Enamels of the World (1700-2000)

As a subject of study enamel has generally been examined with a particular focus – its history in a certain country or geographical zone, its flowering during a specific era, or as a technique – either in practical manuals or in scientific papers that seek to analyse in exacting technical terms what craftsmen in the past had achieved in an empirical, and perhaps haphazard, way. Such a compartmentalised approach is not surprising given the long history of enamel on metal – more than three thousand years – or the range of techniques and the great variety of objects that it could be used to adorn. Nonetheless, remaining within these confines potentially sets barriers that preclude the broader view and the consequent revelation of previously unnoticed connections and affinities. The formation of the Khalili Collection ‘Enamels of the World 1700–2000’ was based upon an understanding of the significance of a wider vision, of seeing the subject in global rather than parochial terms.

The time span for this overview was deliberately confined to the last three hundred years of the second millennium AD. By the outset of this period the full repertoire of enamelling techniques had been developed, from the earliest practised methods of cloisonné and champlevé to painting on enamel, which had evolved in the early part of the 17th century. Further, by 1700 the art of enamel was well established in all the major locations under consideration – the partial exception being Japan where, although small elements of cloisonné enamel had been used for the adornment of sword fittings from at least the beginning of the Edo period (1600–1868), it was not used earlier in the substantial and three-dimensional way that its craftsmen developed with such mastery during the 19th century.

Although all the various methods of enamelling were available, they were not universally used. Fashion played a considerable role in dictating which technique was pre-eminent in any location. Thus, at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, the Chinese emperors’ fascination for European painted enamel led to the development of its use in Beijing and, later, in Guangzhou. In another instance, when the Japanese master Ando Jubei visited the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 he saw specimens of plique à jour enamel, then the technique used for the most innovative work in Europe. Acquiring an example, he returned to his homeland where he had it successfully replicated, thereby initiating the use of plique à jour in Japan.

These two examples show differing influences behind the adoption of a technique: the emperors’ personal enthusiasms acted as a catalyst that effectively nurtured local production in the manner of traditional court patronage.  The response of Ando Jubei, however, was the more straightforward reaction of an entrepreneur who sought new commercial opportunities. Both approaches resulted in an expansion of the technical repertoire in their respective countries, and their individual roles highlight alternative facets of patronage. Also revealed is the impact of travel, of objects and people: the painted enamels that seduced the Chinese emperors were sent as diplomatic gifts, whereas to discover pliqué à jour enamel, Ando Jubei had to travel halfway around the globe. Aspects of patronage and travel as themes may be traced throughout the collection

Revivalism is another recurrent theme, its efflorescence chronologically at the heart of the period covered by this collection. It could be argued that certain elements of revivalism were a counter-response to the assimilation of outside influences derived from travel. In Russia during the 19th century interest in certain traditional arts, including cloisonné enamel, marked a return to older Slavic references that had been ignored for over a century following the vigorous implementation of Peter the Great’s policy of westernisation, which had been inspired by his travels in Europe. Elsewhere on the Continent the pursuit of national identity encouraged a review of history in the search for a style that embodied those elusive ideals. Often this study led to pre-Renaissance times, before the period when the authoritative canons of classicism succeeded in tempering regional individuality. For northern Europe the gothic era seemed to provide the requisite essence, though even in those times itinerant craftsmen regularly brought outside influences to the places in which they worked. Considerations of national identity certainly fostered the gothic revival in France, but the artistic achievements of that country in the 16th century were also a source of reference for this defining role – encouraging, among other things, the resurgence of Limoges painted enamels.

This collection provides the opportunity to consider the subject of enamelling within the context of defined geographical areas. Although each location is examined in isolation, with reference to technique and style, it soon becomes evident that external influences are a constant element in the evolving story. Representing different periods within the three hundred years covered by the collection, the character and activity of firms such as Jean George Rémond, Carl Fabergé and Cartier, though largely shaped by the genius of their directors, were also formed by the era in which they flourished: thus the wider spectrum of the times is reflected in their detailed histories.

‘Enamels of the World 1700–2000’ is a collection without parallel and, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, of “infinite variety”. It is hoped that the selection presented here will be informative and a source of pleasure for the visitor, and further, that it will encourage a more enlightened appreciation of an art form that has for some time been unjustifiably neglected.

Curational and Administrative Staff

Dror Elkvity
Curator and Chief Co-ordinator

Haydn Williams
Special Advisor

Publications

Exhibitions

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