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Black But Comely
( Originally Published 1913 )
"No, thank you, I don't like black Wedgwood--too funereal!" collectors say, and dealers put back the ebon vase, bust, tea-cup and saucer, or medallion on the shelves. There it rests a long time, till one of the few who know comes along.
The other day I heard of " a pair of big black Wedgwood vases, shiny, with red lines on them," as being " in a furniture shop." I went to the shop as soon as I could, but the vases had been sold, " to a Wedgwood dealer," the shopkeeper said.
" Do you mind telling me for how much ? " I asked. " Three pounds five, sir." They were worth ten times that, I dare say. Yet they had " been in the window for months," the shopkeeper said.
This neglected ware needs a certain setting if its full beauty is to be brought out. Dull gilt wood frames for the medallions, old-gold silk as background in the cabinets, or some other yellow surrounding; I know a great authority on English keramics who has had his black medallions let into satin-wood furniture, with exquisite effect. Black basalt ware has been despised by the many, but I fancy the number of hunters for it will multiply now.
" Linesman " as Collector.-For at last there is a book about it, and a big, fine, authoritative, and delightfully written book it is. " The Makers of Black Basaltes," has been sent me by Messrs. Blackwood. The author, Captain M. H. Grant, is an ardent collector who knows how to explain, and also how to write, for his pen-name is Linesman, and his book displays to the eye the best that was done in black basalt ware and its different kinds and forms. For the first time, too, we are given a complete list of the makers. Most of us would say that Wedgwood and " Leeds " made this " old black stuff," but Linesman supplies the marks of thirty-seven other makers, too.
This is a book of aesthetics and literature, as well as of expertise ; the author has made himself the Ruskin of keramics. He has done justice to what he describes as " a certain grave earthenware, composed of clay fired to the hardness and density of stone, and not only black upon the surface, but permeated by the colour throughout its mass, the stain not merely superficial but homogeneous with the body, so that "here is a test-" the edges of a broken fragment are as black as the surface. It was unpainted, because even at its birth there were eyes to see the beauty of the play of light upon its uninterrupted surface. It was unglazed ; the extreme closeness of texture rendered it impervious to water, and friction alone brought out a bloom and polish of greater refinement than could be imparted " by any glaze.
And this is ware " of the utmost refinement. The play of light upon its surface is delightful to the sensitive eye. Above all things the ancient potters valued form, and of all colours black reigns supreme as the exhibitor of form. No hue so well accents and harmonises both outline and bulk. It is sometimes surprising to see how a woman immediately gains in grace by the assumption of a well-fitting dress of black. What horse so nobly caresses the eye as the coalblack charger of the Lifeguardsman ? " Linesman was at Spion Kop and the Tugela River, he saw Tommy Atkins and the natives bathing together, and so " Where are the muscular pliancy, the animal beauty of the human body so striking as in the swart form of the naked Zulu ? The naked white appeared vapid beside his glistening ally, as vapid as a picture which is all 'high lights ' placed beside a sombre masterpiece by Rembrandt or Ribera."
Warnings. But one should not rush off straightway to buy a black piece that you remember refusing, or that you may come across at first upon your prowl. The beauty lies much in the " glistening " ; remember that modern Wedgwood basalt does not glisten-it cannot, it is not old enough, and most of the glistening old pieces have been washed, maddeningly washed ! Mr. halcke, who gave his collection to the British Museum, would never let soap and water near his treasures ; I think he was wrong in that, with regard to white and coloured jasper wares. But he was right about the basalt; light and air bring a " patina " upon old black basalt which should be jealously conserved ; dust it, polish it with silk, or, better, with glazed tissue-paper, but for goodness' sake don't " give it a good wash ! " If you have done that a spot of oil and then a good deal of elbow grease will restore some of the old glistening ; a polished surface upon which the light can play is the desiderated thing. But unless the texture be fine, the clay so powdered and sieved that it lies as close as possible, there can be no sufficient glistening. And therefore the older the better in this ware too, as a rule.