Illuminating Objects: The Spanish Lustreware Dish

Illuminating Objects is a series of displays that shines a light on unexpected objects from the decorative arts and sculpture collection through partnerships with SOAS, King’s College London, the University of Kent in Canterbury, Imperial College and University College London. 

Tanja Tolar, PhD Student at SOAS

I’m a student of Islamic art at SOAS and my research focuses on the connections between Christian and Islamic world in material culture. Working on this Spanish lustreware bowl and preparing it for display has been a fascinating few months.

The Courtauld Gallery has a collection of five objects of Spanish lustreware from the 15th and 16th centuries.

My first challenge was to decide which of these we were going to display.

This wasn’t easy!

The main factors in my decision-making process were that the chosen object should tell the story of its production and also demonstrate the technology of lustre-painting on ceramics.

I selected a lustre-painted dish, decorated with a circular inscription and floral designs. Large lustreware, like this dish, was typical product of 16th century Spain.

This dish, measuring 47.5 cm in diameter, was probably produced between 1500 and 1525 in Spanish town of Manises.

When I first handled the dish I was struck by how heavy it was.

When asked to move the object from the Conservation Department back into storage I was happy I managed to navigate the narrow corridors without dropping the dish on the way!

spanish lustreware dish

The Spanish lustreware dish in its case ready for transportation

The next step involved inspecting the object and deciding whether it needed any conservation work.

Ceramics Conservator Penny Caldwell cleaned the dish and the brilliant shine of the lustre came through as soon as the first layers of dirt and dust were removed.

Cleaning the dish

Carefully cleaning the dish in the Conservation department

Whilst Penny was cleaning the dish, we also started to notice small firing mistakes, such as cracks and smudges, indicating that dishes like this were probably produced at quick pace and with little attention to detail.

The value of these dishes was in the well-developed lustre which was difficult to achieve as it needed specialized knowledge and great technical skills.

To better understand the object and the history behind its production we visited the ceramics gallery at the V&A. With the help of curator Dr Mariam Rosser-Owen we examined ten exquisite lustre-painted dishes from Manises.

Seeing the decoration and shape of the V&A dishes gave us a good understanding of the scale of production of these objects in 16th century Manises.

Tanja looking at the lustreware dishes in the ceramics gallery at the V&A

Tanja looking at the lustreware dishes in the ceramics gallery at the V&A

We also had the dish scanned so that website visitors will be able to see the object from all sides. We worked with John Hindmarch a research student at UCL who scanned the dish and is currently working on the online model.

Scanning the dish in the Centre for Digital Humanities and the Department of Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Enginneering at UCL

John Hindmarch scanning the dish in the Centre for Digital Humanities and the Department of Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Enginneering at UCL

An online version of the dish starts to emerge

An online version of the dish starts to emerge

Watch this space as soon you’ll be able to check the 3D model out online!

The last stage of my research has been dedicated to the writing and I have spent many hours behind my computer, drafting labels and web texts.

Taking part in the Illuminating Objects series has been a very rewarding experience. It truly is a team effort and I am grateful for the help of everyone involved, especially Dr Alexandra Gerstein, Prof Anna Contadini, Dr Mariam Rosser-Owen, and Dr Anna McSweeney for their guidance and kind assistance. A special thanks to Miki Beavis for producing the map we’ve used on the signage.

Installing the dish in the gallery

Dr Alexandra Gerstein installing the dish in the gallery

The Spanish Lustreware Dish will be on display from 6 February – 29 April 2013.

Other objects in the Illuminating Objects series will include African and Oceanic wood carvings, Renaissance and later ivories, and German and Venetian glass, to name but a few.