My post this month is about tin-glazed earthenware. Wait! Don’t run! I know that this is one kind of ceramic that makes the study of decorative arts confusing. So many names, so much technical jargon—it’s a headache! But stick with me for a moment, because I hope to explain it in a way that this not too complicated. The reward is another glimpse into the history art, trade, and technology.
First of all, tin-glazed earthenware has two main parts:
1. Clay. The important thing to remember is that this type of clay is porous even after it is fired. It is called earthenware.
2. Glaze. You need this because it covers the porous earthenware so that it becomes NON-porous. In tin-glazed earthenware, the glaze is made of tin-oxide, powdered glass, and a flux (often lead). In general, here’s what each ingredient does: tin-oxide makes the glaze opaque white; powdered glass makes it smooth and shiny; and flux lowers the melting point of the other materials so that everything flows nicely across the surface (the word flux comes from a form of the Latin verb fluere, meaning “to flow”). The glaze fuses together when fired.
Remember last month when we explored how non-porous stoneware revolutionized ceramic vessels? Well, tin-glazed earthenware is also a non-porous material, but it is one that isn’t quite so sturdy. Since it’s not vitrified, it can chip and break (you can see such damage on the handle of the tankard from Mainz—the glazing has warn away and what you see if the bare ceramic).
But tin-glazed earthenware offers something that stoneware doesn’t: a smooth, white surface that can be decorated with bright colors created by firing a range of pigments made from oxides.
As far back as the 6th century B.C., the Babylonians produced earthenware with opaque glazes (like those seen in these tiles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). The technique was kept alive in Egypt until, by the 9th century, it was raised to prominence in Mesopotamia once again.
Then tin-glazed earthenware spread throughout the Islamic world during the middle ages. This, of course, included Moorish Spain. This time period was also when it started to get all of those names.
The Italians learned of tin-glazed earthenware from examples imported from the island of Marjorca, which was controlled by Spain. Consequently, in Italy it is called maiolica.
The French named the material after Faenza, a town in Italy known for producing it; hence, the French called it faience.
In northern Europe, the technique was brought by Spanish and Italian potters looking for more markets. By the 17th century, the Dutch town of Delft became so well-known for blue and white tin-glazed earthenware, that the ceramic was known just as delft.
The Dutch exported delft to England, where it was called delftware.
Dutch businessmen saw Germany as an untapped market for tin-glazed wares. They convinced German landowners to support opening potteries. The first opened at Hanau in 1661, followed by Frankfurt in 1666. In Germany, the ceramics became known as fayence from the French term. (This is also the term used in Scandinavia and Spain.)
Finally, we’ve gotten to Germany! This is a post about German steins and tankards, after all.
The spread of tin-glazed earthenware shows that there was a great demand for beautifully decorated and brightly colored ceramics. There is another aspect of the popularity, however.
It is no mistake that tin-glazed earthenware mimics the look of porcelain.
Introduced to Europe in the 14th century from China, porcelain was the most elegant and fascinating of materials. It was pristine white, yet translucent, and although it was thin and light-weight, it was amazingly strong and durable.
Nobles across Europe would buy Chinese porcelain and mount it in elaborate metal fittings. It was considered so precious that it was called “White Gold.” They hungered for more, however, and so began a search for the secrets to making porcelain.
But more on that next month.
So, until porcelain could be made in Europe, there was a demand for something that looked like it.
Much of the tin-glazed earthenware from Holland was painted in blue and white to reproduce the look of porcelain. The Dutch were importing the real thing from China, so they knew what people wanted.
The early tin-glazed earthenware produced in German was also blue and white. But even though it is reminiscent of porcelain, there are stylistic elements that are definitely European, such as the use of brushwork and banding. You can see it on this covered pitcher, left.
Later German faience tended to feature multi-colored decorations. Just a few of the examples in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection are: figures with landscape elements (including what looks to be palm trees) on a tankard probably from Thuringia, Germany (first object image, top of post); intricate patterns on a tankard that could have a crest related to the town of Mainz (second object image, top of post); and the special effects from applying color with a sponge seen on a tankard probably from Schrezheim (below left).
German faience tankards were often decorated by Hausmalers, who were artisans that worked in other fields such as engraving, metalworking, or glass painting. The craftsmen would buy blank white wares that had gone through a first firing and paint them decorations with oxides that would given a second firing at a lower temperature in a home kiln. Then they would sell these tankards in order to make extra money.
Tin-glazed earthenware is just another example of how studying art shows us not only the creative side of the past, but the economic side as well. As I hinted earlier in this post, next month we’ll look at the allure of porcelain and where it fits in to the history of technology and trade in early modern Europe.