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Lovely, Cherishable Lustre WareBy Wallace Adair
( Orginally published August 1945 )
Lustre ware is so desirable that you find little of it in the shops nowadays. Pieces of this delightful old English pottery do come on the market, of course, but they are gone in a few days. Their glinty, gleamy iridescence has caught the eye of someone who has whisked them home. The reason for its popularity is that lustre is congenial to such a wide variety of settings. You may have a large colonial house filled with the best American antiques, a picturesque little cottage modestly furnished, a made-over farmhouse with frills and furbelows or a city apartment in which the scheme of decoration hints of the georgian style. Lustre ware will add attractiveness to any one of these homes. It is appropriate in almost every type of home except the baronial hall where, amid general stateliness, its friendly informality would seem out of place.
Lustre ware is, as Esther Singleton once described it, "one of those creations of man that never perish. It has recurred in different countries in different centuries, each time with changes in form and decoration to suit the taste of the period." Historians say it originated in the Near East and that records of it have been found in documents dating back as far as 7th century Persia. From Persia it spread through Syria and Egypt and eventually crossed the Mediterranean into southern Europe. Many examples of lustre, under the name of Hispano-Moresque ware, have been found in Spain dating from the 10th century onwards. In Italy it was a chief manufacture of several pottery towns, such as Gubbio, and was highly esteemed throughout the renaissance.
When we Americans speak of lustre we usually are thinking of only one kind-the intimate, cherishable, lustred china that was made by English potters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and mostly used as occasional table ware. The term brings up before our eyes images of quaintly decorated teapots, jugs, pitchers, goblets, cups, saucers, shallow bowls like dessert dishes, and toddy sets. Of such pieces a goodly number were shipped to this country and subsequently handed down to us from our forefathers. Far example, George Washington's copper lustre shaving mug is still in existence. In recent years, however, the American demand has been so great that England has been combed to help supply the American market.
Strange as it may seem, the best collections of English lustre are now in the United States. The Buckingham Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, numbering a thousand pieces, is unquestion- ably the finest in the world. Another remarkable collection, of hundreds of pieces, is at East Hampton, Long Island, in the childhood home (today a museum) of John Howard Payne, who wrote "Home, Sweet Home." The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Morgan Memorial, at Hartford, the Institute of History and Art, at Albany, and other public galleries also house notable collections.
Old English lustre ware is of three general types--copper or brown, silver or platinum and purplish or gold. Each has its special circle of admirers. People sometimes speak of other kinds, calling it pink lustre, rose, ruby, mottled pink, marbled and so on, but these are only tints or shades of the three basic types. Often the lustring is combined with other means of decoration, the result being that we come across a variety of captivating effects such as blue decorations on a copper ground, silver and strawberry-red decorations on a canary ground, pink or rosy floral designs against a gold ground of colored medallions of landscape scenes or birds against a ground of white. The combinations of colors and designs are as various as they are appealing.
England began to rediscover the art of lustre on pottery about the time the American colonies were girding for the Revolution. Practically all of it that came to this country arrived here during the first 50 years of our independence. Indeed, English lustre passed through numerous stages of experiment and was scarcely perfected till the end of the eighteenth century. Copper was the first to be perfected, then silver, then gold. In each case the principle of manufacture was essentially the same: "a process of applying to pottery a thin coating of some metallic oxide." Silver was, and still is, the most widely prized of these lustres. Actually it was not silver that was used but oxide of platinum, for silver tarnishes quickly and none of these lustres can be polished (or even rubbed in washing or dusting) lest the thin film of metal be rubbed away.
Silver lustre is believed to have been rediscovered along in the 1780's by Thomas Wedgwood, youngest son of Josiah Wedgwood. Certain it is that Wedgwood and other Staffordshire potters made the most sought-after pieces of silver lustre and silver "resist" (a form in which parts of the ground are left unlustred and. used as a design or pattern in the decoration).
At first, all-over silvering, without ornament, was produced as an imitation of real silver. These plain, early pieces, lustred inside and out, frequently "were cast in old Queen Anne silverware moulds or modelled in flutings and headings by hand." But since the imitation fooled no one, all-over silvering was shortly dropped. Then lustre in decorative combinations with other colors and motifs began to appear. These combinations proved so attractive that the ware quickly became desirable for its own sake. There sprang up a fad for lustre. From that time on there have been lustre lovers throughout Great Britain and the United States.
Whether copper, silver or one of the golds from pink to purple, the thing that nowadays, makes lustre so popular is its quaint loveliness. It has an individuality all its own. Place a piece of it on the mantel, the table, the sideboard or the shelves of a china cabinet-wherever it catches and reflects the lightand it will help brighten the entire room. Put a group of pieces in an open cupboard and visitors will make more comments about it than of anything else around. Serve tea from it, if you are so lucky as to gather together an unchipped tea set that matches, and your guests will speak of it to their friends for weeks thereafter. For while lustre is far from being the most expensive of old English chinas none surpasses it in charm.