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Glaze of glory

Quietly luxurious, exceptionally pure in form, celadon ceramics have been seized on by young designers who are making the glaze and aesthetic their own, says Katrina Burroughs.

December 28 2010
Katrina Burroughs

Celadon ceramics strike the perfect note between crafty and sleek. Their cool, pellucid hues sing of luxury while their classic Oriental forms breathe pared-back chic. Should you need to buy a gift for someone who is both timelessly stylish and fiercely on trend (yourself, perhaps), look no further than this ultra-serene green porcelain.

To be precise, celadon is the name of the iron-rich glaze, which can be applied to porcelain or stoneware and can take on a variety of hues from darkish jade through broad bean, to robin’s egg and chalky grey. It dates back to the ancient Chinese ceramics of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and the grey-green wares of the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), produced on the Korean peninsula. Celadon is the glossy, glassy surface finish that comes in a repertoire of traditional shapes – jars, dishes, bowls – whose pure lines and elegant silhouettes have been constantly revisited and adapted to taste throughout the history of ceramics. The truth about celadon ware is that it’s the little black dress of the potter’s art – it never quite goes away, but instead, from time to time it captures the imagination of a new generation, and flourishes.

Theories abound on why this cool hue is quite so hot right now. Sarah Edwards, director of Contemporary Applied Arts, who has brought together works by some of the most exciting contemporary makers in her Bloomsbury gallery, shares her take on the trend: “There’s always been a fascination for it because it has such historic value, and young designers and makers who are about pure form find the stillness of the glaze creates a presence in their work. But now there are some really interesting departures. There’s a breadth that’s really exciting.”

This new spectrum of contemporary celadon creations extends from the traditional form to the idiosyncratic variation, from the modest domestic object to the unashamed showpiece. At the trad end are works such as Adam Buick’s moon jars, globes of clay whose shape dates back to the early Choson Dynasty in Korea. “I was inspired to use this form after seeing one that Bernard Leach had brought back from Seoul,” Buick explains. He has repeated this single vessel for a dozen years, like a meditation, experimenting with different surface treatments: “The original Korean jars were white, and admired for their simplicity and pure form. I use celadon to capture the same feel of depth and serenity” (9cm-high jar from £48, 24cm from £400). Australian ceramicist Kirsten Coelho also makes classic Oriental forms (porcelain bowls, cups and lidded jars) in a shades-of-pale colour palette that points back to the ancient roots of celadon, but adds a twist. She disrupts the expectation of a perfect, millpond surface with streaks of iron oxide that bleed irregular rust stains into the delicate blue (24.5cm vase with iron oxide rim, £600; bottles, £1,150).

Several celadon specialists limit their focus to a handful of objects that form the backdrop of the moments of tranquillity in domestic life. James and Tilla Waters fashion simple household celadon-colour ceramics – beakers, mugs, lidded jars, vases – in a limpid grey-blue (15cm diameter bowls from £86; jars from £110). Chris Keenan throws Limoges porcelain cups (teaset, £300), vases, jars and beakers, and “rocking bowls” with round bases (£60-£250), which he says clients use as nightlights, and occasionally for tea in the bath (they float). Having been a collector of Edmund de Waal’s work before he became the artist’s first apprentice, Keenan knows better than most why celadon is such a joy to live with: “It’s the quiet aesthetic that works so well with clean, unfussy forms.”

But don’t mistake this quiet simplicity for asceticism. Designer Peter Ting links the popularity of serene green celadon to fashion’s present understated aesthetic, which he calls “a sparseness that makes you think more about beautiful materials and exquisite cut”. Ting consults for Asprey and is a ceramicist with a particular understanding of luxury. He has designed a series of towering celadon vases (a group of five in an edition of eight costs from $128,000), and emphasises that the simple lines and monochrome colouring of most celadon pieces are the latest way of finding “richness in simplicity. It’s not about austerity… it’s more about connoisseurship.”

And perhaps only aficionados can appreciate exactly how tricky this magical material is to tame. Celadon is an iron oxide glaze produced in reduced firing conditions, and both the recipe (always different, due to natural variations in the raw ingredients) and the regulation of the firing offer endless opportunities for disaster. German ceramicist and expert celadon wrangler Claudia Lis explains the process: “When the kiln reaches a temperature of approximately 900° Celsius, the inflow of air into the chamber is restricted, creating a shortage of oxygen. In their quest for oxygen the flames attack the glazes and break into the chemical compounds, extracting oxygen and producing the soft green colours.” Only a precise level of oxygen starvation results in those particular hues.

Moreover, since it’s applied rather thickly to achieve its typical depth and brilliance, celadon glaze is also prey to “crawl”, where the glaze runs away from corners and rims, leaving bare patches. Lis’s solution to these hazards is to constantly monitor the process and results. “You need to make exact records to eliminate mistakes,” she says. Despite the travails involved, her finished products appear effortless: flawless flasks, bottles and dishes, and artfully rust-speckled dishes that Lis groups together in sets she calls “Still Lifes” (from about £150).

This practice of creating compositions from a throng of ceramics, crafting an artwork that’s also a ready-made collection, is central to the way many ceramicists conceive their celadon. “They work very well en masse,” says Alun Graves. “There’s something wonderful about seeing a collection together, with all the variations on that muted palette.” Graves is a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which commissioned Edmund de Waal to make “Signs & Wonders” for its new ceramics rooms. The installation of over 400 pieces of porcelain now perches on a lacquer-red shelf in a cupola overlooking the grand entrance, forming a catalogue of the artist’s entire library of pale glazes. De Waal describes such ensembles as “cargos” of pots, referring to the Oriental china salvaged from shipwrecks. Similar smaller installations reflect his preoccupation with the idea of the Wunderkammer, room of wonder or cabinet of curiosities. “After the Rain”, an example finished (and sold) earlier this year, comprises two white lacquer cabinets containing 20 porcelain vessels in grey and celadon glazes (works cost from about £2,500 to £35,000).

Not every piece of celadon is smooth and unadorned, however. Clare Beck, director of Contemporary at Adrian Sassoon, says that the secret to the recent popularity of the glaze lies partly in the quirky decorative techniques that some of her protégés are devising. “There are a number of younger makers working in the field. They’ll be aware of the history of celadon, the work of Bernard Leach, who lived in Japan and learnt Japanese techniques, and his son, David Leach, whose flutewd celadon porcelain bowl became such an icon. But they’re now bringing in fresh new ideas. For instance Andrew Wicks’s wax resist work is very unusual and beautiful.”

The revolutionary aspect of Wicks’s work is the fact that he applies celadon over textured motifs. Over the past dozen years, Wicks has been developing a wax resist technique that he calls “water etching” to create relief patterns inspired by natural forms (corals, fossils, plants) on the surface of his porcelain vessels. Before firing, he draws on his pots with a water-resistant material, then, once the pattern has dried, uses a wet sponge to rub the unfired clay off the unwaxed areas. The wax resist is burnt off in a low-temperature firing, then the vessel is glazed and fired again. This highly technical rigmarole results in a spectacular liquid effect – the glaze pools, the colour intensfies and deepens in concave areas, and, where the clay is raised, it becomes more translucent (from £100 for a small vase, while a pair of water-etched porcelain Plexus vases, the largest 27cm, costs £800).

While Lis and Keenan, Waters and de Waal and even Wicks (despite his adventures in pattern) are highly esteemed for their calm, quiet bodies of work, there are also those designers who set out to raise the heartrate. Jonathan Wade produces hand-built porcelain boxes in the delicate, opulent hues of celadon in forms reminiscent of the grim concrete constructions of London’s South Bank (£750). “I’m influenced by both brutalist architecture and ancient Chinese and Korean ceramics,” he says, “so they’re kind of ancient and modern.”

But the most extreme creations in celadon are being made by the Japanese artist Atsushi Takagaki. Though he has only shown his work abroad twice, Tagaki already features in the British Museum’s collection – he’s tipped for greatness. He has spent his career unlocking the secrets of celadon in order to unleash his own dramatic variation: sculptural works incorporating steep diagonals and deep shadows, built from board-flattened clay slabs and glazed in a celadon tinted with scarlet.

His technique is far from a foolproof process, and Takagaki-san makes around 80 batches of celadon for each vessel, knowing the slightest variation in kiln temperature or humidity can mean he has to discard a section. He applies coats of red-pigmented slip (clay solution) to the rims of his stoneware slabs, then coats the segments in as many as 25 layers of celadon glaze. The result is his latest series of works: dynamic forms, each with a ghost of red peering through the sea-green glaze, which he calls Dawn Shadows (£3,500-£10,000). True to their title, these pieces mark a new dawn in the story of this ancient glaze – it turns out that celadon’s celebrated stillness was simply the calm before the storm.

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