Clay is probably the oldest material used by humankind - we drink and eat from it, bathe in it, use it to clad, roof and decorate buildings - yet we take it entirely for granted. Since man first scraped it from the ground, stuck his thumb in it to make a vessel and then learned how to make it durable by firing it, clay has been the means to make not only functional everyday objects but also decorative commodities that have been traded across the world.
That story is at the core of the new Ceramics Gallery at the V&A, which re-opens this week after a five-year closure. The newly refurbished gallery will become a must-see for anyone interested in design or simply the wonderous variety of vessels people drink their tea or coffee from.
The new gallery is now visible from the front entrance of the museum, where, high above in the rotunda, there’s a site-specific installation called Signs and Wonders by Edmund de Waal.
The museum has the world’s most comprehensive collection of East Asian, Middle Eastern and post-medieval European ceramics. Not only are the objects spectacular but there is also the opportunity to see pottery being made in the gallery by leading ceramicists and to have a go.
The gallery tells the story, starting nearly 6,000 years ago, with pottery from the ancient world.
It then concentrates on ceramics, including vessels, architectural bricks, tiles and stoves from East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Many of the displays juxtapose pots from different parts of the world, showing how ceramics have changed as the result of interaction between different cultures and trade.
The impact that Chinese porcelain had across the globe is one of the most striking examples. The world’s first wheel-thrown pottery was made in China nearly 6,000 years ago. China possessed different kinds of clays and was able to develop both pottery and porcelain.
The earliest blue-and-white porcelains were made in the 14th century in Jingdezhen, which became the centre for the first mass-produced goods anywhere in the world. Chinese wares were exported to the Middle East and Europe, which until then had been producing glazed earthenware. Everyone from Iran to Delft wanted this new wonder material known as "white gold" but, lacking the secret Chinese formula, had to come up with their own versions.
In the 1670s, an experimental type of porcelain without china clay, known as "soft-paste", was developed in France. Through the course of the 18th century, the manufacture of this porcelain at Sèvres-Vincennes reached such a high level of technical and artistic excellence that it came to dictate the fashion across Europe.
It wasn’t until 1709 that the process and materials for making true porcelain were developed at the Meissen factory in Germany and it soon spread across Europe.
Major changes took place in the mid-18th century, especially in Britain where technical advances such as transfer printing helped to mass-produce affordable designs.
In the 1760s Josiah Wedgwood’s technical discoveries combined with his business acumen and his design flair permitted the manufacture of pottery on a truly industrial scale.
The museum has many examples of ceramics from this period and of design developments post-1900 in Europe. The story then shifts to international studio ceramics from the 20th and 21st centuries made by individual potters. This movement originated in England, Japan and France in the early 20th century and has since spread worldwide.
Work by current potters from around the world will feature in regularly changing displays.
WHERE TO BUY
V&A Shop: a selection of designer pieces and mass-produced ware from Jingdezhen. V&A South Kensington, Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL (020 7942 2000; www.vam.ac.uk/)
Contemporary Ceramics: Ceramics by many well- and lesser-known makers. Somerset House, WC2 (020 7836 7475; www.cpaceramics.com).
Contemporary Applied Arts: The Revivalists exhibition, 8 October to 14 November. Ceramics by emerging makers on show at the V&A. Plus a selling exhibition of Felicity Aylieff’s 10ft pots made in Jingdezhen. At 2 Percy Street, W1 (www.caa.org.uk).
Barrett Marsden Gallery: work by Britain’s best-known sculptural ceramicists. At 17-18 Great Sutton Street, EC1 (020 7336 6396; www.bmgallery.co.uk).