A history of pottery and ceramics
For thousands of years, people have created ceramic objects ranging from figures of people, animals and deities to more practical household items for cooking and storing food and plates, bowls and cups to use for eating and drinking. Sometimes crudely made and purely functional, though often finely worked and decorated, ceramics are among the best preserved artefacts from ancient civilisations across the world, providing an insight into how people lived in the past. The distinctive and sometimes iconic ceramic styles that developed in different regions during historic times, has led to them sometimes being used to describe entire cultures. For example in Europe the Beaker culture, dating back between approximately four thousand and five thousand years ago, refers to their pottery drinking cups. Advances in the tools, materials, processes and techniques used to make ceramics, led to the wonderful range of work produced across many civilisations. We are familiar with the beautifully decorated and painted ceramics such as plates, vases and mosaic tiles from ancient Greece, Rome and China, which today form part of museum collections around the world. Often the scenes they depict provide scholars with great insights into the customs and styles of art and dress of these ancient societies.
During the eighteenth century, European potters were inspired by expensive imported Chinese porcelain, to develop a porcelain recipe of their own and following the successful creation of a hard paste porcelain in Dresden at the Meissen factory in 1710, factories were built in a number of European countries. Wedgwood located in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, had already established the importance of Britain as a producer of fine quality pottery on a large scale during the seventeenth century and during the eighteenth century other famous names emerged, including Spode and Royal Crown Derby. Increasingly ownership of fine quality ceramics, once the preserve of the wealthy upper classes, spread to the emerging middle classes and some of the companies established during those years remain in production to this day. Although some of the household names in British ceramics dating back centuries have faced closure in recent years, a number have survived by adapting to the new economic challenges they face and continue to be highly regarded both in the UK and overseas. In Britain during the early years of the twentieth century, studio pottery emerged, which was greatly influenced by the arts and craft movement and the UK continues to produce some of the worlds most talented and creative ceramic artists.
Tools of the pottery and ceramics trade
The wide variety of objects created by potters and ceramic artists are made using a range of tools, equipment and materials. In addition to clay and glazes, there are needles, rollers, knives and wire to shape and cut the clay, as well as items such as sponges and brushes. Larger pieces of equipment include a wedging table, used to condition the clay, before it is placed on the potters wheel to be shaped, when making round ceramics. The most expensive piece of equipment found in a potters studio is the kiln, within which the high temperatures are produced to fire the clay items placed inside them, after they have been shaped into the desired form and dried.
Materials used in pottery and ceramics
There are a number of types of clay, which differ with regards to their mineral content in different geographical regions. This effects characteristics such as how malleable they are and the amount that they shrink due to water loss when they are fired in the kiln, giving rise to some of the regional differences found in ceramics. Also materials can be mixed with clay to achieve particular characteristics in the finished products, such as increased hardness and different colours.
Porcelain is a tough, translucent, shell like material, created by placing clay into a kiln and heating to form ceramic glass and mullite. It is a form of pottery.
Stoneware is a ceramic, fired at high temperatures and usually glazed, which is heavy, hard and can be used for items such as bowls, tea sets, jugs and storage jars.
Earthenware is a material like quartz, kaolin, ball clay and feldspar, used for decorative objects and tableware. It is a type of pottery that fire in such a way that is becomes like glass.
Techniques of pottery and ceramics
The clay used in ceramics is a type of earth, available across the world, which when moist is easy to shape and when exposed to heat becomes hard and waterproof. It can be purchased from craft shops and suppliers, as can a range of tools used to work with clay. This tutorial briefly describes some of the techniques used to create handmade ceramic goods. As you become used to using clay you will begin to get a better feel of ways in which you can use it to produce both practical and ornamental pieces of work.
To create a bowl first push your thumb into a ball of clay and then pinch the walls. By rotating the piece as you pinch it you should be able to produce an even thickness. Create a flat base by gently patting the bottom of the bowl.
Roll clay on a smooth surface, applying even pressure. When you have a number of coils roughly the thickness of a pencil, place them on top of each other. Press the clay together from the inside. Allow the piece to dry slowly to avoid cracking.
Work on a smooth flat surface, covered with cloth or newspaper. Spread out the clay by patting and rolling it to an even thickness. Cut out the bottom and sides of the planned object and leave them to dry for about an hour. Then using a sharp pencil scratch a crosswork pattern where the edges will meet. Bring the edges of the piece together, using clay with a custard like consistency to hold them in place. Using a coil in the corners will increase strength.
It is important to throw the clay into the centre of the wheel. Wet your hands and the clay. Whilst the wheel is spinning, press the clay into the centre. Form an opening in the centre of the clay, keeping the walls even and leaving enough thickness for the base. Use a sponge to remove any water that collect inside the piece. Pull the walls up and continue until they are approximately a quarter of an inch thick. Trim the base and top and by applying gentle pressure, whilst it rotates, narrow or widen the piece to obtain the required shape.
A handle should be strong enough not only to support the weight of a piece to which it is attached but also any contents which it might be used to carry. Shape some clay into a carrot shape and pull it into the correct size and then allow it to dry. Scratch a crosswork pattern on the handle and pot where they will meet and use clay with a custard like consistency to hold them together.
A way to prevent a piece of pottery from cracking as a result of drying to quickly is to place newspaper over it. This allows moisture to escape more slowly. Glazes are liquids which can be applied onto ceramics to provide colour and decoration. and after firing in a kiln they produce a smooth sealed surface.
Tips and tricks of pottery and ceramics
One of the more expensive purchases when setting up your pottery studio is the clay wedging table. However rather than buying one, you could instead build your own. To begin with, make a hard wood frame, approximately five cm deep, with a half inch plywood base. Carefully pour into the frame the pottery plaster, ensuring that it has the correct ratio of water to plaster. Allow time for the plaster to dry properly, which will normally take about two weeks. The wedging table should be securely mounted onto a solid surface, for example by screwing it to a sturdy wooden table or bench which is approximately one metre high, so as to provide a working surface that is both reliable and at a comfortable height. You might also like to have storage space underneath.
Ideas and inspiration for pottery and ceramics
If you are looking for creative inspiration and want to see examples of the range and quality of contemporary UK ceramics and pottery we have many talented artists and makers showing examples of their work on their listing pages. You could also visit our Local crafts pages where we have highlighted some of the arts and crafts visitor attractions across the UK, including some which have displays of ceramic work. Among the best known and most popular places to visit in the UK for those wanting to see examples of ceramics from over the centuries are the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington London, which houses what is considered to be the most important ceramics collection in the world and the Wedgwood Museum in Stoke-on-Trent Staffordshire, whose ceramic collection was saved for the nation in late 2014 and is recognised by Unesco as being among the most important parts of the cultural heritage of the United Kingdom.