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.


Auricula Theaters


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.

No matter.

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.