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Charles Vyse: the studio potter who revived Tang glaze techniques

By Christopher Proudlove ©

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Vyse cat

Biscuit, the old family cat, is driving us crazy. Not only does she have the finicky eating habits of a two-year-old, but she’s also shedding her thick winter coat like fur was going out of fashion. Next time we get a cat it will be like the pot one pictured here. Since Biscuit spends most of the time sleeping, we’d hardly notice the difference.

At just under a foot tall, this pot cat dates from around the turn of the century and was made by a modeller and designer Charles Vyse in the studio he set up in Chelsea. Reminiscent of the pairs of Staffordshire dog ornaments he remembered from his youth, the cat is so lifelike it looks like it might rise, stretch and walk away at any moment.

What sets it apart, however, is the remarkable glaze effect in black, green and cream to give a stylised yet convincingly realistic representation of the creature’s tabby fur coat. The technique is called tenmoku. It was invented by Chinese potters 2000 years ago during the Tang Dynasty and perfected during the Sung period of 960-1279, when black tenmoku glazed bowls are recorded as being used in tea competitions held by the Chinese imperial court.

Tenmoku is a Japanese word from “T’ien-mu”, a mountain range in the Fuchien Province of China which gave its name to the pottery after priests visiting a monastery there returned to Japan bearing Buddhist altar items. They included the intense black glazed tea bowls which had not been seen before.

The key ingedient was iron oxide and further development saw the rich glazes used to mimic such effects as tortoiseshell, amber, pig-skin and tea-dust with glossy, matt and even iridescent finishes. And then the technique was virtually lost, to be revived in the studio pottery movement in the early 20th century. Middle-class artists trained at art schools shunned mass-production methods to make pottery often working with temperamental wood-fired ovens in their gardens using ingredients mixed themselves. Interestingly, experimentation in tenmoku techniques continues today among contemporary potters exploring the endless possibilities produced by different glaze mixes and firing temperatures.

Charles Vyse (1882-1971) was among the more proficient early exponents. He was born into a Staffordshire family that had been involved in the pottery industry for generations. It was natural for him to follow tradition and he was apprenticed to Doulton in Burslem at the age of 14.

Clearly gifted and encouraged to develop by the farsighted Henry Doulton, Vyse enrolled at the Hanley Art School and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art to study sculpture from 1905 to 1910, gaining a travelling scholarship which took him to Italy in1909. He was elected as a member of the Royal Society of Sculptors in 1911 and studied at the Camberwell School of Art in 1912.

During his time at Doulton he trained as a modeller and designer, coming under the tutelage of Art Director Charles Noke. Noke himself was fascinated by experimentation with glaze effects and went on to perfect the so-called flambé decoration, another lost Chinese technique dating back to the Sung dynasty.

‘Isan’t he a darling!’

Noke was also instrumental in launching Doulton’s HN range of figures in 1913, having picked an elite group of Doulton designers to produce the first set. Vyse was among them and was responsible for designing the figure Darling. Originally called Bedtime, the figure of the small blond-haired boy dressed in a nightshirt caught the eye of Queen Mary during a royal visit to the Burslem factory who exclaimed “Isn’t he a darling!”. Consequently, the figure was renamed, given the honorary number HN1 and is still in production today.

Vyse married and moved to Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in 1911 and his wife, Nell, a trained singer, was fluent in French and German, so they were able to read the 19th century texts that discussed early Chinese glazes. Their neighbour was the renowned collector of antique Chinese, Korean and Persian pottery, George Eumorfopoulos, and he became a patron of their work and gave them access to his collection as reference pieces.

The collection, housed in two-storey private museum behind the patron’s house, proved to be invaluable as a basis for scientific research and coupled with Nell’s expertise, the couple built a formidable knowledge of glaze and firing techniques. They went on to master tenmoku glazes, rediscovered chun glazing, an iron glaze used in Chinese celadon ware and other oriental glazes of great beauty, exhibiting annually at galleries in New Bond Street for 10 years from 1928.

In complete contrast and harking back to his Doulton days, in 1919 Vyse and his wife modelled and produced two elaborate character figures called The Balloon Woman and The Lavender Girl. The first in a short series, the slip cast models were based on characters seen on the streets of London and proved popular enough to provide work for and a small staff of women to make them.

However, tragedy struck during the Blitz of 1940 when the Cheyne Walk studio was destroyed in an air raid. The couple left London, but their relationship suffered and they parted, Nell subsequently devoting herself to politics having been a Suffragette in her younger days.

Vyse taught pottery at Farnham School of Art and continued to produce his figure groups with the assistance of Barbara Waller, a Farnham student. He retired to Deal, in Kent, where he died at the age of 91.
The Vyses’ work can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and Stoke-on-Trent museums. Somewhat underrated by today’s collectors, it appears less frequently on the market and is worth watching for – look out for the inscriptions “CV or Charles Vyse Chelsea” on bases. It is sure to increase in value over time.

Pictures show, top:
The cat with the cream and no bad hair days. This charming pottery model by Charles Vyse, decorated with figured tenmoku glaze to represent fur, sold at auction for £1000.

Below, left:
‘The Gypsies’ a pottery figural group, by Charles Vyse, 1925, the woman modelled carrying a young child and holding a bunch of clothes pegs, while her companion is wearing a yellow waistcoat and tweed cap and holds a bunch of cabbages. It sold for £10,200

Right:
Europa and the Bull a rare exhibition figural group by Charles Vyse, circa 1949,
modelled with a semi-clad maiden seated on the back of a large bull supported by two large fish, in a pale green grey glaze. The piece was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1952 and was sold last month for £8640

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Tags: Charles Vyse · Pottery · Tang

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