Enamels are types of glass, clear or opaque, used for painting on
porcelain and also for decorating metals. The latter include bronze, copper, silver and
gold. There are several different ways in which metals may be enamelled:
Champleve: small spaces are scraped from, or moulded in, the surface of the article and filled with enamel. This technique was used first many centuries ago and is said to have been introduced to both the Orient and Europe from Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire.
Cloisonne: the body of the article is covered in a series of cells (or 'cloisons') by means of wire soldered on to the surface. The cells are filled with enamel powdered and mixed into a paste, careful firing melts the powder without disturbing the soldering, and after the enamel has been levelled and polished the metal-work is gilded. The Chinese and Japanese were very skilful workers in this technique, and Chinese pieces of the Ch'ien Lung period are not uncommon. Earlier examples are scarce.
Plique a jour: rather similar to cloisonne, but the metal wires form open windows
filled with transparent enamels.
Basse Taille: the surface of the patterned metal is covered with a coating of transparent enamel through which the design can be seen. This method and the foregoing, plique a jour, were used principally for the decoration of jewellery and snuff-boxes.
Painted enamels: usually these are in colours on a white ground; the white being fired on a copper base before further colours are added. Grounds of colours other than white are used in a similar manner. The French at Limoges made finely painted plaques from the end of the fifteenth century onwards. Examples are rare and valuable, but they have been imitated. European enamels introduced to China in the eighteenth century inspired copies, and the Cantonese made them plentifully in the reigns of Yung Cheng and Chien Lung. Many of them are very well painted, some with European scenes and figures copied from engravings. It should be remembered that they have been made continuously with little variation in style, but modern pieces do not have the careful finish of the old.
One of the best-known names connected with enamels in England is that of Battersea; a factory to which a great amount of the work made elsewhere is popularly ascribed. At York House, Battersea, just outside London, enamelled copper wares were made between 1753 and 1756. Its principal claim to remembrance is that it was the seat of the first use of printing for decorating enamels; a process used shortly on porcelain. Pieces definitely made at Battersea are few, and the majority of eighteenth-century English enamels were made in the Bilston area of south Staffordshire. Contemporary Continental examples were of similar design; these and modern copies present many problems to the collector.