The Wonders of Clay
Frances Palmer explores the wonders of white earthenware, terra-cotta, and high-fire translucent porcelain clay
I read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking- Glass as a child, and I continue to find a reflection of the absurdity of life. In one of my favorite passages from Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that he pays words extra wages for allowing him to get so much good use out of them. In my work, when I feel I have used a clay body to its utmost inherent qualities, I feel I am paying the clay its extra wages.
I work with three commercially sourced clays, primarily: white earthenware, terra-cotta, and high-fire translucent porcelain. Each has its own temperament and range of possibilities. I always tend to take my cues from the material. For example, a cake plate is best made from earthenware, because this low-fire clay accommodates the cantilevered expanse of the plate over the pedestal. It may warp slightly, but its shape remains mostly the same. Porcelain becomes molten at high temperatures, which tends to cause the material to slump. Not ideal for a cake plate. I mostly use porcelain clay for bowls and vases. I often select terra-cotta for garden pots, glazed or unglazed. This porous clay has served this purpose for centuries, but it is also useful for indoor vases and serveware.
White earthenware is a formula originally developed in the mid-1800s in England. It was intended to be an accessibly priced tableware option for middle-class people, in contrast to the expensive, soft-paste porcelain ware manufactured for the upper class. The most famous example of white earthenware was produced in 1779 by Josiah Wedgwood, who named it creamware.
The ceramics of the Omega Workshops, the London art cooperative founded in 1913, were mostly white earthenware with a white tin glaze. The original inspiration for my pottery stemmed from these Omega Workshops. Artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant approached the surface of each piece as if it were a canvas, using ceramic colors painted on the surface of the glaze. After spending time with earthenware, I learned that it had wonderful throwing and assembling qualities. It is happy to be squashed, pulled, and manipulated into multiple directions without complaint. The freedom to experiment is liberating. Earthenware comprises the majority of my orders, and I am continually developing new shapes and finishes. Whenever I draw a complex tulipiere in my notebook and then form it in earthenware, I think back to Humpty Dumpty paying his words extra for doing additional work.
Terra-cotta, or “baked earth,” has been an important material in everyday life for thousands of years. One can follow terra-cotta pottery through just about every civilization to document its presence—and not just in the garden. This sturdy clay is perhaps the most primitive of those that I work with.
Terra-cotta matures at a similar temperature to earthenware, approximately 1950°F (1066°C). However, terra-cotta is not as forgiving as white earthenware clay. If a terra-cotta piece requires assembly, such as attaching a pedestal to the main body, I must watch carefully for the perfect moment of dryness to connect the different parts. Should terra-cotta crack as it dries, it is difficult to repair.
Several years ago, I researched the history of terra-cotta for a lecture I gave to the Manhattan chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society. In the process, I discovered exquisite ancient pieces. One of my favorites is a drinking cup, or skyphos, from Crete that dates from the eleventh to ninth century BC. This flawlessly proportioned cup can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another memorable piece of work stands at the Egyptian gallery at the Met, where a rough ware pot from southern Upper Egypt dating from 3900 to 3750 BC looks so contemporary, it could be sitting in one of our gardens today. The Cycladic civilization produced terra-cotta bowls from 3200 to 2800 BC, which have long served as my models for perfect simplicity of form.
To prepare for my lecture, I remade these ancient pots that I planned to discuss, as a way to understand the shapes more clearly. The forms are so beautiful and I was thrilled to have them represented in the studio. Each time I sit at the wheel I consider the magnificent heritage and continue to appreciate their history.
Terra-cotta pots that are unglazed on the outside and glazed on the inside are a joy to create. This technique allows for the bowls or vases to hold water and still retain their raw outer surface. Happily, these pieces have recently come into fashion, and I’ve been getting more orders for these terra-cotta designs. Most people do not understand the technical challenges of the material. I enjoy and respect terra-cotta enormously, however, and I love working with the clay.
HIGH-FIRE TRANSLUCENT PORCELAIN
The history of translucent porcelain is vast and complex. It mirrors the progress of technical advancement and trade over centuries originating in China and fanning out through Asia, then migrating to Europe.
High-fire translucent porcelain is a bit trickier to work with than earthenware or terra-cotta. Still, I am eager to throw this temperamental clay in order to produce the beautiful, classic celadon and oxblood glazes that are best achieved at high temperatures in the kiln. Unlike with earthenware, I try to play with the porcelain as little as possible after throwing. If a design requires the pot to be constructed in multiple parts and assembled, everything must be made simultaneously. I patiently wait for the right moment, when the clay is at the ideal level of dampness, to bring the pieces together. I try not to put pressure on the rims, and I handle the pots as gently as possible.
The drying process cannot be rushed or the pots will crack. The pots must sit in the studio to dry at their own rate. Then, the porcelain is first bisque fired at a low temperature (about 1650°F/900°C) to facilitate the glazing phase. Once the pots are ready for the glaze firing and carefully placed on the kiln shelves, the real magic begins. In theory, the clay does not need a glaze to seal its surfaces; the high-fire glazes simply add to the beauty of the piece.
The print version of this article appeared with the headline: Clay Has Personality.