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.

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.


Considering Art Deco Tiles

I would not want to fill my home with Art Deco tiles. I do not care much for their streamlined designs in bold colors or their polygons, hexagons, and octagons. Nor am I entranced with Art Deco’s celebration of both the machine age and all things ancient Egyptian. But I do find much of the movement fascinating. I like the notion of using tiles to accent the exteriors of skyscrapers, to give directions in subway tunnels, as signs in bookstores, and fireplace surrounds. In that sense builders during the interwar years got it right: clay is a wonderful architectural material.

I have been mud-obsessed enough myself to make floor, countertop, and range hood tiles for my home and know the challenges of such. But my tiles are very simple and unadorned requiring little technical know-how; I deeply respect the extraordinary skills of the Art Deco tile makers who worked on a large scale for a wide range of uses.

Hand Van Lemmen, who is President of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, a freelance historian, former member of the faculty at Leeds Metropolitan University, and tile expert has recently added to his list of books on tiles with Art Deco Tiles, new from Shire. It’s a rich little book, filled with illustrations, history and Lemmen’s overview of the manufacture of these colorful tiles.

Lemmen describes the great British tile factories such as Carter & Co. and the artists who worked for them.  The Carter firm had been in business making floor and wall tiles since the second half of the nineteenth century, “but in 1921 a new partnership was set involving Cyril Carter, Harold Stabler, and John Adams. Cyril Carter was the businessman and Harold Stabler and John Adams were trained designers and artists.” Stabler and Adams brought their wives, Phoebe Stabler and Truda Adams, also artists, into the firm. Alas, Truda divorced Adams and married Carter, but no matter, artists held an important role in tile making. In fact, Lemmen points out that it was during the Art Deco years that women were no longer mere decorators but designers in their own right.

In addition to the manufacture and design, Lemmen discusses the uses of Art Deco tiles and shows us an electric fireplace, a gleaming tiled bathroom, tile clad buildings, and more. This is followed by a section on collecting and a useful bibliography. He has an even better bibliography on his website which is worth a visit.

Terracotta Roof Birds of Bali

A few weeks ago the House of Terracotta Facebook page posted a series of photos of Balinese earthenware birds on the ridges of wooden rooftops. The plump birds were lined up on the roof top in the way of real birds, facing various directions, and at one end of the roof, there was a large bird, a partridge maybe, or pheasant, something with plumes. I was entranced. And whenever I am entranced with something in clay, I think at once I must have it, or even, I must try to make it. At the very least, I must read about it.

There are buildings with tile roofs here in New England, roofs that have withstood the vicissitudes of our weather, but I think that clay birds set along the roof peak might not fare well in our snow storms, northeasters, hurricanes, and in recent years, tornadoes. Global warming has not been kind to us. Perhaps instead, the birds should sit in the garden and come inside for the winter?

And then curiously, while thinking about the clay birds, and looking at the photos on House of Terracotta’s page – as is so often the way when something that is new to you or that you haven’t thought about in awhile suddenly starts popping up here and there in your life  – Majapahit Terracotta: The Soedarmadji Jean Henry Damais Collection arrived in the bookstore and there, lo and behold, were more Balinese terracotta roof birds.

This little book, published in Indonesia in 2012 and available internationally, in English here, is a look at the wonderful ancient terracotta of Bali as collected by Mr. Damais who co-founded the Indonesian Ceramica Society. In addition to the charming clay birds in his collection he has elaborate pillar bases, miniature shrines, basins, containers, ewers, gargoyles, ornamental garden statues and offering stands. He admits to a bit of a problem with provenance of some of his pieces, and even the possibility of fakery, as there seems to be a thriving business in fake antiques in Bali. With this in mind, he has devised some reliable tests to ascertain the antiquity of those holdings in doubt.

The Majapahit Empire was at the height of its power around the middle of the 14th century. It “covered an area from the Kedu valley eastward on the island of Java, as well as the islands of Madura and Bali.” The Majapahit were fine crafts workers, using primarily wood, bronze, stone and clay. They were master brick makers and bricklayers whose skills astonish the modern eye when looking at the intricate temples and gates they built. Some still stand all these centuries later.

Majapahit Terracotta is a little gem with excellent photos. A nice introduction to some really good ceramics.

Tiny Homes

Both my grandfathers were carpenters and my father, an engineer, was a talented cabinetmaker. I inherited none of their skills or talent, though I do love the smell of sawdust, and on occasion, pick up a handsaw and try to cut a board, usually with disastrous results. Still, I am fascinated with houses, especially vernacular architecture and even more especially, homes made of mud.

Lloyd Kahn was the shelter editor for the Whole Earth Catalog and wrote the Domebooks One and Two in the seventies. He has been making houses and following vernacular architecture for many years. I love his books.

His new one, Tiny Homes Simple Shelter is crammed with photos, many submitted by the builders. They are all very small. Honestly, I do not think I could actually live in a traveler’s wagon – where would I put my books? my wheel? – but it is enchanting to dream of such a vagabond life, or better yet, conjure a wagon in the field behind the house.

I love all the houses Kahn showcases, but most of all the cob houses. Cob, made of clay balls with a bit of temper, is an ancient and widespread building material. It offers amazing freedom when it comes to design. Domes, curves, sculpted shelves – whatever you imagine. Cob holds the heat in winter and is cool is summer. And quiet. Perfect, I think, for a studio, a giant pot of a studio.

British Medieval Floor Tiles

I have been looking through Hans Van Lemmen’s short illustrated book, Medieval Tiles. Not that I am thinking of making another floor, which is what most thirteenth century tiles were used for, but the holidays are almost here and we are in a frenzy of cleaning and doing postponed repairs. One of those repairs is to put new tiles on the hood over the stove to replace the ones that tragically fell off. Well, tragic is perhaps too strong a word, as no one was hurt, but the stove’s shiny black enamel was chipped and that was if not tragic, irritating. Our theory is that the wooden hood that Joe built expanded and contracted with the cooking heat, eventually weakening the bond. But I fear the truth is, I did a bad mortaring job.

Medieval tile makers produced tiles in wooden molds or cut them from sheets of clay using metal templates. Sometimes the edges were angled in, so the faces were close together when installed but underneath there was room for mortar. Tile making, like throwing during so much of history, was seasonal work, with the clay being prepared and allowed to weather during the cold winter months, and the actual tile making and firing taking place in the summer. The craftsmen were anonymous with all the prestige going to their customers who commissioned the work.

Tilers were paid per thousand tiles. I can’t imagine making thousands upon thousands of tiles, but I did make many, many hundreds for our solarium floor. Making, drying, and firing them was fun though it took a long time. Installing them was not fun at all. I suspect the same was true for those making tiles in the thirteenth century, because they favored regular shapes, often with repeat designs, which is no easier to make than varying shapes and designs, and perhaps a bit boring to do, but makes laying the tiles far easier than irregular shapes would. And, tellingly, they eschewed having to (spare us) cut fired tiles.

Tile floors were a huge improvement over dirt floors, prettier, easier to care for, and cleaner. They were affordable only for the abbeys and monasteries and large manor homes. Van Lammen describes a mosaic tile floor that is 29,000 square feet (Medieval British mosaics were made of fired clay, and purpose made, not bits of stone as in Roman times, or post-fire, broken bits as is done today).

The two primary types of decoration were recessed and raised, both made with wooden stamps. Sometimes potters covered leather hard tiles with a white slip that they then scraped off, leaving the design in the recessed areas. More rarely they used sgraffito. Whatever the decorating method, the tiles were coated with a glossy lead glaze and once fired. They came in shades of red, brown, light and dark green, yellow, cream and black.

Many of the tiles floors were replaced with new tiles as they became worn.  Amazingly, a few floors have remained intact after all these centuries. But most have been lost. Van Lemmen writes, “The two main factors that caused the demise of the medieval tile industry during the first half of the sixteenth century were the introduction of colourful maiolica tiles from Italy through Flanders, which generated a new tile fashion, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. After the Dissolution many monastic buildings were sold, only to be pulled down, and their stones and sometimes their tiles were used for other buildings. Monastic houses in remote areas were not so likely to be used as stone quarries. They fell into ruin, their tiled floors becoming covered with debris to be rediscovered at a later date.”

My hood tiles are made and fired. What we have to do is affix them to the hood – lest the whole family arrive for Christmas and see that a year later, it is still not done. But I am dreaming of making tiles for behind the stove, stamped, I think in the way of the early tile makers, and maybe laid out in a green and white checker pattern. Yes, I will have that done by next Christmas …

A Love of Bricks

Driving to Providence, Rhode Island the other day, I was shocked to see that the old woolen mill in Dayville is collapsing in on itself.  This area of Connecticut once hummed with huge brick or stone mills powered by the abundant fast moving rivers that rush between our hills towards Long Island Sound. Today, these old mills stand idle or have been creatively re-purposed. The looms are silent. The trains no longer stop.

They are massive structures, often added to over the years, covering acres of land. I cannot guess how many bricks, brick makers or bricklayers it took to build them.

It is tempting to romanticize these pretty old mills, but those who toiled at the machinery inside them worked long, hard hours. Many of the mills, including the mill that was collapsing in Dayville (known first as the Sayles and later the Prym Mill) contaminated the soil and water. Toxins continue to poison decades after the mills closed.

Apparently the roof failed in the spring of 2010. Now the brick walls are disintegrating from the top down, leaving a heap of bricks along the foundation. Bricks even fill a landing on an old fire escape. I love bricks and could not help but wonder what will become of them. It’s a good thing the place is surrounded with barriers and barbed wire, or I might have scooped up a few bricks and put them into the back of my truck. The building may go, but the bricks will be around for a very long time, hopefully not as landfill.

Early American brick making began with the colonists who found an abundance of clay. At first, a homebuilder would dig and mold the clay and fire the bricks close to his home building site but soon brick making centers developed with a brickyard or two on the outskirts of most cities and large towns.  In the early twentieth century, brickmaking was mechanized and then concentrated in the Midwest. Today, most of the bricks used in the US are made in Mexico.

People have been building with bricks since at least 5,000 BCE. For an in depth and exciting look at this extraordinary building unit made of our favorite material, read Brick: A World History by James W.P. Campbell. He takes us on a tour of ancient Babylon –  “It has been estimated that the ziggurat at Babylon contained some 36 million bricks.” – shows us the engineering feats of Rome’s bricklayers – the Romans standardized their brick sizes — and marvels at the magnificent stupas of the East – “Few sights in the world are more breathtaking than the sun rising over the ancient city of Pagan…The houses of the city that once covered the fertile plain were made of timber and have long since disappeared, but the temples, which were made of baked brick, remain…Today some 2,000 remain, together forming one of the largest collections of ancient brick monuments of the world.”

The book is beautifully illustrated with photos by Will Pryce, photos that will make you want to leave the studio at once and go see all the wonderful brick buildings  for yourself. Brick came out in November of 2003 but, thankfully, remains in print and is readily available.

For a shorter treatment of bricks, there’s Bricks and Brickmaking by Martin Hammond, focusing on British brickmaking history. Hammond collected old bricks, made wood fired bricks and tiles himself – this is what happens to you if you are truly smitten — and belonged to British Brick Society. I wish I could have met him.

A Dragon on the Roof

After watching the video last week on unfired mud houses, my thoughts turned to fired architectural features. We all know that fired clay is everywhere in the house; toilets, floors, fireplaces and brick walls, but I was thinking particularly about roofs, or, as Hans van Lemmen calls it in his fun little book from Shire, Ceramic Roofware.

Tile roofs have been used throughout the world for millennia. Lemmen focuses his attention on Britain (Shire publishes hundreds of small, inexpensive books on British history, many of which are of interest to potters). The Romans brought tile roofs to Britain (the word tile is from the Latin tegula). Sadly, like most of the innovations the Romans introduced to the inhabitants of the British Isles, all was forgotten once the Empire broke apart and the Romans left. During the Dark Ages, roofs were made of thatch and wooden shingles.

But thatch and wooden shingles are dangerously flammable. A whole row of houses could quickly go up in flames with just one stray spark from a cooking fire. Gradually, tiles came back into use, first for prestigious buildings and then in urban areas for safety’s sake.

There are good directions for making your own medieval style English roof tiles in The Potter’s Alternative by Harry Davis. Early English tiles were flat and rectangular with a nail hole at the top for attaching. Some were made with a heel at the top so that they could be hung rather than nailed (or often both). Like all roofing materials, they overlapped to prevent rain from coming in. These early tiles were hand made by local potters and were fire resistant and waterproof and, unlike thatch, they did not attract mice and other critters. We could, if we wanted, or needed to, make them today ourselves in our studios and they would serve our homes well. Davis gives detailed instruction for not only flat English tiles but for the more often seen pantiles. “It is an ignominious experience indeed,” he writes, “ to be in the position of wanting to make pots in some remote place, wanting also to show the local inhabitants how to do so with the materials they have around them, and yet not knowing how to put a roof on some shed in which to do this. To succumb to using corrugated iron, or some other manufactured roof material made 10,000 miles away, is humiliating as well.”

Ok, when I grow up I want to be Harry Davis, or at least have his skill, or maybe Michael Cardew, not for his fame, but for his extraordinary self-sufficient abilities in addition to his art. If a potter put only two books on the shelf, Pioneer Pottery and A Potter’s Alternative are the two that I would suggest. Even if your studio is in suburbia or a city and you use an electric kiln, it is worth knowing this stuff.

Pantiles, the curved roof tiles, were brought to the UK from the Low Countries. As demand increased and the industrial revolution got underway, tile making was mechanized and roof tiles became prevalent and affordable.

Van Lemmen is interested in much more than roof tiles however. He goes on to discuss chimneys, chimney pots and decorations with enthusiasm. Chimney pots came into fashion during the Georgian era when coal burning replaced wood, necessitating the stronger chimney draft that the pots created. Like tiles, chimney pots were initially handmade; thrown on the wheel. They were traditionally two feet tall, or the length of a potter’s arm. By the middle of the twentieth century, electricity and gas had replaced coal, and chimney pots were no longer needed. Many were destroyed but because they were often so decorative, they were salvaged as garden ornaments and today there is a robust international business in antique chimney pots and reproductions.

It’s the ridge finials in Ceramic Roofware that really make me smile. Here we see the potters’ imaginations gone wild, surely inspired by distant Chinese roof decorations and closer to home,  magnificent cathedral gargoyles. They made winged dragons, kingly lions, enormous birds and purely ornamental shapes as ridge finials. Imposing. Playful. I think if I could sculpt (and alas I cannot). I might make a frog finial for our roof, perhaps sitting cross-legged reading a book.  I know, it would look a bit out of place in rural Connecticut, but as more and more of us put solar panels on our roofs, roof dragons might be just the thing. I notice there’s a roof dragon website in Britain.

The Joy of Mud Houses

With a good roof and a good foundation, a mud house can last for many centuries. But if it is no longer needed, it can be allowed to “return to the earth,” leaving little or no trace. Because clay is ubiquitous, mud houses are made with local materials, usually from the actual site itself, and often, though not always, by the inhabitants. Half the world’s population lives or works in mud buildings.

First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture, a DVD by David Sheen celebrates and extols the virtues of mud building. Sheen looks particularly at the astonishing ten-story skyscrapers in Yemen, the lovely antique cob houses of the UK, and the cob movement in the northwestern US. This is not a how-to video; it is an attempt to convince the fifty percent of the population that does not live or work in mud buildings to do so.

I live in a small wooden cape but do not need any convincing regarding the beauty or desirability of building with clay. I dream of one day making a little cob structure myself, mixing some of the red clay from the hill we live on with some of my trimming scraps, some manure from my daughter-in-law’s horses, and of course some nice clean chopped straw. It’s building a good stone foundation that gives me pause and that is probably beyond my skills. However, watching Sheen’s DVD and seeing all the inviting dwellings made me start planning again.

I wish he hadn’t opened the video with the sculpted mud houses in the US because they give an “old hippie” feel to the project. Not that I haven’t been accused of being an old hippie myself, and not that these houses aren’t aesthetically pleasing, but in truth, building with the earth is a very conservative, widespread and ancient method of construction, and that’s what skeptics and building inspectors need to understand first in order to be convinced. There is nothing la la about it.

Sheen is emphatic about the environmental benefits. Mud buildings are easier to warm in winter than other buildings, and they are cooler in summer. The materials do not require fossil fuels to transport or process. They are light on the earth.

He also points out that living in a mud house has nothing to do with one’s socioeconomic status. Yes, there are many impoverished people who live in simple one or two room affairs, but there are also high-end mud mansions. The segment on the UK features some lovely old cob houses and barns and the strictly governed restoration work that is being done to preserve them for another few centuries. There are, Sheen points out, over 40,000 cob houses in Devon alone. He shows us cozy rooms with red or blue walls, built in bookcases, pretty lamps and overstuffed sofas.

Because mud walls are thick and easily sculpted they lend themselves to the creation of niches, window seats, and built-ins. This is true in the mud houses of India and Pakistan (oddly not mentioned in the DVD), the thatched cottages in England, and the adobes of the American Southwest. Windowsills and doorjambs are invitingly wide. These houses are quiet.

First Earth includes the video plus interviews, slide shows, and printable high-res photographs. A nice package. In addition to this DVD, there are some excellent books on the topic, both instructional and appreciative, which I will reread and likely discuss in a future post before mixing up any batches of cob myself. Meanwhile, if you would like a bibliography, drop me an email.