A Connection Through a Handmade Object

A large Della Robbia Pottery two-handled vase, circa 1900, probably designed by Charles Collis and decorated by Lizzie Wilkins (broken, altered and repaired).

“There is a delight in being connected with a craftsman or woman through a handmade object”

At the heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against the gloriously rich interiors of the Victorian middle-classes with their machine made objects.

At the forefront of the movement was the financially independent William Morris. He was able to devote himself to art. With a reformer’s zeal he attempted to establish a new style that would restore the maker’s creative role and free them from being just a small part in repetitive manufacturing processes. A romantic socialism shared by William Morris and John Ruskin, it identified the ills of mechanised production but failed to take account of the great benefits which industrialisation brought to society. Morris and Ruskin both saw in Medieval pieces a simple beauty born out of the skilled craftsmen who made them and delighted in the aesthetic connection with the maker.

Charles Eastlake promoted designs which were more severe and emphasised the craftsman’s role in making them with obvious peg jointing and visible handmade nails.

An Edwardian Arts and Crafts oak and pollard oak side cabinet by Shapland & Petter of Barnstaple

Pieces for the domestic market often displayed little or no ornament relying on proportion and simple lines like those you see on the Shapland & Petter of Barnstaple pollard oak side cabinet illustrated. The influence of the Medieval and Art Nouveau can be seen in its large handles and the hinges placed on the outside of the doors. This example sold at Toovey’s for £1200.

Ceramics also went through a fruitful period under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement as craftsman based production allowed labour intensive techniques such as experiments with distinctive lustre-glazes. Earthenware was hand decorated with Persian motifs and flowing, scrolling foliage by craftsmen like William De Morgan in London and the short lived Della Robbia Pottery in Birkenhead which was founded in 1894 by Harold Rathbone. The two vases shown here by William de Morgan and Della Robbia illustrate some of these stylistic qualities and made £850 and £900 respectively.

A William de Morgan pottery vase, circa 1888-1897, of urn form with narrow neck, decorated by Joe Juster with a Persian foliate design

William de Morgan’s lusterware and ‘Persian style’ pottery are recognised as outstanding examples of 19th century design. De Morgan and Morris were friends and their designs complement one another.

The Arts and Crafts style fits well with today’s restrained tastes combining function and beauty. Prices remain strong but accessible and I am looking forward to the specialist sales of Arts and Crafts furniture and Art Pottery at Toovey’s on 5th and 19th November.

After all there is a delight in being connected with a craftsman or woman through a handmade object!

William de Morgan and Ulisse Cantagalli

Cantagalli dish
A rare Cantagalli dish, late 19th century, decorated in coloured enamels after Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. Although broken and glued, the dish was sold at Toovey’s for £5,200
William de Morgan Tile
A William de Morgan tile, late 19th century, decorated with two flowers in the Gillow pattern, and a similar tile, sold at Toovey’s for £320

In the late 19th century the Italian manufacturer Cantagalli reinterpreted earlier Italian Renaissance maiolica pottery. These earthenware pieces found particular favour with English collectors. Perhaps this was in part due to the friendship between Ulisse Cantagalli (1839-1901) and England’s leading pottery designer, William de Morgan (1839-1917).

William de Morgan ruby lustre dish
A William de Morgan ruby lustre dish, late 19th century, sold at Toovey’s for £1,600

Ulisse and his brother Giuseppe produced these pieces from 1878 at their pottery near Florence. They also produced lustre wares inspired by Persian and Hispano-Moresque ceramics. The lustre wares were particularly admired by William de Morgan.

William de Morgan had a formative influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement. He trained at the Royal Academy of Arts. In the early 1860s he was associated with William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He began to produce his famous tiles and pottery in London in 1869. In 1882 he moved his workshop to William Morris’s site at Merton Abbey on the River Wandle in south-west London, staying until 1888, when he left to set up a factory in Fulham.

Cantagalli ruby lustre jug
A Cantagalli ruby lustre jug, late 19th century, sold at Toovey’s for £180

Reacting against the Victorian fashion for 18th century style vases decorated with botanical studies, Chinese designs and the Gothic Revival, de Morgan found inspiration in the Persian and Hispano-Moresque. His tiles and vessels were decorated in lustre or the Persian palette of green, black and turquoise, as shown in the pair of tiles illustrated here. A master of carefully integrated patterns, his designs included animals, fishes, Grecian ships and, as in the case of the illustrated dish, birds and leaves. The subjects of these spirited motifs, although stylized, are clearly recognisable. They are rich in their effect. The Cantagalli ruby lustre jug once again shows the influence of the Persian. From 1892 onwards, William de Morgan spent his winters in Florence and worked with Cantagalli.

The rare late 19th century Cantagalli dish illustrated was decorated after Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence. Depicting the Journey of the Magi, these frescoes were painted on the chapel walls in the hot summer of 1459 and made brilliant by the artist’s use of gold and azure. The scenes provided the opportunity for Gozzoli to paint a pageant of Medici portraits, set in the Tuscan landscape. Cantagalli’s late 19th century interpretation of these paintings is also rich and vibrant in its use of coloured enamels.

How extraordinary that the Cantagalli factory’s fortunes should flourish in England, thanks to the shared inspiration, interests and friendship of two potters and the reputation and work of the Arts and Crafts potter William de Morgan.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 23rd July 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.