We have a special treat for you today. Chris Wight primarily works with bone china, but such was his love of a mysterious Roman vase, via its remake by Josiah Wedgwood, that he designed an entire project around it. Garth Clark comments that “we have been excitedly following this project for six months and have been itching for the moment when we could share it with CFile’s readers. Here it is and it’s a stunner.” We’re showcasing the fruits of that project, Portland Arcana. These gorgeous photographs are accompanied by technical detail provided by Wight. Enjoy!
Like many artists before him, Chris Wight was drawn to the Barberini/Portland Vase (27 BCE – 14 CE), perhaps the finest surviving example of Roman cameo glass ever unearthed. His Portland Arcana is a contemporary ceramic artist’s take on this most enigmatic object, re-imagining its iconic form and carved figurative scenes, through a combination of traditional clay making techniques and CAD-driven waterjet cutting. The project saw a further development of the processes, techniques and design skills that Wight had developed previously with his Royal Crown Derby Silhouettes series. For the first time in over twenty years for this new body of work, he has stepped away from using bone china, taking the opportunity to work with Wedgwood’s iconic Jasper body, in keeping with Josiah’s own copies of the vase.
In the early stages of the project, Wight engaged in a period of research, studying Jasperware pieces in general and in particular the Josiah Wedgwood copies of the Portland Vase at the Wedgwood Museum. He also made multiple visits to the British Museum to examine the original Roman cameo glass Barberini/Portland Vase. This initial period, as well as ongoing research into the object’s history, informed the conception, development and production of his own interpretations of the vase.
The title Portland Arcana stems from the unresolved mystery surrounding the meaning of the figurative cameo scenes that decorate the surface of the Portland Vase. Since the time of its discovery scholars have failed to come-up with a conclusive interpretation of these narrative scenes and thus far there have been more than fifty different readings. Wight’s interpretation sees the figures dissociated from one another, placed in isolation within the body of their own vase form. The figures are purposely aged, with roughened broken edges and surface defects, to contrast against the clean-cut lines and contemporary architectural geometry of the vase. The structural framework of the vase conveys the notion of a secure repository for some delicate unidentified specimen or ancient fragment from a larger artifact – stored for safekeeping by a collector perhaps seeking to determine its meaning and significance through further investigation? Beyond this however, Wight is happy to leave readings of the Portland Arcana open to the viewer.
Waterjet cutting in industrial manufacturing is used to shape a wide variety of materials (e.g. metal, stone, concrete, glass, fabric, plastics and rubber.) using a very high-pressure (up to 100,000psi) jet of water mixed with an abrasive substance such as garnet. For creative artists, this CAD-driven technology lends itself to limited production runs of detailed cut work. Chris Wight first started to introduce the process of waterjet cutting into his general studio practice in 2006, when he was invited to explore the technology’s use in conjunction with bone china at Sunderland University Ceramics and Glass Department. Since then, over the past ten years he has developed and honed his techniques in the production of ceramic structures, comprising multiple interconnecting components cut from very thin (2-3 mm) hand-rolled sheets of ceramic material, including bone china, porcelain and for this current project, Jasper. His initial sculptural works were complex, organic, freeform structures, reflecting his interest in the patterns, textures, shapes and forms found in nature. However, in contrast to this, he has been developing a strand of work re-imagining or responding to classic shapes from historic industrial ceramic manufacturers – beginning with his Silhouettes, which took inspiration from Victorian-era Sèvres-style vases made by Royal Crown Derby and leading to his latest reinterpretations of the Portland Vase for his Arcana series.
During the course of the project, many technical obstacles had to be overcome. Chief among these was the development of a method of producing the large (400 mm x 300 mm) yet extremely thin (3 mm) laminated jasper sheets, which were made from three separate contrasting 1 mm layers of black and white jasper clay. Even when a successful method had been established, each sheet took around one full day to prepare. With six sheets required for each vase, this was a daunting task.
Another challenging aspect came with his approach to interpreting the all-important cameo figures of the Portland Vase, which he had decided fairly early on to place within the body of the sculptural representations of the vase that he had conceived. The solution that he opted to pursue looked at combining figurative elements from a variety of sources – primarily the original glass Barberini/Portland Vase itself, alongside numerous Wedgwood versions (from 1st editions to present day) and a host of illustrations made by many other artists from different eras throughout history. Comparing how the figures are depicted across a multitude of sources highlighted a number of inaccuracies, exaggerations and embellishments, which although fascinating, greatly added to the complexity of conflating all these versions and styles into a single homogenised interpretation that he could call his own. However, by making carefully observed pencil studies of each of the main figures and those on the handles of the vase, over time he was able to build up a composite image of each character from the numerous sources he had researched in books, the internet, the Wedgwood museum and from several trips to the British Museum to study and photograph the original Barberini/Portland Vase. Once completed, the drawings were digitally scanned and recreated as enamel transfers to be applied to blank Jasper cut-outs of each figure. Producing the figures in this way, although laborious and complex, led to results that far better captured his intentions of having the characters look as though they truly were artefacts from antiquity, displayed within a highly contemporary waterjet cut depiction of the Portland Vase form.
The photographs detail many aspects of the Portland Arcana constructions and the qualities of the materials used. However, they cannot capture the stunning moiré effect created by the multiple parallel rings that make up the vase form. The effect creates a pulsing aura around each figure as your viewpoint moves in relation to the piece. When you witness the effect first hand, you see the shimmering linear patterns as they appear to emanate from the figures within the vases, giving the works an unexpected magical quality — something greatly in keeping with the mystery of the Portland Vase itself.
For more than twenty years, from his studio in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, Chris Wight has worked exclusively in bone china – producing decorative panels, vessels and sculptures on both a domestic and architectural scale for exhibitions and commissions. All his pieces emphasise the delicate translucency of bone china through its interaction with light. Chris has shown work in UK venues such as Sotheby’s, the V&A Museum and ‘Collect’ at the Saatchi Gallery. He’s exhibited internationally at galleries in Munich and Paris, as well as establishing his name in Japan and Korea through numerous exhibitions there. He is one of only three Western ceramicists to have ever been given a solo exhibition at the prestigious Yufuku Gallery in Tokyo. His four metre high by six metre wide Chapel Doors, comprising 4,500 handmade translucent bone china discs encased in toughened glass, commissioned for the new Minster School in Nottinghamshire, was cited in the judge’s awarding statement when the building received a RIBA Award in 2009.
In 2017, he will speak at the 3rd Giroussens International Ceramic Sculpture Symposium in France about his approaches of combining traditional clay-making methods with modern digital technologies in his work. Chris will exhibit a selection of his waterjet-cut constructions – including the Portland Arcana – at the symposium.
Chris Wight is an artist based in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Text (edited) and photographs are courtesy of the artist.
Do you love or loathe these works of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.