Frances Palmer’s work has been featured in numerous design publications such as T, The New York Times style magazine, Elle Decor, Martha Stewart Living, and others. Bergdorf Goodman, Barney’s of New York and other high end have carried her pieces. This month, Artisan published her lavishly illustrated memoir, Life in the Studio: Inspiration and Lessons in Creativity.
I love to read memoirs, especially memoirs of potters and gardeners. This is both. Palmer, who lives in a rural town in what we in Connecticut call the Gold Coast, home to many affluent residents with jobsin New York City, has a beautiful purpose-built barn for a studio. Actually, she and her husband did not initially build it with the intention that she take over the whole thing, but you know how potters are. She makes her pots, mostly vases, on the first floor. She uses the second floor to pack and ship them and more importantly photograph them. She stores her dahlia tubers in the cool basement.
Outside the studio, on an old fenced-in tennis court, she grows masses of flowers in raised beds. She cuts and gathers the flowers and uses them to create extravagant arrangements in her vases. She photographs these tableaus in the natural light of an east window of the barn in the morning and a west window in the afternoon.
Palmer thinks of herself as primarily a potter, and it is pots that she sells. However, it’s her dramatic photos that have brought her 72,100 followers on Instagram. She also has a horticultural reputation and teaches a class on growing dahlias at the New York Botanical Garden.
In addition to vases, Palmer makes cake stands, fruit bowls with pedestals, pitchers, and planters embellished with fluting, sprigs, and beading. She works on the wheel, hand builds and uses her own drape molds. She works primarily with porcelain but also uses a red earthenware clay which she glazes only on the inside. Recently she added a wood burning kiln to her studio.
In Life in the Studio, Palmer shares her methods of making, tips on growing flowers, and a few favorite recipes. She tells us how she and her work have grown and evolved through the years, how she came to photography, and what her hopes are for the future. If that isn’t enough, the book is nicely laid out and seductively pretty.
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
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.
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.
A few years ago I saw some wonderful French earthenware jars for sale in a New Orleans shop and fell in love with them. Foolishly, I didn’t purchase any. So expensive! How would I carry them on the plane? Typical flawed thinking. Perhaps, a return trip is in order? But that would make for a really expensive pot wouldn’t it?
Happily, Noëlle Duck and Christian Sarramon, the author and photographer of A Home in Provence: Interiors, Gardens, Inspirationhave also fallen in love with rustic French pottery. Although their book is for interior decorators who dream of furnishing rooms in a sun washed manse, nearly every photo features pottery.
We see large antique terra cotta jars and flowerpots set out on a gravel terrace. Urns planted with box or standing century at a windowsill. There are “Classic pots in natural clay from the Raval Pottery in Aubagne and enameled jars from the Poterie du Soleil at Biot …[and] vases flanked with medallions, including one in the shape of a child’s head from Anduze.” And oil jars, water jugs, bowls, tians, splashed with green or yellow glazes. And then there are roof tiles and floor tiles and tiles for the wall. Enough to make one’s heart race.
In the chapter called Ceramics and Glassware, Duck and Sarramon celebrate highly decorated faience as well as the simpler pottery that I love so much and even offer a few photos of pots in process. Not a book for potters exactly, but if you like old earthenware jars with swelling shoulders made from the pink clay of Provence, you will want to take a look.
There are a half dozen books on my reading pile that I want to tell you about, but, exciting news, at least for me, my new book, Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden is shipping to bookstores now and should start arriving next week. It is, at last, an object that you can touch, pick up and turn the pages and yes, read. And it is beautiful! Between Guy’s wonderful pots and Joe Szalay’s stunning photography, and the excellent design work at UPNE, it is something to behold.
A book lives in one’s head for a very long time, and then there are editors and designers and indexers and sales people, and it is no longer your own, but still, it is not real and for the most part, it remains in your head, and on your computer screen and the screens of your publishers. Until, one day it is printed and bound and becomes real. For Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden, that day has come.
Guy is very well known in horticultural circles where his pots are highly prized. He’s a fast thrower, moving, literally, tons of clay a year. His pots are visually strong, robustly thrown, and connect with people on subconscious and emotional levels. In this biography, I have tried to capture him on the page, using his own words as much as possible. I was fortunate in being able to interview a number of people who shared their Guy Wolff stories – Hannah McAndrew, Todd Piker, Gordon Titcomb, Peter Wakefield Jackson and others, (and thank them immensely). The book is a look at Guy’s life in clay, how he came to be the potter he is, his ideas on the making of a good pot, and the pots and potters, especially the old time potters, that influenced him.
Joe photographed many of Guy’s pots and some of the early pots that he has collected and reveres (they reside in the loft over his workshop). He also brings us into Guy’s shop where we see the pots on his shelves, the tools on his walls, watch him throw, and glimpse his wife Erica’s gardens which feature some of Guy’s very large pots.
I think if you are a potter (and who but potters reads this blog), you will find Guy’s story interesting. If you are a gardener and own or covet his pots, you will enjoy knowing more about the man who made them. There is considerable flowerpot history in the book too, as Guy is an expert on early English and American pottery. I am hoping that even beyond our world of mud and plants, people will find his life by the hand, with its ups and downs, his work for Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs, Joe Eck and others, intriguing.
Joe and I will be visiting a number of bookstores to autograph copies. Guy will be at a few special events. A list is on the Event page of my website.
Meanwhile, I have a making list that is long, so I will be in the studio, and the gardens need attention, but I will get to that stack of books that I want to share. My next book project, also with Joe, is on Sunken Gardens, and after that, a biography of a specific pot and the very different ways it has been perceived by various cultures through the years.
Sometimes you need a daydreaming kind of book, something escapist to take you to a romanticized place where the garden never looks weedy and there’s always fresh baked bread on the table. Jasper Conran’s Country is just such a book. Every page has at least one of Andrew Montgomery’s wistful photos of rural England. Just flipping through and looking at these photos is enough to transport you. The text feels like an extra bonus.
There are hollyhocks by cottage doors, cows in the meadows, rushing streams, fishermen’s ancient shacks, glorious roses, shabby chic interiors and a baby lamb in a kitchen. This is not a book about ceramics but you can’t have a book about the English countryside without pottery.
We see a two page spread of an auricula theatre with three dozen lovely English flower pots each planted with a single auricula. Conran writes, “I was intrigued by an auricula threatre. Auriculas were the height of fashion in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when they first began to arrive in Britain from Continental Europe and enthusiasts, often in stately homes, used these tiered ‘theatres’ to display their prized plants to their friends.”
There are flowerpots in the gardens. There are rustic tile floors. I especially liked the large cream and brown slip-trailed oval dish set off by itself on a dark wooden table but wondered at the painting of two shoes on a pillow that hung on the wall behind it. Fine export porcelain from China, blue and white and polychrome, graces the grander rooms.
Four pages are devoted to Tim Hurn the Dorset potter who works in a pretty brick dairy shed that he converted to a studio. Hurn must like the photo in the book of him stacking his anagama because he has it on his homepage. I like it too, and the photo of his unfired bowls and jugs ready for the flame. And I wish my workshop were as pretty as his, with a vegetable patch in front, and fields and hills all around. That is exactly the reason to peruse a book like this, to fantasize and imagine.
Andrew McGarva tells us in his read-me-again book, Country Pottery: Traditional Earthenware of Britain published a dozen years ago, that a boy (no girls allowed)* signing on for an eight to ten year apprenticeship had to agree to certain standards of behavior: no fornication but no marriage either; no card playing nor haunting of taverns or visiting playhouses. There was, however, a long workday, with little time for such temptations. At Ewenny in the south of Wales, the apprentice’s day began at eight in the morning and ended at seven in the evening on weekdays and at four on Saturdays. This was typical.
A potter himself, McGarva defines country pottery as that made in the rural areas of the UK from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Sadly, by World War II, many of the potteries had been demolished or converted to other uses. A few persisted with a handful continuing to this day, though some that were in operation when he published the book in 2000, such as the steam-powered Wetheriggs at Clifton Dykes have since closed. Fortunately, Wetheriggs is now a museum.
He looks at the pots and the subtle difference between their shapes from one pottery to another. There are horticultural wares including flowerpots, strawberry pots, rhubarb forcers, seedpans and even pigeon nesting bowls and chimney pots. And there pots for domestic and dairy use: pancheons, wash tubs, mixing bowls, colanders, bread crocks, baking dishes, ham pans, salt pigs, poultry waterers, pipkins, bottles and more.
Reveling in the robust beauty of these old pots he writes, “… any potter can see that what these old potters made best, with skill and spontaneity, were the ‘ordinary” pots for everyday use. Through their simplicity and directness, they represent a honed tradition of functionalism: design of the kind where nothing superfluous exists. Plain pots have a tendency to be valued only when sufficiently distanced in time, place of origin or rarity. A continuation of tradition is less noticed than innovation or change.”
There are wonderful old photos of these potteries, clusters of brick buildings with tiles roofs, men stacking the huge round kilns or throwing on their wheels. One whole chapter is devoted to A. Harris & Sons, Farnham Potteries, Wrecclesham (now closed), which had the last bottle kiln to be fired in England. It was still in use in the late seventies. Another is devoted to Soil Hill and the legendary Isaac Button and includes a floor plan of his shop.
The last chapter is a hopeful “In the Footsteps of the Country Potters.” Happily, most of the potters listed are still making pots.
* Women in the family might deal with the business aspects of the shop, such as writing out invoices, especially if their husband was (not atypically) illiterate. On occasion, a woman took over the running of the shop after the death of her husband. This was true at Wetheriggs, which Margaret Thornburn ran after her husband died.
Fifty years ago the British archaeologist Dudley Waterman painstakingly drew each of the pots that the Yorkshire Museum had at that time acquired. The pots were made over the course of 400 years, from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Waterman’s line drawings are primarily side views cut in half, with the right side showing the exterior of the pot, and the left showing the pot as if it had been sliced open. In addition, there are a few drawings of details. If you are looking for inspiration or information, these drawings are a modern potter’s dream.
Forty years later, with the collection of pots enlarged, the Museum produced Medieval Pottery in the Yorkshire Museum. It’s a wonderful volume. The book includes photos, Waterman’s drawings, new drawings in the same style by Trevor Pearson and others, and informative text by Sarah Jennings. There are also maps and charts and enchanting drawings of workshops, a kiln and the pots in use after depictions in contemporaneous manuscripts.
Jennings divides the wares into two sorts: “kitchen or coarse” wares and “table or fine” wares. These are all practical pots, with strong shapes, and rich fire wrought colors. There are jugs, cisterns, cooking pots, drip pans, jars, sprinklers, condiment dishes and more. Many items, such as the jug, were made in a variety of shapes. Like much of our pottery today, a single pot, or shape could have multiple uses.
Note: I had to smile to myself a couple of weeks ago while selling at the Coventry Farmer’s Market. I had three or four of my spoon jars on display with a little stand up sign that said, “Keep your cooking utensils handy. Put a bouquet of spoons in a jar.” A woman picked one up and asked, “Can I put flowers in it?” Yes, of course. Using it for utensils was just a suggestion. So too with the English Medieval wares. A jug might be used for drinking, for storage, for carrying or even for heating: whatever the household needed it for.
The earliest kitchen or coarse wares were left unglazed. Early fine ware was “splash” glazed (dusted with glaze in dry, powdered form), usually only on the top exterior of a pot as decoration. Later, suspension glazes were used and copper was added for color. All of the ware was single-fired.
“Every town and most villages would have had at least one or more potters working in the vicinity,” Jennings writes. “Each ‘pottery’ would comprise a workshop with a wheel or turntable for making the pots on, somewhere to store the finished pots while they dried out, an area to store the raw clay, a store for fuel, a source of water and some type of kiln to fire the finished and dried pots.”
She goes on to say, “Making pottery was frequently a part time and seasonal occupation, often undertaken in conjunction with small scale farming.” We know this has been the norm for potters in various cultures, throughout history. It might only be in 20 and 21st century America that there is a stigma to potters who are not “full time.”
Full time or not, Medieval Pottery will enliven every functional potter’s bookshelf.
Yes, that Tomie dePaola, the well-known illustrator and author of children’s books. I love his books. Strega Nona enchants me. Big Anthony makes me chuckle. The blues and yellows and pinks and reds and oranges of Tomie’s art make me happy.
So, I was thrilled to be invited to the celebration at his house yesterday –yes, really, his house — in New Hampshire. The cause for celebration was the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for Lifetime Achievement that he recently received. And to add frosting to the happiness, the Meriden Public Library named their children’s room for him. Much to be joyous about.
There were, I think about two-dozen guests, maybe a few more. I had my camera with me, but thought it might be gauche to attend a party in someone’s house and start taking pictures. Whom am I kidding? It is most certainly gauche. But one by one, other guests took out their cameras, and so, unable to restrain myself, I did too.
The house is surrounded by lush gardens planted with old -fashioned flowers such as black-eyed susans, daisies, catmint, hydrangeas, coneflowers, and false indigo. There’s a stone terrace, brick courtyard, decks, a borrowed view of a cornfield beyond a split rail fence, a small orchard, and numerous borders and island beds. I wandered, taking shots in the photographically too bright sun, dreaming of revamping my own gardens as soon as I got back to Connecticut.
The house itself is filled with folk art. Everywhere you look, there is something to see, all in carefully staged vignettes. And there are pots. Lots of pots. They are tucked here and there, lined up on the floor close to the wall, in the kitchen, on ledges and shelves, in cupboards, on tables. So, needless to say, I took photos of the pots. I hope I didn’t seem too pot obsessive, but I probably did. When I took a shot of the empty flowerpots outside, one guest gave me a “she’s peculiar” sort of glance and nodded knowingly to another guest.
My favorite piece was the early American red ware platter. The edges are somewhat chipped but otherwise it is in great condition.
Here are a few more pots from around Tomie’s house.
Upon seeing his fine collection, I felt a little foolish that I had brought him one of my own spoon jars but it was too late. It was wrapped in a fancy bag with tissue paper and sat on the bench in the entry with all the other presents. There was no way to retrieve it without being noticed.
Tomie’s new book, due out in September, isStrega Nona’s Gift about a holiday feast in Italy. I am sure there will be pots in the book. There were some nice bowls in Strega Nona’s Harvest. Hey, maybe Strega Nona could visit an Italian potter in her next book? You know, someone to make some dishes for her, or maybe some flowerpots for her garden.
The other day I was on bookstore business in West Hartford, so, being just a few miles down the road, I slipped over to Farmington for an hour to hear Steve Silk talk about the Sunken Garden at Hill-Stead. It was the first of Hill-Stead’s three-day May Market, so white tents filled with horticultural goods surrounded the beautiful farmhouse mansion designed my Theodate Pope Riddle for her parents. There were perennials and shrubs, look-at-me straw garden hats that could only be worn to a party but that were attracting a lot of attention, antiques, paintings, whimsical cement statues, bulbs (I bought three Mondriaan Oriental lilies), jewelry, and amazing scanner photography by Ellen Hoverkamp.
But I was not there to shop. I am of course including the Beatrice Farrand garden at Hill-Stead in my book on sunken gardens and was interested to hear what Silk, a garden designer and writer and world traveller, had to say about it. He made it clear that he was not going to talk about the plants or even much about the history of this notable garden but “share his impressions.” We (the audience) sat in the shade of the summerhouse in the center of the garden. The talk was worth listening to, and I took a few notes. After a walk around the garden, I headed to the edge of the lawn on my way to the field where my truck was parked.
That’s when I noticed the lovely, rustic Auricula Theater with pots by Guy Wolff. Wolff is the subject of my other writing project. I could not believe my luck. I realize it’s a bit self-serving to be writing about books I am working on instead of reading, but really this was quite a day.
Auricula Theaters are tiered displays of primroses in pots. They probably originated in 17th century France or Belgium and spread to the rest of Europe, particularly 19th century England. They were designed as a way to show off one’s collection of these colorful mountain gems and give them some protection from harsh wind, rain and sun. They could be simple affairs, with open boxes such as the Hill-Stead display, but wealthy estate owners often created elaborate Auricula Theaters with fancy woodwork, gold leaf, even curtains and painted backdrops. They have lately regained popularity. In fact, the April issue of Gardens Illustrated features one.
However plain or fancy the theater, it’s the pots with the primroses that are the show. Wolff, surely the most important horticultural potter working today, has interpreted the Auricula Pot for the Hill-Stead. His pots, perfectly sized for the bold yet diminutive flowers, are subtly flared with thickened rims. They are show showstoppers. The volunteers told me they were selling very well.
Visions of Auricula Theaters appearing in gardens all over New England popped into my head as I pulled my truck onto the highway. I suppose though, many people will keep just one or three Auricula Pots rather than a theater full, or even plant something other than a primrose.
What I really like about the Auricula Pot, and Wolff’s in particular, is the idea of the humble flowerpot as drama. Not the prop; half the show. Yes.
The other day my granddaughters and I were going through boxes of somewhat tattered children’s books (books their dad and aunt and uncle had read as kids), when I unexpectedly came upon Potter’s Wheel Projects, a staple bound Ceramics Monthly Handbook compiled by the magazine’s editors and Ceramics by Elizabeth Constantine and Lewis Krevolin. I immediately set the treasured Dr. Doolittle down on the floor and opened the Potter’s Wheel Projects. I remembered the books of course, but thought I’d lost them long ago during a move.
I flipped the pages of Potter’s Wheel Projects and smiled at the penguins and owls and cats made of thrown parts, which I’d never had the urge to make. However, there were plenty of projects I had made, carefully following the directions. Now I think the Yunnan cooker might be worth revisiting, as it is a steamer that sits in a saucepan. But it’s the wind bells in the piece by Frank A. Colson that got my attention as I sat on the floor surrounded by piles of juveniles.
My first garden bells were inspired by these wind bells (I still have two of them). They have copper wind catcher tails (there are directions for bathing the copper in chemicals and treating it with heat) attached to the clappers with a size 10 snap swivel which means no matter which way the wind blows, it is caught and the bell rings. Clever.
Ceramics, the other stray book in the box, had bells also. Pictured near the front were three pinch pot bells hung on a suspended tree branch. There was a lot of ceramic bell making during that long ago macramé era of pottery. Bells lined up vertically on strings. Bells as screens. Bells as ornament. Bells as, well, bells.
Thinking about these bells reminded me of the bells May Davis describes in her autobiography, May. I rushed downstairs to my bookshelves to find my copy. Ahh, there it was, a small book with a bright blue cover graced with Bernard Leach’s sketch of May Davis when she was in her twenties.
May and her husband Harry Davis met while working at the Leach Pottery in 1936. Harry was already a highly accomplished thrower (he wrote The Self-Sufficient Potter later in life) and had had experience at a number of potteries prior to joining Bernard and his son David as a thrower. May had run a small pottery from a shed in her parents’ garden. They wed in 1938 and together they built remarkable careers as potters working in England, West Africa, New Zealand, Patagonia, Paraguay and Peru. It was Harry Davis who suggested Michael Cardew as his successor in West Africa.
May and Harry believed pottery should be functional, sturdy, and affordable. Theirs was all that plus exquisitely beautiful. They made dinner sets, cups and saucers, jugs, tea and coffee sets, jars, lidded dishes, serving dishes, bowls, bottles and more all glazed with glazes that Harry developed with materials he mined and processed himself.
May made the bells while they were in Izcchaca high in the Peruvian Andes. Instead of a hole and washer at the top of the bell, as directed by Colson, May’s bells had a little cross piece of clay inside from which to attach the wire for the clapper and a loop for hanging on top. There’s nothing revolutionary about her method but it is much better than the hole and washer assembly. I adopted it when I first read her book years ago.
I had forgotten that May also designed bells with a side loop so a string or chain could be attached and pulled for ringing. I have been thinking about making bells that could hang from a frame made of either copper tubing curved into an arch or large beams from the sawmill, two uprights and one crosspiece. A side loop would be perfect.
May Davis hung one of her bells outside their gate. “I was even able to hang up a row,” she wrote, “and get them to ring in thirds, quite an orchestra.” She was a talented violinist and had almost made music her life before choosing pottery, reasoning a potter could make music at night but a musician could not make pots at night.
I like bells in the garden because sound is an important element in the landscape: the sounds of birds and wind and water that nature bestows and the sounds of chimes and bells that we add. So I make bells for my own gardens and I make bells to sell to others for their gardens. I have one delightful customer who buys herself one or two new bells each year. One day I will go see them.
It’s interesting how things happen, the connections, and the paths that lead us to new places. We take ideas from here and there and make them our own. One book sends us to another. Your thoughts create new and different thoughts in me. My thoughts create thoughts in you.
Eventually, I did get back to the box of kids books with my granddaughters and we found some old favorites of their dad’s and surprised him with them. And I decided to reread May in its entirety, not just the very brief section on bells. She and Harry were amazing people who made wonderful pots. And I am having fun reacquainting myself with them through her book.