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English Luster Had Royal Ancestors

To most Americans luster means the English cottage luster which came to America during the 18th and 19th centuries. But luster, a thin iridescent somewhat 'transparent metallic coating or decoration on pottery or porcelain, originated in the ancient East. It must have been known to Homer's Greece since his Odyssey carries the line "with rosy luster purpled o'er."

Some scholars credit it to the Mesopotamian valley. Others believe it came from Egypt and tell of luster found there of a golden quality, of a soft yellow, of coppery ruby 'tones, and of gold with rosy lights. Scraps of luster from Egypt's city of Fostat, destroyed to keep from giving cover to the Crusaders, show a fine brown luster touched with pink and ornamented with foliage and birds on a cream ground.

The Moors brought luster to Spain in the 7th century where it flourished, giving the world the Alhambra vase, famous for having been found full of gold in an underground room of the palace, but treasured now for its beauty. Over four feet tall and shaped like a Greek amphora, it was decorated with facing gazelles in gold luster and ivory, deep blue and turquoise, in company with flowers and foliage and Arabic inscriptions.


Hispano-Moresque luster with its pale golds, its light and dark blues, spread through France to Italy. Or did luster ware come earlier to Italy from Damascus, or Susa, or Rhages, with Rome's returning soldiers, or the laden ships of Venetian glorydays?

Certainly in Italy luster reached a wonderful perfection, as witness the iridescent "mother-of-pearl" glow of Deruta luster with its lovely soft blues and pale golds, on display at Chicago's Art Institute. Even more famous, perhaps, is Italy's Gubbio luster, bright rich paintings on pottery, combined with pale gold luster, the whole washed with a ruby sheen that glows and moves over the surface with the light or as you change position.

Yet several hundred years before Italy produced her famous Deruta and Gubbio luster wares, Bagdad was sending lustered tiles to decorate the mihrab in a mosque in Tunisia being rebuilt in the 9th century. Persian luster on its tin enamel base was giving off its famous rosy lights. And ancient Rhages, near the age-old markets of Teheran, was perfecting her pale golden bowls of exquisite lustered decorations.

Rhages' luster colors varied from dull to iridescent, from violet to pale gold to rich copper, depending on the light and probably too on the proportion of gold to silver and copper used in the metallic wash. Centuries later these exquisite lusters from Rhages, trampled under the ravaging armies of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, were tenderly gathered and carefully mended together to grace the art collections of the world.


Mid-fifteenth century England received seems to have been an iridescent painted Margaret of Anjou as bride to Henry IV with her chests of Valencian luster dishes of golden tone with pearly sheen. Then, two centuries later, John Hancock "discovered" luster ware for Spode. Till then luster seems to have been an iridescent painted decoration on pottery or porcelain.

England lustered the whole piece, dipping it in the metal solution, thus covering it inside and out with a thin coating so it looked like metal. Later she stopped imitating metal and began to use pattern, either "reserving" it from the metal covering, or painting it on free hand or over a stencil. Sometimes she shaped embossed or raised figures on her pottery or porcelain and put a metal coat and glaze over them.

Some list her luster metals as copper, platinum, and gold. They gave copper or brown luster, platinum or "silver" luster, and gold or purple luster which includes ruby and pink. The metals were made into solution. In this the ware was dipped, or the solution was brushed onto the ware. Firing set the luster and brought out the color.

The ware itself was either brown, red, black or buff, cream or white pottery or porcelain. Sometimes the ware was given a white enamel coat before it was lustered. Present artists generally think the metal coating directly over the dark base gives a lovelier luster tone.

Some say no copper was used in England's luster, but gold put thinly over the dark pottery gave copper luster, and thickly, gave gold luster, the thicker the gold coating, the more golden the luster.


Resist designs made patterned luster. The design was painted on the glazed dish with a resist material such as thinned honey that resisted the luster solution so it did not get through to the glaze. When the luster dried the dish was washed. The resist material washed off, leaving the glazed color as the design surrounded by the luster coating.

Firing set and brought out the luster background. Birds and flowers, grapes and leaves, and the lion with "bulldog legs" are well known resist patterns.

Silver metal, as such, lost its identity in the firing. It turned to light yellow, or combined with the tin in the enamel coating to make a deeper yellow. Used with copper or gold it produced a sheen or iridescence for either.

To get the color of silver itself, English potters dipped their brown or cream ware in platinic chloride and dilute spirits of tar. The first firing gave a harsh, steellike surface. A second firing produced a lovely silver luster with greater reflective power than Sheffield which it was shaped like and said to imitate.

Whether or not silver luster began as "poor man's silver" it achieved rare beauty when it stopped imitating metal and was decorated with a resist pattern on white which gives much the appearance of silver covered with fine lace. More rarely, silver luster was smartly combined with blue or yellow, touched with red. Its colorful scenic designs were few but charming.


Gold or purple luster, from gold solution and balsam of sulphur, gave pale gold iR put over brown clay and given a single firing. Over red clay, or with the addition of copper, some say, it gave a richer gold. Adding silver to it gave a pearly radiance.

But gold, put over white or cream slip and twice fired, changed its color to ruby. If the heat softened the glaze and fused the ruby with the tin in the enamel coat, the color became pink, rose, or purple. Some potters made sure of their wanted color by adding a morsel of tin to the gold solution. Probably a trace of manganese insured the purple color; plus thicker gold, the rose.

These ruby, pink, and purple lusters largely emphasized the body lines or banded the throat and base of the piece, or marked off medallions. Sometimes the piece was washed over with the coloring solution. At other times it was spotted or marbled by brushing or blowing on the wet solution or by oiling the vessel before the firing. But this pink mottling or marbling enclosed many a quaint verse or historic scene-the Bridge Over The Wear being a favorite.

With the invention of electro-plating in 1838 bringing silver plate into the average home, the demand for luster ware fell off. But England had put the aristocratic luster wares of ancient potters into the homes of the people. She made the scenic surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown to please American tastes. Her thumbprint "strawberry" in its green leaves delighted English housewives. And the naturalistic frog crawling up the inside of a Sunderland mug satisfied the lusty English sailors' love of a boisterous joke.

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