Published 4th December 2015
Bernard Palissy (1510-1589), a religious man and something of a polymath, flourished in France during the troubled spread of Protestantism. A Renaissance man, writer, philosopher, naturalist and artist, living in the village of Saintes, Bordeaux in the late 1530s. Primarily working as a stained glass maker, portrait painter and land surveyor, he turned to clay when his 'artistic' work dried up.
The transition was far from easy and it took many years of trial and error and bouts of poverty before in 1555 he was successful. At one critical point, Palissy claims to have fuelled his kiln with his garden fence, the flooring in his house and his furniture!
Subsequently, Palissy became renowned for making playful rustic wares inspired by the flora and fauna around him. Often having the air of a garden pond or marsh about them, they were exquisitely modelled with glossy wet looking lizards, snakes, fish and frogs, all accurately rendered as they were more often than not moulded from the carcasses of little beasties.
At the time, France was in the grip of the Reformation and Bernard Palissy, a Huguenot who would not renounce his faith, was imprisoned on a number of occasions, finally succumbing to malnourishment in the Bastille in 1589. His skills and techniques died with him as he was understandably reluctant to share skills that were hard won during his early years.
However, the 'concept' didn't completely disappear. Several French faience manufacturers did produce tureens in the form of birds and boars heads and many produced tromp l'oeil fruits and vegetables during the 18th century though none achieved even passable realism.
The rebirth of Palissy Ware occurred in Tours with the Avisseau family of potters in the mid-19th century; led by Charles Jean Avisseau history seemed to repeat itself. He, too, had firing problems and unacceptable losses in the kiln – worse still his florid work didn't travel or handle well and often ended up in pieces in the hands of new owners. Unlike Palissy, Avisseau actually sculpted his animals from scratch rather than moulding from specimens.
Another significant proponent in Tours was Joseph Landais, Avisseau's brother-in-law, with whom he had an acrimonious three month partnership and then feuded with for the rest of his life!
As the century progressed, the Tours School supported many others such as Leon Brard, the Chauvigné family, George Delperier, Louis Tinier and Octave Deniau to name a few.
Paris became a rival centre when Victor Barbizet and his son Achille Barbizet started a workshop undercutting Tours by using 'mass production' techniques. They were able to manufacture prolifically by pressing clay into premade moulds and finishing by hand before assembly.
Contemporaries in Paris include Georges Pull who made copies of Bernard Palissy's work, often passed off as the real thing on the resale market, despite being signed. Others worthy of mention include François Maurice and Thomas Victor Sergent and countless others elsewhere across France.
Palissy Ware came to wider popularity when the Victoria & Albert Museum purchased several pieces at the Paris Exposition in 1855 and the trend spread further with a contemporaneous, but stylistically different centre of production around the town of Caldas da Rainha in Portugal. Also there are very obvious links with the majolica wares produced by Minton and George Jones, who looked to be just a teensy bit influenced by what was happening over the Channel.
French Palissy Ware - Rustic Pottery inspired by the Natural World was written on Friday, 4th December 2015.