Ceramics – a risky business

Firing a pot is the point of no return. Until it enters the kiln, clay can be reclaimed, broken up, soaked, and reformed into raw material, but in the kiln clay becomes ceramic. A permanent chemical change occurs resulting in a hard material ready for decoration. There are many stages at which things can go awry, but what happens in the kiln is irreversible and unpredictable. For this reason, it is not uncommon to hear potters speak of 'kiln gods' – forces at play in the belly of the oven that seem to wreak havoc and delight in equal measure.

In China these deities form part of ancient folklore. They are often specific to the region, invoked to protect potters and the industry of a particular area – a practice that speaks to both the importance and the volatility of this craft. The unpredictability of making ceramics has frustrated and enchanted people across time and continents, and forms part of the material's enduring appeal. While sometimes costly and dispiriting, uncontrollable elements also end in fortuitous discoveries, risks can pay off, and imperfection may be admired and even sought out.

Raku East & West

black ceramic bowl
Tea bowl, by Raku Sonyu, 1691 – 1716, Kyoto, Japan. Museum no. 240-1877. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The historic art of raku begins with imperfection. Originating in 16th-century Japan, raku was associated exclusively with tea bowls and the 'wabi' approach that embraces rusticity and modesty. In keeping with this ethos, bowls were not thrown on the wheel but built by hand; clay pinched, pushed, and smoothed by the fingers, sensitive to the personality and emotional state of the maker. The results are unique, typically uneven, and beautiful. The beauty of these vessels is seen to stem from their imperfection, a quality which reflects the impermanence, aging, and eventual decay observable in the natural world and chimes with the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

The word 'raku' means something akin to 'pleasure' or 'enjoyment'. It became associated with a specific Kyoto workshop, and particularly the work of Tanaka Chōjirō, who adopted the word as part of his family name. The tea bowls are traditionally black or red, resulting from opaque glazes and firing conditions. They are introduced to a hot kiln, rather than being gradually heated by increments, and are then removed at the height of firing and left to cool in the open air. Historically, the short firing time reduced pollution and allowed for indoor kilns in urban spaces, but the technique remains a risky one. The thermal shock of moving bowls directly in and out of a glowing oven increases the likelihood of breakage – a danger only partly mitigated by the often thicker walls of these rougher handmade vessels.

(Left to Right:) Jug, by Linda Gunn-Russell, 1980, England. Museum no. C.117-1980; Cornucopia, vase, by David Roberts, 1983, England. Museum no. C.225-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Western forms of raku differ markedly from the Japanese tradition but retain a sense of risk and surrendering to the elements. Pots are removed from red-hot kilns, but instead of cooling outside, they are placed into a vessel with combustible materials such as sawdust or horsehair. The combustion consumes oxygen from the surrounding air leading to an array of reduction effects across the surface of the pot, ranging from the subtle to the dramatic. The uncontrollable factors in this process mean it is virtually impossible to recreate the same effects, making for unique decoration that is the result of skillful collaboration between potter, materials, and environment.

Discover more raku in the V&A collections.

Salt Glaze

Brown ceramic bottle with blue floral pattern
Bottle, unknown maker, about 1600, Frechen, Germany. Museum no. C.13-1996. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The science behind many ceramic effects is usually unknown at the time of discovery. Potters might accrue a wealth of experience meaning they can accurately repeat a desired pattern, colour, or texture, with little chemical insight into why things actually happen. Salt glazing is one such process, and its exact beginnings seem to have gone undocumented. The first salt-glazed pots appeared in Germany around the beginning of the 14th century, and it has been widely speculated that the technique was stumbled upon by chance, perhaps when wood from barrels storing salty foods were used as fuel for the kiln – probably an act of necessity as opposed to deliberate experimentation.

(Left to Right:) Jug, by Walter Keeler, 1992, England. Museum no. C.104-1992; Loving cup, maker unknown, 1740, Nottingham, England. Museum no. C.353-1919. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Salt glazing is a particularly unpredictable process, even when done by design, but offers rich and varied results ranging from soft speckling to intense textures. Pots are typically dimpled like orange peel, or more heavily marked like beaten metalwork, all the result of introducing ordinary salt into the kiln at the height of firing. The salt reacts with elements in the clay body, inducing the clay itself to form a thin glaze, one that is generally unforgiving and can expose traces of making, even occasionally a fingerprint.

Adding the salt is a tricky task and can be dangerous. While there are different methods, many involve the potter being alarmingly close to the raging heat of the kiln, removing bricks in order to introduce packets of salt which immediately vaporise and produce toxic gas. Not only is the potter at risk, but the kiln too is damaged by the chemicals over time. Writing in his book on the subject, potter Phil Rogers suggests that 'salt glazers are born with more than a streak of masochism in them', but the enjoyment of success is even more profound for the inevitable string of disasters that precedes it.


(Left to Right:) Saggars, manufactured by John Dwight's Fulham Pottery, about 1680 – 1700, London. Museum no. LOAN:MUSEUMLONDON.77-2009; Saggar, about 960 – 1127, Jingdezhen, China. Museum no. FE.5-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Potters are forced to get comfortable with failure, and even on a mass production scale unexpected disasters occur. When pots are fired en masse in large industrial kilns, they are often placed in a protective 'saggar', the word stemming from a contraction of 'safeguard'. These cylindrical cocoons shield pots from direct contact with the flames and kiln debris and are traditionally made from fireclays able to withstand extreme heat. But these saggars can also fail, often leading to catastrophe for their contents.

pile of broken blue and white plates
Waster, about 1650 – 70, Delft, Netherlands. Museum no. C.10-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A collection includes several saggars ranging from those made in 13th-century China to 18th-century London. Some show how the cylinders themselves can fuse together; others reveal how the contents can accidentally adhere to the saggar base. It may seem strange to collect such examples of misfortune and error, but these objects offer insight into historic processes of manufacture and remind us of the persistence and resilience demanded of potters and factory owners. One particularly stunning example of multiple saggar failure is a stack of blue and white Delftware plates that have been fused into a sculptural column after the collapse of their protective cases. The result resembles a piece of contemporary art more than the remnants of an unlucky firing. These discarded objects are known as 'wasters', unable to be used or rectified in any way.

The Martin Brothers

Pots by the Martin Brothers, late 19th century, London, England. Museum nos. C.18-2020 & C.19-2020. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some potters have approached the perennial fact of failure with wit. The Martin Brothers were talented makers of art pottery in the late 19th century and have been considered the direct antecedents to the British studio pottery movement. They became known for their distinctive and humorous ceramics made from salt-glazed stoneware – particularly their quirky bird-shaped tobacco jars known as 'Wally' birds. Alongside more typical examples of their work, the V&A collection contains two examples of 'marred' pots from the brothers' studio: objects which have distorted in the process of throwing but which the potter has nonetheless glazed and fired, preserving the apparent mistake. The culprit in this instance was probably Walter Martin, the main wheel thrower of the workshop. He pulled the walls of the pot so thinly – generally an indication of great skill – that on occasion the clay collapsed under its own weight. A number of these objects survive and are often incised with a quotation from the Bible's book of Jeremiah: 'And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter', illustrating the brothers' characteristic irreverence.

The brothers weren't fearful of surrendering to chance, in fact they embraced risk to a startling degree. Unlike industrial ceramics manufacturers, they only fired their kiln once a year and forswore the use of saggars, leaving their fragile objects exposed to the flames. In one ill-fated year, just a single good pot survived the unpredictable firing process. Against a backdrop of industrialisation and increased mass-production, the Martin Brothers' 'marred' pots welcomed the foibles of making by hand, celebrating even the most fickle and frustrating aspects of working with clay.

Contemporary perspectives

Ceramic pile of bowls and plates
New Jazz, sculpture, Johannes Nagel, 2104, Germany. Museum no. C.227-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Contemporary ceramic artist Johannes Nagel has also gleaned beauty from disaster. His work New Jazz rearticulates the language of failure –of fused plate stacks and the crumbling debris of failed saggars – in a deliberate sculptural form. The object appears as though excavated from a historic dump of some forgotten factory. Unlike the wasters themselves, practical objects rendered useless by catastrophe, Nagel's sculpture is a conscious reimagining of such losses and misfortunes, given new function and value as art.

Header image:

Saggar, about 960 – 1127, Jingdezhen, China. Museum no. FE.5-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London