Recently the work of one of the most remarkable craftsmen has become sought after again. The appreciation of his work has never wained in the eyes of those who understand the art of the ceramist but here in England we have for so long concentrated on some of the work of rather average makers such as Susie Cooper and Charlotte Rhead. And of course Clarrice Cliff. Though Charlotte Rhead came from an illustrious family of ceramists. The Rheads were indeed a skilled bunch. But there is not many who can compare to the legacy that is left behind by Theodore Deck. (1823-1891)
What he did was de-industrialise the art of the potter running a workshop with around a score of craftsmen. He was inspired by the middle east and his Persian Ware is indeed now highly valued. It may not be clear as to the influence ha had on British ceramics but I see similarities with some of Burmantofts and by far the most important company in the style of the middle East Mintons.
Deck wrote a book called “La Faience”. I must get a copy of this book as I am informed by Peter Hyland that there is detailed technical information.
As a ceramist myself I have a thirst for the information that potters have or did have in the past. I suck this knowledge up, but the skill in interpreting the techniques are a different matter and trial and error is something that I have learned to take with a rather large dose of patience. Having glaze recipes is only half of it.
Josiah Wedgwood was a chemist first and foremost.
Deck's book La Fiaence was read by some of the best Louis Solon who began at Sevre before moving across the channel to Mintons, admired his writings.
Fiance the word derives from the town of Faenza in Northern Italy but Deck thought the word to be clouding the real historical sense of the fact thet the Persians were making fiaence long before the Italians. We now see some of this Persian ware was indeed Turkish, a style now called Iznik. Any type of earthenware decorated with an enamel or coloured glaze was accepted as Fiaence at the time
Deck was born in Guebwiller in the Alsace region of France. This was about 12 miles north-west of Mulhouse at the foot of the Vosges mountains. Mulhouse is the town where Christopher Dresser died. He will always be known for his designs for Mintons. His father Richard was a silk dyer. At secondary school near Belfort Theodore showed a particular love of chemistry. At 17 in 1840 he was forced to return home to Guebwiller to continue the family silk dyeing business along with his brother Xavier.
It didn't work out and he left for Strasbourg where he became a stove-makers apprentice.
Cast Iron stoves covered in ceramic tiles were commonplace in France and Germany. In the crowded marketplace the need to make something functional stand out was paramount to selling ones wares. He learned from his mentor Hugelin the art of using different coloured clays to inlay tiles. This style was kown as Saint Porchaire.
He was not to be kept still in the evenings he studied sculpture with Andre Friedrich.
He recalled how he had been fascinated by a painted terracotta figure he had seen on a school trip to Switzerland and when he asked who made it he was told “A potter”.
He must have liked the sound of this.
He went on his own in 1844 at the age of 21. The art of the stove maker was to travel and show off his work and he was noticed by manufactures who wished to employ him as he travelled through Germany learning local skills and styles along the way.
He made his way to Vienna where he made large stoves to for the Palace of Schonbrunn. He then went on to Budapest, Prague, even Berlin.
In 1847 he returned to France and began to work for Madame Vogt one of the leading stove makers. In 1848 work stopped at the factory when the Second Republic began. He retrned to Guebwiller and set up a small atelier to make vases and decorative objects, oh and stoves. It didnt work out too well for him and in 1851 he returned to Paris where Loius Napoleon had quietened down the unrest.
Madame Vogt's daughter Madame Dumas was his next employer where Deck became foreman. The Exposition Universalle of 1855 saw the Dumas factory exhibiting mosaic tile panels in many colours.
Mintons also exhibited that year with their “earthenwares and stonewares enamelled or glazed majolica. Deck would have seen these. He may also have found out that Minton had been developing low coloured glazes applied to earthenware body creating their majolica. Herbert Minton had seen Palissy ware on a visit to Rouen in 1849. Leon Arnoux had joined Minton in 1849 and became Art Director.
In 1856 he ventured out again with the help of his brother Xavier set up a new atelier at 20, rue Fontaine-au-Roi relocating to Boulevard Saint Jaques eventually moving from stove facings to ornamental ceramics and figures.
Had that school trip stayed with him all these years.
The Henry Deux had been mastered by Deck during his training and it was re-adopted.
The style was based on 16th century book binding designs. The potter Avisseau also reproduced this style that was taken up in the 1860's by Charles Toft at Minton.
He showed his creations at the 1861 Salon des Arts et Industries of 1861 and then the London International Exhibition of 1861. He displayed a copy of a 107cm high piece that was known to be in the Alhambra Palace in Spain before 1400. This vase is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, acquired shortly after.
He was now firmly rooted in the middle east for his inspiration. Publications were now being made available showing drawings of Islamaic decorative stylles.
Recuil de dessins pour l'art et l'industrie by Orientalist Adalbert de Beaumont it was reissued 20 years later in 1859.
Owen Jones Grammar of Ornament would have been available to him in Paris.
It had reproductions of Arabian decoration and design.
The 1862 Exhibition saw him well received.
After moving rue de Vaugirirard in Paris.
1867 saw the more experienced Deck show off his technical quality that had been improving all the time.
He now employed trained Paris Salon artistes we in Britain would be less familiar with these artistes such as Jean Louis Hamon and Joseph-Victor Ranvier who painted in a Neo-Grec style. Ranvier would become his chief artist.
Felix Braquemond had worked for Criel Sevres and Haviland.
The artistic director of Christophle & Cie known for their gold and silver work, Emile Reiber supplied Deck with various shapes.
Proceeds from a piece of “collaboration” was always divided equally between Deck and the artist. Solon called this an “unprecidented collaboration.”
Solon published The History and description of Old French Faience in 1903.
In it he accounts Deck tells us the conditions were far from a sweatshop but were most ideal. He says the gatherings of artists of the Bohemian persuasion all gathered anxious to see the results of the last firing.
The V&A acquired several more objects and his reputation was growing wildly. His work often showed semi-clad nymphs some of which show a foretaste of W. S Coleman's work for Minton.
It is not known if the artists influenced each other but Colin Minton Campbell Director of Minton appointed Coleman in 1871 and was known to admire Deck's work.
Mintons were exhibitors in the 1867 Paris Exhibition and he purchased some of Deck's work, for his own collection.
He was offered the chance to half share (without any capital) in a pottery he planned to build....in Leeds.
Deck preferred to stay in Paris and declined.
Could this wealthy industrialist be John Holroyd who in 1863 bought the firm of Wilcox & Co Sanitary Ware near Leeds and in 1870 expanded the factory to trade as Burmantofts Pottery.
Burmantofts came close to Decks Persian ware it is an interesting thought what might have been.
He continued to experiment some of his shapes were now becoming Chinese in inspiration with naturalistic designs on white ground. His move into high fired porcelain in 1868 became cost pro-hibitive and were discontinued.
Deck stood in Municipal elections in Paris just after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War which saw the siege of Paris. Armistice was signed in 1871 but at this time Alsace was taken over by Prussia. He decided to stay French as many Alsatians did.
In 1873 he scored notable success in Vienna being awarded Medalion d'Honnneur.
This is when Edmond Lachenal was mentioned prominantly on his stand.
Edmond would go on to found his own factory. His son Roaul would continue his work through the 30's into a more geometric style.
Deck now had a shop close to the Grande Opera on Rue Halevy.
So it was the period we now call Aesthetic Movement that saw a seed change in styles and inspiration came from all over the world not just the middle east and new artists and industrialists were always looking to exploit the prevailing taste. This melting pot of design was being formed and it is easy to look back now and talk about it in sequence, but at the time a movement was in force that could not be stopped and wealth was available to purchase. History was, literally being made.
It was said in contemporary account published in the Pottery Gazette that his pottery “stands tranquil and as silent in its radiant garden as if its gay creations were all the work of magic”.
Round furnaces were noted and the Director kept the composition of the green-grey Deck Clay secret.
In La Faience he says he could not give fixed formula's on Faience body as it depended on locality.
The Gazette reporter was in no doubt to the overall quality of the enamel, meaning of course the glaze saying. “Extroadarily lustrous, reflecting the light from every protruding boss angle, and curve, as if from burnished glass”.
Deck's love of chemistry enabled him to write with fluidity but merely reading about it does not give a craftsman the level of skill he had. You have to do it.
All potters should bow down to the techniques laid down by Deck.
Many of his glaze recipes are printed in his book but as previously stated that's only half of replicating his work.
By 1887 many other companies had formulated their own Persian Blue but it was thought it was derived from inspiration of Theodore Deck.
Long before I know Le Bleu Deck I knew Lachenal Blue from my buying trips to France.
I have an unavoidable attraction to its distinctive velvet sheen. I did not notice so much at first the patterns of deck mixing these in my mind with traditional Iznik pieces. I have purchased pieces by Lachenal that may have been from Deck's own atelier by style.
I do not own La Fiaence yet but the inspiration from which I choose to write, is from the well researched account of Deck's work by Peter Hyland for the Northern Ceramics Society Journal Volume 33.
Peter writes about Deck's move into Gold ground inspired by seeing the mosaics in St marks in Venice where he exhibited in 1873.
He tells us how he mixes glaze and creates lustre, texture and even the way he applies. Yes if it was that easy.
The 1880's sees more of his Chinese ware accompanied by Japanese.
In 1878 Deck was nominated Officier de la legion d'Honneur.
In 1880 he exhibited a flambe glaze by a reduction firing.
Sevres were conduction flambe experiments by official ministry. The Commission de Perfectionment that had been set up in 1872 described Deck's 20 exhibits as remarkable and unforgettable.
In 1887 he was offered the post of Art Director at Sevres on the departure of Charles Lauth at the age of 64. He felt he had to accept even with ill health.
Xavier his brother was entrusted with the day to day running of production.
Deck, a practical man found it hard to cope with the tradition and management structure at Sevres. The aftermath of Lauth's departure saw him caught up in the middle of politics at Sevres.
He was accused of using his postion to enhance his own factory, but he stook at it exhibiting his Grosse Porcelaine in the 1889 Exposition Universalle.
He died in May 1891. His remarkable brother Xavier continued the business and exhibited at London's Grafton galleries in 1893, in Paris 1896 and in Brussels 1897, all with success.
Without Deck's innovation it did not move with the times into, art Nouveau that cut across Europe at blistering speed. Xavier died in 1904 and the pottery closed. It was demolished two years later.
As a national figure Theodore was given the honour of burial in Montparnasse cemetry where so many of Frances cultural innovators were buried.
In 2013 he was featured on a postage stamp.
Decks gravestone was designed by Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the statue of liberty. It incorporated faience panels in Deck Bleu and was inscribed 'erpuit coelo lumen'-translated it reads.
“He snatched the light from the heavens”.
The headstone was encrusted with a portrait medallion by Ferdinand Levillian.
There were other potters of course but they must all acknowledge Theodore Deck.