[Here Dallas's criticism of the limitations of Birch's volume on pottery reflects his reading of Ruskin's Stones of Venice, whose main subject the author understood as the relationship between the art of the city and its "moral temper." - Graham Law]

Ancient Pottery

Decorated initial A

s gardeners are fond of pointing out that gardening is the most ancient of human occupations, the potters are fond of tracing their art to a still higher antiquity, and declare that the first member of their profession was the Deity himself, who formed Adam out of clay as the potter forms a vessel. It is unnecessary, however, to insist on such an origin in order to prove the dignity of the potter's vocation and the value of his labours. His productions, indeed, are apparently the most fragile of all human works, and they are subservient to the commonest uses, so that at first sight they might scarcely seem worthy of a very high regard. But strange to say, if they are the most fragile, they are also the most enduring of the monuments of human art, and if they are common they derive from that very circumstance a historical importance which they would never have possessed had they been of rare occurrence or of partial application. Men have had their epitaphs written in brass and their effigies perpetuated in bronze; their deeds have been inscribed in sacred books, and pictured on the walls of stately palaces; temples have been built for the protection of their names, and wondrous mausoleums for the safety of their bones; no contrivance has been spared by which an immortality of fame might be secured; and what has been the result? The result is that, after all our efforts to render our records imperishable, we have been able to find nothing more enduring than the fictile vase, which a very light knock might break into innumerable pieces. Brass and iron soon rust, silver is a temptation to the cupidity of the spoiler, stone crumbles, and paper decays; but the despised clay of the potter, if only deposited in some quiet receptacle, survives all changes of history and chymistry, and even in its fragments preserves some traces of the hand which moulded it. At once the creature of a day and the heir of immortality, man finds in the homely brick or vase formed out of the same earth a memorial that in its fragility and its permanence represents with peculiar force its maker's tenure of existence.

The study of antiquity, in fact, resolves itself very much into a study of pottery, and these elaborate volumes of Mr. Birch are to be read as a record of facts which history has neglected and which even tradition has forgotten. They are, however, rather an index to the traces of antiquity than a summary of the results which these traces afford. Mr. Birch proposed to himself, as the object of the present treatise, to write the history of the art of working in clay from the earliest times down to the decline of the Roman Empire, not only in this history giving the details of material, manipulation, and artistic result, but also showing their connexion with a life that has passed away and that in no other mode could be reproduced. He has brought to his subject the most complete knowledge, and he has treated it with great fulness and from many important points of view. Thus he examines the pottery of every nation of antiquity - Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Celtic, Teutonic, and Scandinavian. Under each of these heads he treats first, of course, of the art technically, - what clays were used, what glazes, what instruments, and what sort of works were produced. Then he asks what were the purposes of the works thus produced - dolls, lamps, vases, bricks, and so forth. Next, taking up a particular class of works, such as vases, he describes the various kinds of these, with their distinguishing marks; he shows how the art of making them advanced from the humblest beginnings to the most perfect masterpieces; he draws up an elaborate statement of all the various subjects painted on these vases; he takes note of all the different ornaments displayed on them; he gives a list of all the potters whose names have been handed down to us; he points out the sites of all the ancient potteries that are known. Thus, surveying the whole field in the spirit of the most minute research and of the most loving labour, Mr. Birch has produced a work full of very valuable information, arranged in the mode best adapted for the consultation of students. To judge by the title of it, however, and by some chance expressions in the preface, the work now presented to the public is still incomplete, or is the completed portion of a larger design. In reading the backs of these very handsome volumes we are led to expect a history of porcelain as well as of pottery, while in reading the volumes themselves we are dismissed with the assertion that really the nations of antiquity had no porcelain. . . . The explanation of this is that "the present work was commenced many years ago as one of a series on the subject of the history of the pottery of all nations." If ever Mr. Birch should carry out his design, we should expect that for copiousness of information and for systematic arrangement his work will be one of the most complete on which it is possible to lay one's hands. In giving his labour this praise, however, it is necessary to qualify it by the admission that he has a defect which, either in the historian or in the critic of art, is a capital offence - he is almost devoid of imagination. He is most painstaking in the collection and the arrangement of facts, but he collects them without much caring to discriminate, and he arranges them in the hard, dry method of a catalogue-maker, who, in distributing his materials for the purposes of easy reference, takes note only of the more superficial resemblances, and is not concerned to inquire into those deeper and more significant relations on which a scientific distribution would proceed. In one word, Mr. Birch has not the power of generalization - he does not pretend to it. He is content to collect his facts carefully, to state them accurately, and to arrange them so clearly that a reader may easily find them again. . . . [12b]

Links to Related Material


[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland]. "Ancient Pottery and Porcelain," The Times (26 May 1858): 12b. [Review of Samuel Birch, History of Ancient Pottery, 2 vols; London: John Murray, 1858.]

Created 2 February 2024