historical places or influential figures in the past. Designs were sometimes associated with the name or place, but were sometimes not…

MOREA was the then name of the Peloponnesus, a peninsula in Southern Greece, so-named because it is said to look like a mulberry leaf in shape. The pattern depicted classical ruins with columns close to a river. The scene is framed by flowers and trees. A distant building with towers are visible on the distance. Two people on a path were also represented, one of them walking and the other one riding a horse. Image: J. Garland.

MYCENAE was the center of Mycenaean civilization, the culture which dominated Greece, Aegean islands and the coast of Asia Minor during the late Bronze Age in the II millennium BC and one of the most important archaeological sites of Greece. This example of Mycenae pattern featured an urn with two handles in the centre of the scene decorated with a variety of sculptures and musicians in separated vignettes along with floral and geometric designs. Water, buildings and mountains completed the landscape surrounded by trees. J. Garland.

RAVENNA is an Italian city, which was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The pattern combined a classical garden with a woman’s statue on a pedestal, a balustrade, a vase, a river and again, distant classical buildings and mountains among a cloudy sky. Image: J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

As I mentioned, pattern names occasionally don’t match with the subject portrayed and for me, Sappho is a perfect example. I chose it because of who it refers to…

SAPPHO is a geometric pattern consisting of repeating elements on the border and a medallion in the centre of the vessel. On top right, among the earthenwares offered to consumers, Sappho dinner services were listed as an available pattern in 1863 (Press 5/08/1863: 2). On bottom right, there is a picture of Sappho, who inspired this ceramic decoration. She was a Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos, particularly famous for her love poems. Image: J. Garland and Wikimedia Commons.

Given the topic for the blog today and taking advantage of that, I would like to show you other Romantic patterns based on real or imaginary European themes, referring to Spain and its medieval past. Yes! Here in Christchurch we have found these beautiful vessels…

ANDALUSIA is a region in the South of Spain. This Andalusia patterned plate features Spanish friars or monks, praying in front of a monument. The border has vignettes with alternating sprays, floral and foliage elements. Image: J. Garland.

Sometimes, we find ourselves unable to trace the name of a specific design, although many of the elements may be known and/or resemble other ceramics decorations. For example, although it was impossible to figure out the name of this ceramic pattern, I can’t resist the temptation to suggest an idea…

The pretty chamber pot on top uncovered on Tuam Street features an architecture quite familiar to me. It reminds me of the Alhambra in Granada. And I promise you that it is not a crazy idea! Look the image on right! The name Alhambra means “the red fortress”. Alhambra is one of the most emblematic examples of Islamic architecture in Spain, later completed as a fortress and palace. The place in which the fortress is located has plenty of running water, fountains, cascades and gardens. It was the last bastion of the Moors, who were forced to leave Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Image: J. Garland and The Telegraph.

While Romantic transfer prints based on classical inspirations are relatively popular on 19th century Christchurch sites, those inspired by the Middle Age in Spain are uncommon finds so far. It is likely that Spain was more exotic and unusual for the New Zealand consumers, rather than Greek and Rome revivals.

The presence of these fashionable items within the home, displaying exotic scenes of faraway places, conveyed messages and knowledge of culture and history. Certainly, potters made wares decorated with certain patterns to supply the consumer’s demand. But beyond that, ceramics were a vehicle by which the myths and ideas from these places could travel across the world wherever the vessels were sold. These neoclassic and romantic transfer prints could make people believe that they were intrepid explorers travelling to ancient Europe, through their vessels. The scenes on their plates would become their image of Greece or Rome and Spain, whether or not it was realistic. The symbolic power of transfer prints was also important in the formation of new identities and the emergence of new national ideologies throughout the 19th century, as we discussed in a recent post talking about commemorative designs.

Neoclassical and romantic decorative styles, which inspired both my post today and ceramic makers during the 19th century, had decreased in popularity by the late Victorian era, while the standard Willow and Asiatic Pheasants remained in production for some time. After the decline of neoclassical and romantic designs, patterns with repeating and floral borders became more popular. However, that’s a story for another day!

By Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References

Brooks, A., 2005. An Archaeological Guide to British Ceramics in Australia 1788-1901. The Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology & La Trobe University, Australia.

Coysh, A. W. and Henrywood, R. K., 1982. The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 17801880, Volume I. Antique Collectors’ Club, Suffolk.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/ [Accessed 23 June 2017]

Lucas, G., 2003. Literature and Transfer-Printed Pottery in the Early Nineteenth Century. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 7 (2): 127-143.

Samford, Patricia M., 1997. Response to a market: Dating English underglaze transfer‐printed wares. Historical Archaeology 31 (2): 1‐30.

Transferware Collector’s Club, 2005-2017. [online] Available at:  http://www.transcollectorsclub.org/ [Accessed 23 June 2017].

 

 

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