To imitate the whiteness of the first specimens of Chinese porcelain that reached Mesopotamia around the 9th century AD, the Near Eastern potters found a way of covering biscuit fired clay with a lead glaze rendered white and opaque by the addition of a tin oxide: and so tin-glazed earthenware was invented.
This ceramic technique spread to Europe due to the Arab presence in Spain, Sicily and southern Italy. The workshops in Malaga and Valencia also adopted this glossy decoration to produce the lustreware that was such a resounding success with the European nobility. For the first time in the West, ceramic items transcended their purely utilitarian role to become objects of prestige. The tin-glazed earthenware of Renaissance Italy, (also known as majolica) gained recognition through its development of remarkable, flamboyant colours and impressive pictorial mastery. In the 17th century, tin-glazed earthenware saw new technical and stylistic advances in northern Europe, especially in Delft. To imitate the eastern porcelain decorated with cobalt blue brought back by the Dutch East India Company (the famous VOC), the potters in Holland perfected the technique of tin-glazed earthenware and thus started the craze for blue and white ware that spread throughout Europe. In the 18th century, France established itself at the forefront of culture among the European aristocracy. In urgent need of funds, Louis XIV was reduced to melting down all gold and silver plate. Tin-glazed earthenware subsequently began to feature prominently in the art of the table. When, following the example of Meissen, Europeans began producing their own porcelain, tin-glazed earthenware again came under attack. In order to remain competitive in the face of the highly refined, gleaming decoration of Meissen or Vincennes porcelain, the potters developed the petit feu colour technique, whereby firing at low temperatures makes it possible to obtain a wider and more subtle range of hues, including purple and even gilding.
Picture : Terrine in the shape of a pheasant
Strasbourg manufactory, 1749-1751.
Tin-glazed earthenware, petit feu polychrome decoration. L. 73 cm
Photo : Nathalie Sabato