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Feats of Clay: Portugal's distinctive ceramics


Everywhere you look in Lisbon and Porto, you’ll see the distinctive ceramics that are one of Portugal’s most beautiful and enduring crafts. Stephen Doig reports

Stephen Doig
Stephen Doig,

From the market stalls and quaint craft stores of Lisbon’s São Jorge area to the sloping streets of Bairro Alto, there’s one common thread that binds the city and Portugal as a nation: the country’s devotion to ceramic craft. Any walk can become a cultural experience in Lisbon or Porto, where azulejos (intricately painted ceramic tiles) are decorated with lavish scenes in the richest colour palettes; dinner may well be served on a plate erupting with rainbow-bright florals. Striking craftsmanship is part of the everyday here.

Thanks to the country’s position on a trade route, ceramics became part of the craft fabric of Portugal in the middle ages. One of the country’s most renowned brands, Vista Alegre, was founded in 1824 by entrepreneur José Ferriera Pinto Basto under a royal licence granted by King João VI. The king also gave his seal of approval to the company’s products, which swiftly became a byword for handcrafted excellence.

Today, Vista Alegre pieces are still crafted and painted by hand and, to encourage new creations and promote training in painting and sculpture, the Vista Alegre Centro de Arte e Desenvolvimento da Empresa (the Vista Alegre Art and Development Centre) was launched in 1985. Vista Alegre pieces are found on the dining table of the Portuguese president and can also be found in Buckingham Palace and the White House.

Despite international acclaim and collaborations with contemporary designers, there’s still a distinct Portuguese flavour to Vista Alegre’s tableware, seen in the richly decorative Alma de Lisboa collections that capture in glorious colour the appealing skyline of the capital city, the aqua sea shades of the Alma do Porto collection and the traditional animal-shaped pieces – the rooster is a popular symbol of Portugal. Collections inspired by the Chiado district of Lisbon and stars of classic Portuguese cinema also ensure a distinct local aesthetic.

The ceramic experience continues in the country’s much-lauded azulejo tiles. The Arab-influenced interlocking designs, mosaic patterns and repeated symbols found on azulejos came to Portugal via the Moors (see our feature on page XX) and have become a key part of the Portuguese cityscape, most prominently in Lisbon. It’s here that these richly decorated glazed tiles are given full creative rein, not just in the signature white and blue but in richest canary yellow, emerald green and softest lilac; the Viúva Lamego ceramics factory and the Fronteira palace are just two examples.

Inside the Viúva Lamego factory, a world of print, colour and vibrancy unfolds. Hand-painted tiles, decorated and glazed by the company’s craftspeople, are as traditional and charming as they were when the brand made its debut in 1849. During the 20th century, the brand worked with local artists to create one-of-a-kind tiles that became collector’s items and today the factory is nothing short of breathtaking: an Aladdin’s cave of craft and artistry. A similar sense of history lives on at Sant’Anna, the renowned ceramics factory that dates from 1741 and has decorated the city ever since. The tiles and ceramics are hand-crafted here from clay moulded, fired and painted by artisans. Intricate scenes unfold and stories are told, in the tradition of the azulejo.

The richly decorated exterior of Solar on Rua Dom Pedro V also acts as the best advertisement for the store; vivid blue and white azulejos decorate the building. Here, the focus is on antique tiles, amassed from any time between the 15th century to the 1930s art deco period. Solar’s expert staff are on hand to talk visitors through the pieces on offer.

In some ancient parts of Lisbon even the streets are paved with decorative tiles; from what one eats off to what one walks on, Portugal offers a touch of hand-crafted artistry in every facet of life.

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