Grottoes and Potters

grotto lizard
Bernard Palissy: In Search of Earthly Paradise by Leonard Amico

I have been working on a book for Timber Press called Anatomy of a Garden. How I came to be writing such a book is a story for another day, but it’s a fun project. The histories of ceramics and horticulture have been linked for millennium and, like many potters, I am deeply interested in gardening.

One topic about which I knew little, however, was the grotto. A grotto is a watery garden feature, a retreat, often subterranean, inspired by the ancient Greek grottoes made in seaside caves. They are decorated, we might say encrusted, with shells and sparkling minerals and offer a cooling environment. Beginning in the fifteenth century, Italian nobles and kings became interested in having grottoes constructed for their own gardens. Status symbols during the Renaissance, and laden with meanings, they were a celebration of art and nature.  And it turns out, two potters are part of the story.

The sixteenth century French potter Bernard Palissy, known for his magnificently glazed earthenware decorated with fantastical but realistic flora and fauna – snakes, frogs, crustaceans, lizards, crows, ferns, moss – was also a maker of grottoes. Palissy had spent fifteen years developing his bright, translucent glazes, sometimes, by his own account, at great cost. During one firing, filled with glaze tests, he ran out of wood before reaching temperature. In desperation, or perhaps I should say, with determination, he yanked the trellises from his garden, tore up the floor boards in his house, even chopped up his table for the necessary wood. Many of his molds were life casts which he would assemble to create a larger mold for his basins and platters.

Anne de Montmorency who was an influential and wealthy member of the French aristocracy, a statesman, soldier, and diplomat, admired Palissy’s pottery covered with leaves and reptiles and most famously, snakes, and commissioned him to create a two-story grotto. It was a perfect project for Palissy’s rich imagination. He would festoon the grotto with swags of ceramic fruit. There would be a fountain with ceramic shells, frogs, lizards and fish. The second story of the grotto would have “terms,” life size statues that mysteriously appeared to evolve from their pedestals. Palissy worked for nearly a decade on the grotto, making wondrous ceramic objects to completely cover the interior.

But he was also an activist Protestant in Catholic France. The Catholic authorities raided his atelier and destroyed his fired and unfired pieces along with many of his molds and tools. They sent him to prison to await execution for heresy.  It is unclear if the grotto was installed but most historians believe that it was not. How annoying to make all those intricate and carefully glazed pieces only to be hauled off to jail!

Released with the help of friends in high places, he next worked on a grotto for

grotto lizard
Fragment of ceramic lizard, from the book Bernard Palissy.

the garden of Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother, perhaps using some of the surviving molds.  Archaeologists believe the walls were covered with glazed bricks covered with ceramic shells and moss, as some have been found. Interestingly, the grotto was not made in place, but at his workshop and transported. However, he later planned a grotto that was completely glazed inside and fired in place. The thought of that is almost enough to make me want to try!

Palissy was a writer as well as a potter. One of his last published works contained an essay which included detailed written plans for his ideal garden. As it turns out, this is the only full description we have of a French Renaissance garden. In it, his ceramic grottoes are a key feature.

Two centuries later, a successful terra cotta manufacturer, James Pullman (the second in a line of four James Pullmans), invented an artificial stone, which he called Pulhamite, for the construction of grottoes. With artificial stone, one could make a grotto anywhere. You didn’t need a natural cave or boulders. In his pottery, Pulham made terra cotta birth baths, flower pots, and other garden ornaments and also did stone work. With his invention of artificial stone, he and his descendants became the leading creators of grottoes and landscapes. They could provide everything but the plants.

Grotto
Tunnel to grotto, made of Pulhamite.

To read about Palissy and his ceramics, with details about his ceramic grottoes, turn to Barnard Palissy by Leonard N. Amico. This is a carefully researched biography of the great potter and of course, includes a wealth of information about his rustic pottery which is what most of us think of when he we hear his name. For the Pulhams, turn to Rock Landscapes: The Pulham Legacy. Sadly, it does not have much information about the Pulham family’s work in clay, as its focus is on Pulhamite. Still, it is interesting, especially if you happen to be interested in grottoes.

 

Crocker Farm, The Forgotten Freeman Potter, and More

Thomas Commeraw Jar

I knew that even if I hadn’t spent eight hundred plus dollars to fix my truck (it failed emissions), I would not be able to afford to participate in the Crocker Farm March auction. Still, I indulged myself and ordered the print edition of the catalog. Oh what a lovely thing it is. There are over five hundred pieces of early American stoneware and redware pots, all beautifully photographed, and described.

Crocker Farm was founded in 1983 by Anthony and Barbara Zipp and now includes their sons Brandt, Luke and Mark. They have made themselves experts on early American ceramics by studying eighteenth and nineteenth century census records, newspapers, city directories, books, local lore and the pots themselves. They deeply research each of the pots they auction and share that information in their online and print catalogs, in videos and lectures.

The pages of the March 2017 catalog are filled with wonderful pieces. There are lead glazed redware dishes and jars, splashed with manganese or copper; salt-glazed stoneware vessels with cobalt decorations – incised, stamped, brushed; Albany slip and alkaline glazed stoneware. Jars. Jugs. Pitchers. Churns. Inkwells. Oyster jars. Plates. Impressive big ware – a ten-gallon pitcher thought to be for a showroom window. Miniatures, perfectly thrown.

I especially loved the signed and dated stoneware jar by Dave, the famous slave potter. It holds about eight gallons, a testament to his legendary skill on the wheel. It is covered in a lovely tan, alkaline glaze. There are pieces from the well-known Crolius family, one a particularly wonderful ovoid jug, the elegant swelling form they perfected, plus pots from the Remmey family of Manhattan.

Thomas Commeraw Ovoid Jug.

Most remarkable and interesting to me are the pots made by Thomas Commeraw, who was a Manhattan contemporary of Crolius and Remmey. The catalog includes several fine examples. There’s an ovoid jug with an especially nice form, swelling gracefully from a narrow base to a curved shoulder. It features a “heavily-tooled spout, decorated with an impressed and cobalt-highlighted drape-and-tassel motif resembling clamshells.” There’s a stoneware jar with an “impressed Federal Drape Design.” This does not have quite the swell that the jug has, but it does call out to a potter’s soul.

Commeraw’s work has been known and recognized for years, but he was incorrectly assumed to be of French descent. Poring over the census records, Brandt Zipp discovered that Commeraw was a free African American potter with a shop in Coerlears Hook on the Lower East Side from around 1796-1819. Commeraw has become a passion for Brandt Zipp. He has devoted himself to extensive research and now, for the past several years he has been writing a biography of him. Hurry, Mr. Zipp! I want to read it! Surely, once published, the book will give Commeraw his rightful place in not only ceramics history, but American history.

Covering Brandt’s research for the New York Times, Eve M. Kahn wrote in Oct. 13, 2011. “Mr. Zipp has uncovered details about Commeraw’s clients, including black church leaders and abolitionists, and tantalizing hints that the ceramist helped soldiers protect New York forts during the War of 1812. Around 1820, the American Colonization Society sent Commeraw to Sierra Leone to govern a new colony of free blacks. He sent back copious letters about conditions there.”

You can view all of the Crocker Farm catalogs online. If you are interested in early American ceramics, it is worth spending the time to view the catalogs and watch the videos. They are a treasure. Of particular interest are the videos in which Brandt Zipp talks about Commeraw. Plus, he has created a website dedicated to Commeraw. Crocker Farm’s next auction is in July, so we can look forward to that catalog (or bidding if one has the funds), while we await the biography of Thomas Commeraw.

John Britt on Glazes

You might be tempted to read through the glaze recipes in John Britt’s new book, The Complete Guide to Mid-Range Glazes: Glazing & Firing at Cones 4 – 7, and skip the text. Don’t do it. You might think that because you fire at higher or lower temperatures, the book would be of no use to you. Big mistake. The Complete Guide to Mid-Range Glazes is packed with information and belongs on every potter’s bookshelf.

“Iron oxide, “ Britt tells us, “makes up about 7 percent of the top layer of the earth’s crust, and it’s the most common coloring oxide in ceramics. In fact, iron is everywhere on our planet. Technically speaking, all glazes contain some iron.”  Elsewhere in the text he points out, “There are four major forms of iron oxide. These are red iron oxide, magnetic iron, black iron oxide, and yellow iron oxide.” He then goes on to explain the differences between them and how they react in the fire.

Writing of feldspar he tells us that “most feldspars melt at cone 9, the lowest melting feldspar is nepheline syenite, which melts at cone 6.” Each paragrapah is packed with nuggets like these.

Britt also gives an overview of each type of glaze along with its history. In the section on Temmoku he tells us, “During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Japanese visited a monastery in a Chinese mountain called Tianmu Shan (Mount Eye of Heaven), where they collected some Jai (oil spot temmoku) tea bowls. The Japanese were inspired to imitate their look. They referred to their highly prized bowls as Tianmu or Temmoku (sometimes spelled Tenmoku.” Later he tells us “Tea dust is a low alumina temmoku glaze that contains magnesium oxide, which is responsible for the yellow-green pyroxene crystals that are of typical of this type.”

Added to this wealth of glaze and materials information, are charts, photos, advice on mixing and applying, and the recipes themselves. Stunning.

Britt devotes an entire chapter to making his argument for firing at cone 6, citing savings in time and money and the reduction of one’s carbon footprint. “For functional ware,” he writes, “cone 6 stoneware is an excellent choice because it’s very durable and vitrified…so it can withstand repeated trips into the dishwasher and microwave. Also, glazes can be made that are stable and don’t leach harmful chemicals.” He goes on to share his ideas on how best to move from cone 10 down to cone 6.

The Complete Guide to Mid-Range Glazes is a must for every potter’s reference library. Thank you John Britt for your extensive research and in depth understanding and your ability to explain what you have learned so clearly.