Pottery in Provence

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, Inspiration have 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.

Finding Some Oldies But Goodies

I was prowling around Powell’s with a close knit group of independent booksellers and supposed to be looking at things like signage and displays and floor coverings, when I slipped into the room with the ceramics books and did a bit of private browsing and yes, shopping. After years of obsessive-compulsive ceramic book buying, it was no surprise that many of the tomes on their shelves were back home on my shelves too. I already own most of the books this world famous City of Books offered. But not all.

Years ago I took Dennis Park’s A Potter’s Guide to Raw Glazing and Oil Firing out of the library and read it carefully, but could not afford to buy it at that time. I do own his delightful memoir, Living in the Country Growing Weird: A Deep Rural Adventure. Powell’s copy was in excellent shape, and since I have single-fired all these years, I thought it would be fun and maybe useful to reread.

It was fun to reread. What a different world we lived in then. There’s innocence to the book and a refreshing sense of optimism. To my surprise, I don’t raw glaze at all the way Parks does (or did then). I glaze my pots in the leather hard or green stage by pouring. I always pour the inside first and wait a day or two before glazing the exterior. For my glazes and my clay, this has been problem free. He advocates glazing pots when they are bone dry, which works for him, but is disastrous for me.

I also found a beautiful hardcover 1886 edition of The Art of the Old English Potter by L. M. Solon. It is a wonderful object in and of itself, with a gold stamped cloth cover, sewn binding, and smooth creamy paper. Solon, whom I know nothing about, except what can be gleaned from reading the book, made detailed etchings of the pots he discusses. He was a very close observer.

He loves the old English country pottery, and collects slipware himself. Relishing in the old names for pots, he tells us that a cruske, cruskyn or cruche is a jug; that a gallipot is a small mug; and a costeril is a flask to be slung over the shoulder.

Here is his description of a typical seventeenth century pottery in the Moorlands cribbed, he confesses, from Miss Meteyard’s biography of Wedgwood:

“The oven – only one – was eight feet high and six feet wide. It was surrounded by a wall of broken saggers to keep the heat in, and this wall, later on became the hovel. It stood in a secluded spot, most often at the crossing of two roads, near a little stream of water. Round the oven clustered the open sheds where the different operations necessary to complete each piece were performed, and the family dwelling, a small thatched cottage. The thrower worked in one place; the contrivance he used was of the simplest description, being rather a ‘whirler’ than a potter’s wheel. The potter’s wheel is kept in rotation, while the hand that fashions the clay into shape remains fixed; the whirler differs from the wheel in this respect, that one hand turns it at intervals, bringing successively before the other hand the parts that have to be rounded. Next to the thrower sat the handler, sticking on the handles and spouts; what tools he used were certainly very primitive, being nothing more than a pointed bit of iron and a flattened strop of wood. In another shed were the man who traced upon the best pieces fanciful scrolls and lines of slip, and he who through a course cloth dusted upon them the pulverized galena for glazing. Very often the same man performed all these different tasks. Close by, the diluted clay was evaporated in the sun-pan, until it became thick enough to be conveniently worked, or else the moistened clay was thrown against a dry wall, from which, the water becoming evaporated, the lumps fell upon the ground, ready to be stored in a damp place for further use. Isolated from the rest of the world the potter worked there, attended by his sons and his wife. Sometimes a labourer or two completed the staff, which never seems to have numbered more than eight people. When the stock was ready for sale, the wife took it to the nearest fair, leading, pipe in mouth, the double-panniered asses, and there either sold her goods to the cratemen, or exchanged them at the town shops for such articles as she wanted to take back home.”

Solon gives his history in chronological order, beginning with the Roman occupation and ending with the ornate molded pots made in Industrial age potworks. Though he likes the early pots, he clearly thinks the fancy pots are superior, an opinion with which many of us today, including myself, would vehemently disagree.

Curiously, both Parks and Solon show the heartbreaking sculpture the 17th century potter John Dwight made of Lydia, his baby daughter while grieving her death. Parks has a photo in his book and does not comment except to say in the caption that Dwight was credited with introducing salt glaze to England. Solon made an etching of the piece and tells us that the sorrowing father also made a cast of his baby girl’s hand.

The third book I found was John Spargo’s Early American Pottery and China, published in 1926. Also written for collectors, it is illustrated with nice black and white photos of some truly wonderful pots. Like Solon, Spargo believes that the fancy molded pots of later years were a step forward in the potter’s art, but he spends considerable time on early American redware and stoneware and the potters who made it. He has done extensive work researching potters and offers several charts such as one titled, “A Chronological List of Potters Known or Believed to Have Made Slip-Decorated and Sgraffito Wares” with potters’ names, locations, the dates they worked, and any marks if any.

No one would mistake any of these books as being written today, but I think they were each a good find, and the perfect prelude to reading The Last Sane Man, the biography of Michael Cardew which just landed in American bookstores and of course, my own reading pile.

Traditional Earthenware of Britain

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.

Ewenny Jugs

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.