In Depth: The Ceramic Staircase

Fictile Vitrification

Minton’s patented process of ‘fictile vitrification’ was a novel, ceramic solution to a decorative problem that had occupied the greatest minds of Italian Renaissance art: how to produce permanent painted decoration for architectural purposes. Whilst fresco was the preferred method for the Italians (as indicated in the Museum’s large scale copies of Raphael’s Loggia frescoes amongst others) such a vehicle for painted decoration would not have been as practical in the wetter climate and smoggier atmosphere of Victorian London. Minton’s ceramic solution was a far more suitable one for the modern British landscape. Furthermore, it echoed della Robbia’s own efforts to produce durable painted architectural works in ceramic, as chronicled in Vasari and emphasized in Robinson. In his 1862 catalogue of the Italian Sculpture collection, Robinson, quoting Vasari, stated that

“Luca sought to invent a method of painting figures and historical representations on flat surfaces of terra-cotta, which, being executed in vitrified enamels, would secure them an endless duration.” […] We have here [in Vasari] a record of the fact of Luca having, simultaneously with his enamelled terra-cotta sculptures, also practiced painting in the same vehicle on the flat; or, in other words, the art of Majolica painting.15

This reference to Vasari forms the opening lines of Robinson’s description of della Robbia’s The Labours of the Months [Figure 4]: twelve curved, ceramic medallions with a blue, white and yellow painted design.

Figure 4: Luca della Robbia, Labours of the Month: January, c.1450-6, glazed terracotta, d: 59.7cm., V&A, London (7632-1861)

In his description of the works, Robinson suggested that della Robbia ware was not limited to polychrome reliefs but also included ceramic painting on the flat for architectural purposes. He continued: “Vasari further tells us that one of the principal works of Luca was the decoration in enamelled terra-cotta, of a writing cabinet for Piero di Cosimo Medici, the ceiling of which was coved (mezzo tondo), and, together with the pavement, was entirely in glazed terra-cotta, so perfectly put together that it appeared to be but one piece.”16 Similarly, the complete encasement of an architectural space (with an equally curved barrel vault and domed ceilings) in glazed ceramics was attempted for the Staircase at the Museum. Moody and Minton’s more ambitious design, incorporating both detailed fresco paintings and relief sculpture, would almost completely encase the Ceramic Staircase, including mosaic designs for the floor. However, producing a flat painted decoration (especially for a curved surface) was no easy task in a ceramic material where the exact outcome of the size, shape and integrity of the painted design could not be accurately predicted before firing. Any attempt at a more detailed painting, or more extravagant colours, on an architectural scale might become severely warped in the kiln. With great ambitions to overcome such difficulties and create large, durable fresco paintings, Minton’s architectural experiments in painted ceramic decoration led to the invention of the fictile vitrification process.

The Minton process of fictile vitrification appears to have been not only inspired by a combination of the Italian arts of fresco and maiolica painting, but also by the techniques used in mosaic [Figure 5].

Figure 5: Minton & Co., Ceramic Staircase, example of Fictile Vitrification, 1865-71, glazed earthenware, dimensions unknown, V&A, London

Indeed, elsewhere within the Museum, the Minton factory in collaboration with the School of Art (and using designs by artists such as Frederic Lord Leighton and Watts) were already experimenting with the application of the company’s own patented vitrified ceramic tesserae, rather than glass, to the more traditional art of mosaic pictures – attempting to create a recognizably English, Minton ceramic method for the art.17 Fictile vitrification took the idea of ceramic mosaics one step further towards two-dimensional fresco painting. At the 1871 International Exhibition, specimens of fictile vitrification from the Minton staircase were displayed and described as follows:

In this process, also called Permanent Fresco or Fictile Vitrification, the material for painting on consists of a number of small hexagon pieces in stone-ware, highly vitrified, and joined together in plaques of convenient size by a vitreous cement. This ground is painted on in the new opaque enamel colours, prepared to stand a very high heat, to secure the permanency of painting in any climate. Curved surfaces can be easily managed. The inventor, Mr. C. M. Campbell, is now casing the ceiling of the staircase of the South Kensington Museum after designs of Mr. Moody. Two specimens of this novel work are shown, executed by Mr. Thomas Allen. A permanent surface hitherto used for fresco work has consisted of wide plaques of pottery, but the warping of these in the furnace has presented obstacles which this invention is adapted to overcome; the shrinkage of each pellet being small, the general proportions are preserved. The process still remains to be tried, applied to a large surface.18

Whilst the process itself appears to have been a technical success, the Ceramic Staircase is the only instance of this technique in use for architectural design, suggesting that, “applied to a large surface,” it was not popular, and thus, not commercially viable. One of the limitations of fictile vitrification, of course, was its three-dimensionality: the painting had to be limited to the size of a kiln, whether it be flat or curved to fit within a domed ceiling. A more traditional method of constructing mosaics from pre-fired tesserae no doubt proved far more practical. It was also not well received, although reviewers found fault with the designs rather than the process. A reviewer for The Athenaeum was particularly offended by the permanent frescoes, commenting on the absurdity of their orientation on the diagonal, in keeping with the slope of the staircase:

a good many vases, tazzæ or arabesques […] are represented, not horizontally, as the steps which accompany them are, and at right angles to the upright stems of the arabesques of which they form parts, but – the reader will hardly believe us – these elements are placed on a sloping line, that of the general slope of the staircase. The effect is very odd indeed.19

Although Minton’s fictile vitrification process did not take off as hoped, this small glimpse into the ceramic innovations of late-nineteenth-century Britain, combining ideas borrowed from the Italian Renaissance, make the Ceramic Staircase an important space for understanding the Museum’s role in the development of nineteenth-century ceramic manufacture. Thanks to the extensive ceramic projects at South Kensington, the Minton Art Pottery Studio was created alongside the Museum at Kensington Gore. This ‘art pottery’ studio, the first of its kind, remained open until 1875 when it was destroyed by a catastrophic fire. In 1872, The Times described it as “worthy of notice as the only place in London devoted to the manufacture of high class pottery.”20 Under the supervision of painter and etcher, W.J. Coleman, the studio directly employed both seasoned potters from the Stoke factory and students from the School of Art in the decoration of ceramic tiles for the Ceramic Staircase, Ceramics Galleries, Refreshment Rooms and for private sale. Furthermore, the Art Journal of 1871 suggested that “a kiln, so arranged as to consume its own smoke, will be constructed and it is hoped that, with its facilities, eminent artists, ladies especially, may be induced to paint upon porcelain and majolica.”21 Minton’s experiments at South Kensington were, therefore, not only of an artistic and technical nature but were also, to some extent, environmentally and socially forward-thinking.

Subject Matter and Style

The experiments in subject matter and style on the Ceramic Staircase are just as important as those industrial experiments explored in its construction. The emphasis on bringing together art and industry is, at first glance, most obvious in the subject matter chosen for the decoration. John Physick’s succinct account of the decorative scheme describes the subject matter as follows:

The four side panels of the first flight represent Literature, Music and Art. The coved ceiling has a painting showing the Pursuit of Art by Man. […] There are two domes on the landing, one of them with Ceres, Mercury and Vulcan, representing respectively Agriculture, Commerce and Manufactures, grouped round a terrestrial globe; in the spandrels are figures representing Surveying, Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. The other dome shows Apollo and Minerva and Poetry, Music and Art, grouped round a celestial globe. The figures in the spandrels are Spectrum Analysis, Geometry, Chemistry and Astronomy.
The coved ceiling of the second flight contains an allegorical group of Wisdom seated on a throne, with Ignorance, Superstition, and Apathy, overthrown by Science and Truth.22

Physick also described the third flight, which was left unfinished but includes portraits of Phidias, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Archimedes, Bacon, Galileo and Newton.23 As a finishing touch, the letters ‘S’ and ‘A’ (for ‘Science’ and ‘Art’) can be found juxtaposed or intertwined throughout the scheme [Figure 6].24 There is no denying the message that the Staircase was meant to get across to those that passed through it: the importance of the combination of science and art in the improvement of modern manufacture and design. Thus, the subject matter of the Staircase reflected the message of the Museum’s collection, which drew together art and science exhibits and, ultimately, voiced its educational aims.

Figure 6: Minton & Co., Ceramic Staircase, example of S&A motif, 1865-71, glazed earthenware, dimensions unknown, V&A, London

Whilst the subject is clear, the style is more difficult to pin down. For example, the vitrified paintings, with their muscular and often nude allegorical figures occupying the roundels and spandrels, are a combination of a more classical, High Renaissance and a painterly Baroque style, no doubt with the intention of bringing to mind the fresco work of Michelangelo and Raphael, as well as the extravagant interior decoration of other world-class Continental Museums such as the Uffizi and the Louvre. It is possible that a particular starting point for the overall design of the staircase were Raphael’s Loggie of the Vatican, especially since copies of Raphael’s arabesques and lunettes from the Loggie constituted the first purchases by the Schools in the 1840s and, for almost thirty years, had been important teaching aids within the School of Art’s syllabus. The overall decoration of the similarly Romanesque Loggia space is divided into variously sized and well-defined sections and decorative panels, bordered by a more modest gold trim and filled with arabesque decoration. Raphael’s design, however, is very different to that of the Staircase, and the latter employs more diagonal frieze decoration with a greater emphasis on gold borders and relief work. It seems as though the Ceramic Staircase therefore combines the extravagant, glittering Baroque fresco and relief of the Louvre within the more confined, disciplined Renaissance style of panelling found in the Loggia, in a search for a new, hybrid English style.

Whilst the Ceramic Staircase may have been inspired by Raphael’s Loggia fresco decoration, the idea of translating Raphaelesque paintings into ceramic had its own historic precedent in the Italian maiolica ware displayed within the collection. Since the formation of the Schools of Art, Raphael had been cited as one of the great artist-workmen of the Renaissance period, who applied his artistic talents to architectural frescoes and maiolica pottery: “The universal belief that Raffaelle himself had, in the outset of his career, condescended to paint plates and dishes, was the chief cause of this wide-spread appreciation [for maiolica].”25 Indeed, the Minton factory itself produced various wares that alluded to the connection between Renaissance painting and maiolica, often directly using motifs from Renaissance paintings in its majolica ware. For example, a majolica dish, shown at the International Exhibition of 1862, bears a painting of a Roman soldier after Mantegna [Figure 7].26

Figure 7: Dish, Minton & Co., 1862, V&A, London (8112-1863)

But the Ceramic Staircase differs fundamentally from Raphael’s Loggie in that it also incorporates della Robbia-inspired polychrome sculpture into the over all design, hybridizing sculpture and painting within one decorative scheme and one versatile material. Raphael, with his revered “two-fold” position as a fine art painter with connections to ceramic painting, and della Robbia’s popular polychrome sculpture were here represented as two artists of the Renaissance whose work was translatable in Minton ceramics.


Footnotes

  1. Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, 70, quoted in Robinson, Italian Sculpture, 59-60.
  2. Robinson, Italian Sculpture, 62.
  3. The Henry Cole Memorial on the first floor landing of the staircase is an example of this technique and was added to the staircase in 1868 after Cole’s retirement in 1863. In addition, 16 of the 35 “Kensington Valhalla” portraits that formed an historical canon of decorative artists in the Museum’s South Court were also created in Minton tesserae.
  4. Arthur Beckwith, International Exhibition, London, 1871: Pottery: Observations on the Materials and Manufacture of Terra-cotta, Stone-ware, Fire-brick, Porcelain, Earthenware, Brick, Majolica and Encaustic Tiles, with remarks on the products exhibited (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1872), 22.
  5. Anon, “Modern Ceramics at the South Kensington Museum,” The Athenaeum, no. 2337 (Aug. 1872): 184.
  6. Anon, The Times (Feb. 1872), quoted in Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, The Parian Phenomenon: A Survey of Victorian Parian Porcelain Statuary and Busts (Ilminster: Richard Dennis, 1989): 30.
  7. Anon, Art Journal (Dec. 1871) quoted in Atterbury and Batkin, The Dictionary of Minton, 30.
  8. Physick, The Victoria and Albert Museum, 126-7.
  9. Ibid., 127.
  10. Ibid., 127.
  11. Robinson, Catalogue of the Soulages Collection; being a descriptive inventory of a collection of works of decorative art, formerly in the possession of M. Jules Soulages of Toulouse, Now by permission of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade, Exhibited to the Public at the Museum of Ornamental Art, Marlborough House (London: Chapman and Hall, 1856), 1.
  12. Mentioned in Hugh Wakefield, Victorian Pottery (London: Barrie Jenkins, 1962), 83.