LIMOGES – LIMOUSIN REGION, WEST-CENTRAL FRANCE
6TH – 8TH JULY 2015.
Limoges is renowned for its fine porcelain production and because up until recently our major source of income was from the sales of porcelain figurines we had to make a visit to see how the big boys did it. How I became involved with clay is a rather fascinating story. I will relate the story later in this post, but first the Limoges railway station.
The station is built from reinforced concrete and covered with limestone slabs. It took from 1924 to 1929 to build and the architectural experts state that it is a mixture of art deco and art nouveau styles with Second Empire influences. Second Empire style had French origins and related specifically to the period 1865 -1880.
And now to how I made a career of ceramics. In the early 1970s when I was working as an engineering surveyor for the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission part of the job involved visiting rural properties and gathering soil samples for analysis to determine if they were suitable for farm dam construction. Part of the analysis was to separate the sands, fines and clay and test the separated clay’s plastic qualities. Testing the clays involved repeatedly rolling a coil of clay to about five millimetres in diameter.
The analysis of the collected soil samples was, in many respects, rather boring, however on the occasion when I was able to roll a long coil I began using the coils to make small pots. Once I started making pots, soil analysis became a lot less boring.
On the floor above my office in Tamworth where I did the soil analysis there was a lady who dabbled in pottery and I often went to her to show her my clay efforts. In retrospect I don’t think she was all that impressed with my creations as she suggested I join the local pottery group with the aim of expanding my creativity. At about this time I met Bev and as a result my interests in pottery waned and they were not revived until we returned from our 1972/3 grand tour of Europe and the Middle East.
The renewed interest came near the end of our 1972/3 travels when Bev and I stayed with a friend in London who had just returned from Israel where she had bought two ceramic figurines. The figurines were nothing fantastic but they had a certain appeal. I sketched the figurines in the back of a book I was reading at the time and thought one day I might make something similar. I reflected back to my soil analysis days and the clays I had tested.
After we returned to Australia we lived in Bingara, a small town to the north of Tamworth. I joined a small ceramic group in the town and not wanting to make pots and bowls I began making figurines. I had no access to the sketches in the back of the book I was reading in London as the book was in a trunk on the way back from England. When the book finally arrived I compared the sketches of the Israeli figurines and they bore only a slight resemblance to what I had made.
I was encouraged by the sale of the first batch of figurines, six in all, and the owner of CESCO, a clay supplier in Sydney said that I should very seriously consider making more figurines and test them on the Sydney market. This I did and it wasn’t all that long before I bought my first kiln and the money from sales began rolling in. The big advantage of being self-employed was freedom. I only worked when necessary and at other times I worked building our mud brick house. In 1981 my friend Ian, who I travelled overland from Colombo to London and through Kenya with in 1970, joined me and since then I have taught him the tricks of the trade and he now runs the business, still making figurines some 40 years later.
For more examples of our figurines and other works go to Ian’s Claycraft Productions web page, http://www.claycraft.com.au
There is no doubt my pottery exploits were a success and its success can be contributed to a number of factors which include my past toolmaking and production engineering knowledge, having a tolerant wife, a sincere business partner (Ian) who got on with the mundane aspects of pottery and lastly, diversification.
Diversification included the making of the Australian Bush Buildings series, which were much sought after as Australians were becoming increasingly interested in Australiana in the late 1980s. Our production peaked in 1988 during Australia’s bicentennial year; it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time and the fact that the media were anxious to show Australia our work. Our miniature dunnies (bush toilets) particularly fascinated them.
At the front of the homestead and under the veranda there is an ice chest (left) and on a table under the right window a bottle of beer and a loaf of bread. At the rear there is a dunny (right corner), a copper used for boiling water for washing, a set of tubs and a 44 gallon drum. All these accoutrements reflected the nostalgia of the good old days and that is why they were so popular.
Following are a few historic images showing our early pottery exploits.
Previously I mentioned that diversification was one factor relating to our success in pottery and one product Ian makes now which is far removed from our original work of figurines and miniature buildings are memorial urns. Deceased ashes are placed in the urn that is then partly buried in the ground. The following photograph shows examples of urns and markers; note the gum leaf and nut sprigging, giving the urns a distinctive Australian flavour.
Venturing into such utilitarian ware was not by accident. At one time we had eight workers in the pottery workshop and one of them mentioned that she had recently become the custodian of her late uncle’s ashes and she didn’t know what to do with them. To solve her dilemma I made an urn for Uncle and since then Claycraft Memorials, operated by Ian, has continued supplying crematoria and lawn cemeteries all over Australia. The standard joke is “he is only trying to ‘urn’ a living”.
Never in our wildest dreams did I think analysing clay samples for dam construction would lead us along the path it has. Today pottery is a shadow of its former self, however we have no regrets and, as is often quoted, ‘every man has his hour and every dog has its day’. Ian and I both raised families and built our own houses with proceeds from ceramics.
On the surface it appears to me that Limoges potteries are going through the same cycle as our business has. Many of the ceramics factories have fallen into disrepair and the ones that are still working appear to be not running at full capacity. Bev and I took to our bikes and rode along the river and found a couple of the factories still in operation.
As we rode this path I thought of the bike riding quotation by author Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes fame): ‘When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope is hardly worth having, just mount a bicycle and go for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking’.
The post and beam half-timbered cottage at the far side of the bridge is in the old quarter and this was where many of the Limoges working class lived. There is a post near the cottage explaining the quarter’s history. The bridge was built in 1215 and is one of two bridges Limoges inherited from the Middle Ages.
The playwright Moliere (1622-1673) mentioned on the plaque was considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in western culture. Unfortunately his devotion to the theatre took its toll on his health and whilst performing on stage he was overcome by a coughing fit and a haemorrhage and died a few hours after completing the performance.
The photograph above contains one very unusual feature and that is the fan in the top floor window on the right. Electric fans are a rarity in Europe but as Europe warms, no doubt due to climate change, sales of fans will increase.
From the St Martial Bridge we rode back to Limoges centre past some of the old ceramics factories. We felt quite at home riding pathways paved with broken pottery.
The factory above was still producing some remarkable porcelain and it was well worth visiting their showrooms. We didn’t buy anything as travelling with bikes does not allow the buying of souvenirs, especially fragile items such as pottery.
Ceramic factories and craft potters all over the developed world these days have either closed or are not running at full capacity and it is due to a number of factors. The cost of production has escalated, people’s tastes have changed and there are so many other material things to spend money on these days. Another reason could be buyers have access to cheaper Asian imports.
Of course the majority of Asian imports come from China and I must say the quality of the ware is not necessarily second grade. Also, because the Chinese are experts in the field of porcelain, copying and counterfeiting European pottery classic pieces has had disastrous effects. Chinese counterfeits are so good that even the experts at prestigious auction houses in Europe are being fooled. The secret of a good counterfeit is in its ageing and those responsible for ageing a pottery item have to be quietly admired for their ingenuity.
Fake methods of ageing include the painting of artificial rust spots, scrubbing of the glaze to reduce its shine, staining the piece by immersing it in acid or urine to make it look old, rubbing soil from ancient graves into the surface in an attempt to establish a false date of manufacture. The pot in the following image is not a Limoges fake but if it was taken to a counterfeiter in China I’m sure they could reproduce a pot that could well fool the experts. The big question the Chinese counterfeiter would ask is ‘how many do you want?’
Porcelain factories are located in Limoges because in the mid 18th century Kaolin, a special white clay suitable for the making of fine porcelain objects of art, was discovered nearby. By the 1830s up to thirty factories were producing a range of undecorated white porcelain artefacts. At the time, undecorated white porcelain was very much a rarity and therefore much sought after.
When we first started making ceramic figurines we used a terracotta clay and glazed them but in an attempt to reduce manufacturing cost we abandoned glazing and opted for undecorated porcelain. Good quality porcelain clay vitrifies and shines naturally.
When Bev and I were strolling the galleries of Limoges we were drawn more often than not to the modern undecorated pieces. The piece in the following photograph is a prime example.
The above creation may or may not be porcelain as it is hard to tell without doing a touch test. Porcelain, fine china and bone china can look similar but they are very different and the difference relates to what type of clay the pieces are made from. Bone china, as its name implies, has bovine bone ash added to the clay. In ancient days human bone ash was sometimes used. The addition of bone ash makes the finished object translucent thus adding to its value. If you have inherited grandma’s tea set that you were told was bone china all you have to do to confirm this is to hold a cup up to the light. If it’s translucent you’re on your way to verifying its nature.
Hands are always difficult to deal with so the artist has overcome the problem by having the figurines’ hands in their pockets.
The hatbox-shaped containers are called staggers and within them are pieces of pottery to be fired. Staggers are made from fired clay and they protect the unfired work. Also the use of staggers eliminates the use of kiln shelves.
Kaolin (porcelain) clay was not the only raw material mined in the Limoges area. Minerals suitable for vitreous enamelling were found in the area as well. It was because of the availability of these minerals and the fact that Limoges was located on one of Europe’s main pilgrimage routes from Paris to Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain that meant small pieces of enamel work with a religious flavour could be sold to pilgrims.
The symbolism of the scallop and its association with the pilgrims’ way was explained in our Salamanca post (June 2015 archives) but in brief it was to do with the body of St John being washed ashore with scallop shells attached.
Vitreous enamel is glass bonded by fusion to a metal surface. I first became conscious of vitreous enamel when I was six years old and was in hospital to have my tonsils removed. A nurse brought me porridge the morning after the operation in a blue and white enamel bowl with chunks missing around the edges. I’m at a loss to know why the event sticks in my mind but it does.
Early in the 19th century it was realised that enamel could be used as a protective coating for utilitarian items such as pot and pans and then refrigerators, stoves, bathtubs and laundry appliances. My mother had a set of enamel pots and they were so valued that when holes appeared in the bottom my father patched them with washers held in place with a small nut and bolt.
A ciborium in this case is a large drinking cup with lid designed to hold the sacramental bread for the Eucharist and ‘champlevé’ refers to the enamelling method employed. This method involves carving recesses onto the metal container and then the recesses are filled with vitreous enamel and fired so the enamel adheres to the metal surface. Champleve is not to be confused with cloisonné enamel where strips of wire soldered to the vessel surface form recesses into which enamel is placed and fired. Another technique is called basse-taile where the bottom of the recesses are left rough and only coloured opaque enamels are used meaning the rough texture gives the vitreous enamel a more subtle appearance.
Fortunately for us we found Jean- Francois Dehays in Limoges, a modern day artist who was happy to explain enamelling techniques.
Following are two examples of Jean-Francois’ enamelling work.
The gallery also sells works from other artists and the work below took our fancy.
The Frilled Neck lizard is so called because of the large ruff of skin, which usually lies along its body. When frightened it activates its frill and opens its mouth exposing a bright pink or yellow lining. The lizard is found only in Northern Australia and in southern New Guinea. It is capable of bipedal locomotion and when seen running at speed up on its hind legs it is a most amusing sight.
On our last day in Limoges we rode along one of the riverside bike paths and came across a public climbing wall. Rock climbing is something we know a little about as when our two boys reached football age we decided we were not that keen on having them involved with contact sports. Soccer was acceptable but not rugby as we had many friends who complained of aching joints requiring knee replacements caused by football injuries when they were young. Bev and I decided to get them involved with abseiling and rock climbing and they received instruction in this sport. Once they were proficient they taught us the skill.
For the uninformed a climbing wall has handholds attached up which the climber carefully negotiates to the top, an associate (belayer) on the ground has a rope attached to a body harness which goes up and over a secure point above the climber. The belayer does not pull the climber up but takes the tension on the rope in the event of the climber falling. Once at the top the climber abseils back down to the bottom. Climbing without a belayer is called bouldering but that is only usually done at low heights.
A cubbyhouse is a small house where children play and store their special treasures. The word cubby is probably from the old English word ‘cub’ relating to stall, pen, coop or hutch.
Once a climber is proficient on the practice wall they can then venture into the wilds and test their skills.
That’s the end of this post. The next post will take us to Paris. We hope you tag along.
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