The 1896 publication "Oriental Ceramic Art / illustrated with examples from the collection of W.T. Walters" was a landmark publication of its time and remains an unmatched example of lavish publication and masterful chromolithography. Years in the making, these scarce, limited editions have been called "among the most coveted books on Chinese ceramics."
In 1896, one of the most ambitious ventures in the history of American printing was published. "Oriental Ceramic Art" incorporates a scholarly history of Asian ceramics with exquisite illustrations of porcelains from the collection of W.T. (Walter Thompson) Walters (1819-1894) and consists of 10 volumes bound with yellow covers printed in gold, green, and red depicting a dragon, paired and enclosed in green damask covers with red silk cords and ivory spindles. One hundred and sixteen full color plates and more than 400 black and white halftones illustrate the 10 volumes, which are 23 inches tall. An edition of 500 was intended, but due to the complicated binding and production, it is believed that only around 200 were actually completed.
W.T. Walters of Baltimore, whose collections formed the basis for the Walters Art Museum in that city, made his fortune in whiskey and then railroads. He was one of the first Americans to collect Asian ceramics and his collection included more than 4,000 Chinese, Japanese, and Korean pieces. Walters was also a bibliophile and wished to celebrate this collection by creating a landmark publication. To illustrate his collection, Walters selected James Callowhill (1838-1917), a noted decorator of ceramics who had worked in England and the United States for such eminent firms as Royal Worcester, and his sons who also had a reputation for fine and detailed work. The Mint Museum has three works decorated by James Callowhill in its Decorative Arts Collection. Walters housed the Callowhills in his own brownstone at Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore where they worked for seven years creating painstackingly accurate watercolors of the ceramics. In fact, the paintings are so accurate, many of the illustrations include skyscapes from the windows of the brownstone reflected onto the glossy surfaces of the pottery.
Walters also selected one of the preeminent printers of the day to create the lithographs for the publication from the Callowhills’ illustrations. Louis Prang (1824-1909) of Boston had built his reputation as a printer, particularly in color lithography, or chromolithography, from his production of items ranging from Christmas cards to fashion plates, but most solidly from his production of a series of chromolithographic reproductions of paintings sold as “Prang’s American Chromos.” The high technical quality of the reproductions and their affordability made the series extremely popular. Another seven years were spent by Prang and his associates creating the full-color plates for "Oriental Ceramic Art." Walter’s demand for accuracy and Prang’s desire for the same resulted in what have been called masterpieces in the art of color lithography. To capture the surface texture and range of colors exemplified by the ceramics, as many as 32 lithographic stones were used for each plate. Over 2,000 stones were created and used in the project and near photographic qualtiy reproductions were the result.
The lavish nature of this publication has never been matched. The quality of the illustrations is still remarkable. "Oriental Ceramic Art" remains a singular publishing achievement and its scarcity provides it with another level of significance.