by Christopher Proudlove©
Minton master potter Louis Solon was livid. Returning home from Minton’s Staffordshire Potteries works one day, to his horror, he found that his maid had blackleaded the fireplace. No big deal, you might think. On the contrary, beneath the gunge were tiles Solon had decorated with an experimental glaze technique over which he had toiled for hundreds of hours.
The maid’s inadvertent snub is something that wouldn’t happen today. For a start, the tiles with their ethereal, cloudy white designs which Solon had built into the grate’s cast iron surround are more likely to be found in museums. And when an example comes on to the market, Minton’s so-called pâte-sur-pâte ceramics can fetch prices that defy gravity.
The name pâte-sur-pâte means literally paste on paste and it describes a technique that involves building up layer after layer of white slip clay to produce a unique cameo-effect decoration to ceramic objects such as vases, tiles and wall plaques.
These layers of slip had to be applied to the unfired pot while it was kept in a workable or “green” state. With the speed at which clay dries, this meant only so much decoration could be done at a time. When forced to stop, the decorator was required to return the piece to a lead-lined box full of wet rags to so that the pot could soak up moisture. Consequently, much of the work took many months to complete.
The process was introduced at the Sèvres factory in France where Solon had studied and mastered the technique, becoming its best known exponent. When, in 1870, Solon was “headhunted” by Minton as designer and modeller, his secrets came with him. The masterpieces he created became one of Minton’s major contributions to Victorian ceramics.
MSP – Minton’s abbreviation for the Minton Solon Process – was laborious, time-consuming and expensive, but the company allowed Solon to devote all his time to it over a long period. He was soon able to build up a small studio where he trained a number of apprentices whom he made responsible for the more repetitive work. This left Solon free to concentrate on the main figures, usually maidens and cherubs in diaphanous veils floating ethereally on subtle blue, grey and black grounds.
It has been said that as Solon grew older, his maidens grew fatter. It is true that in his earlier work, they are sylph-like, while 20 years on, they appear much more voluptuous. Solon had his witty side too. One particularly amusing vase shows a sensuous lady with a wicked expression dancing with veils, while his cherubs always seemed to suffer. They were made to climb fiery rope ladders, were locked in cages, expected to dance like puppets and were washed in basins and pegged out by their wings on washing lines to dry!
Many of Solon’s ornamental shapes were unique: large vases were adorned with the most complex handles, while a heavy font is supported by the arms of cherubs. His choice of ground colours also developed: his “changing pink” did just that, varying from strawberry to mushroom, depending on the light in which the object is viewed.
His other favourites included Prussian blue and celadon green, often used together, black, vivid green, salmon and chocolate brown, all of which were usually highlighted with the white figures. Occasionally, however, figures were in polychrome colours such as lilac, pastel blue, sand, grey, salmon and grass green.
Solon trained others and notable among them were Frederick Rhead, who later went to work for Woods and Sons, and Wedgwood, and Alboin and Laurence Birks who produced some stunning pieces.
A number of Solon pieces were on show at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 including déjeuner sets, dessert services, ice buckets, paperweights, trays and many pairs of vases. One pair, which cost £156 to produce, were sold to the retailer for 260 guineas and then offered for sale to the public at £350. Today, the same vases would fetch more than £4,000-6,000 or more.
Sadly, however, relatively few pieces of pâte-sur-pâte come onto the market and when they do, it is usually in a London auction room. Many eager bidders are attracted, particularly if a piece was actually made by the master himself. Examples of the work of Alboin Birks, Solon’s top apprentice, also sell at a premium and do occasionally turn up in provincial salerooms, where sometimes they are overlooked.
Pâte-sur-pâte continued to be produced at Minton until 1937, when it was used to create royal profiles on commemorative wares. The largest vase ever produced by the company was commissioned by Queen Victoria to commemorate her jubilee. It stands more than three feet tall and is displayed at her summer retreat, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight.
Picture shows: Detail from the reverse of The Idol Seller. Cupid, seated at his workbench, makes the toys that are being sold by his mistress. Note the line of finished dolls hanging behind him. The vase is worth £3,000-5,000
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