From left Boch Frères Keramis, a vase, 20th century. Offered in The Collection of Melva Bucksbaum Decorative Arts and Design, 16-23 August 2018, Online, and sold for $9,375. Charles

Collecting guide: Charles Catteau’s Boch Frères ceramics

Specialist Sophie Sevenoaks covers the 10 things to know about the Boch Frères designer who sought to create ‘art for all’

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  • Charles Catteau learnt his trade at Sèvres

Charles Catteau was born in Douai, France, in 1880. He began working as a decorator at the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres in 1902, and in 1903 he graduated from the National Ceramics School in Sèvres. His first job after earning his degree was at the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur in Nymphenburg, near Munich.

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  • His talent was soon noticed by one of the most important ceramics producers in Belgium

In 1906, Catteau moved to La Louvière, Belgium, to work as a designer at Boch Frères Keramis. In 1907 Catteau was made head of the Boch Frères decoration department, which eventually came to be known as the Atelier de Fantaisie.

Boch Frères Keramis, later Royal Boch, was founded in 1841 by Eugène and Victor Boch, together with their brother-in-law, Jean-Baptiste Nothomb. At its height the company was one of Belgium’s largest producers of ceramics. 

Boch Frères Keramis dominated the Belgian market in the late 19th century, but it would see particular success in the first half of the 20th century with the arrival of Catteau, whose developments of form, technique and decoration transformed ceramics into an exceptional class of Art Deco wares.

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  • Catteau developed the factory’s next generation of artists

In addition to his design work, Catteau taught a decorative painting course and was actively involved in the academic and artistic development of the Boch Frères employees.

The factory offered its workers regular access to exhibitions, classes and study trips in order to support and encourage young artists.

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  • Catteau sought to create ‘art for all’

In accordance with his 'art for all' philosophy, Catteau aimed to develop original designs that could be manufactured on an industrial scale. Eventually Catteau’s techniques became so advanced that his wares seemed artisan-produced rather than factory products, and the ability to create industrially produced pieces of the highest artistic calibre was at the heart of his success.

Catteau’s mass-produced innovations led to colourful, uplifting pieces becoming readily available to the public.

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  • His work at Boch Frères attracted important French clients

As his output grew, Boch Frères Keramis began to receive orders from major Paris department stores, including La Maîtrise, the decorative arts department of the Galeries Lafayette, and Pomone, the workshop of the Bon Marché.

La Maîtrise even published a Boch Frères Keramis vase in its catalogue for the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925 -- a landmark event for the ceramicist and his Atelier de Fantaisie.

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  • As Catteau’s style developed, so did his techniques

Initially, Catteau’s decorative output was more traditional: landscapes, courting couples and naturalistic designs covered his vases. After the First World War Catteau’s style began to reflect the influence of Art Deco, and he eventually brought Art Deco vases into formal production at Boch Frères Keramis.

Moving into the 1920s, collectors can identify geometric treatments, with recurring patterns of floral bands and medallions. Catteau used increasingly bold colours, resulting in striking contrasts. In the mid-1920s Catteau started to cover his vases in designs similar to wallpaper, densely decorating the entire form.

Catteau was constantly experimenting with different styles, compositions and materials. Eventually, he began altering the composition of the enamels he used, creating pieces that seemed like glassware, or sculptures with dazzling glazes.

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  • The most desirable Catteau pieces are dated

Catteau put in place stringent guidelines for the execution of his wares at Boch Frères, with detailed instructions for the model, pattern, colouring and composition of each product.

On many of these vases, Catteau’s signature or monogram was applied by means of a seal. The signature of the modeller or decorator might also appear alongside Catteau’s signature or seal; some pieces are even dated, making them some of the most desirable on the market.

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  • Catteau’s wares reflect the influences of Japanese and African art

For Catteau, the influence of Japanese art was possibly the most profound. This can be observed in his use of vibrant, pure colours and forms; the stylised treatment of figures and symbols; and his careful application of decoration — all suggestive of Japanese ceramic technique. In addition to Japanese art, some of Catteau’s vases reflect a primitivism often found in African art.

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  • Animals were a key motif

Catteau’s famous deer motif, seen on early wares, was particularly popular during the Art Deco period.

Later, Catteau created pieces featuring animals in black or dark colours, set against bright backgrounds. This style, inspired by Chinese shadow-theatre, lent them a sense of mystery. 

Ancient Egypt came into fashion in 1920s Europe with the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Reflecting this, Catteau’s creations from around that time feature hieroglyph-like angular birds and repeating ornaments.

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  • As public tastes shifted, Boch Frères Keramis returned to classicism

In the 1930s, the public taste for pottery shifted and the Atelier de Fantaisie moved away from the avant-garde and towards classicism and naturalism. After 1935, Catteau’s involvement with Boch Frères Keramis diminished, although he continued to work for the factory until his retirement in 1946.