The Town, The People and The Pottery
Volume 25 Number 10
Quimper...pronounced "kem-pair"...is a town in northwestern France. It is also a people and a pottery.
To the people of Quimper, the town name is Kemper, which in their language describes a confluence of rivers. ("Quimper" is a somewhat nonsensical rendition as not all the Breton dialects have a "Q" and a true French pronunciation would be different from the actual "kem-pair"). At any rate, "confluence of rivers" is an apt description, as the town is situated at the juncture of two rivers, the Odet and the Steir. Two other rivers, the Jet and the Frout, are close-by, but travel underground through the town limits. Historically, this close proximity to rivers meant an ideal place to establish a pottery factory and thus, Quimper has been a pottery town for centuries. Its "recent" history of continuous pottery production begins in 1708. (Previous accounts put the date as 1690, but history is not written in stone and recent findings have provided further information).
By the last decade of the nineteenth century, three pottery factories were operating in the town of Quimper. One was the Porquier factory, another was known as the Grande Maison or De la Hubaudière factory, and the third, owned by Jules Henriot, was called the Faïencerie d’Art Breton. Tin-glazed earthenware, known in France as faïence, was a popular product, especially pieces that were hand-painted with scenes depicting life in the region of Brittany.
The making of faïence is an art. Especially in the early days, prior to the introduction of more modern methods, when both the technical and artistic skills necessary to make a piece of faïence were quite daunting. Extremely difficult to master its making, I've been known to liken faïence to being the "puff pastry" of pottery production.
The use of an opaque tin glaze is one factor that distinguishes faïence from other types of pottery...pieces made by this process were known as faïence in France, Spain, Germany, and Austria; in the Netherlands, they were called Delft; in England, the term was Delftware; and in Renaissance Italy, such pieces were called maiolica...not to be confused with majolica, that's actually a trade name of the Minton pottery in England for a Victorian-era product made using substantially different glazes and production methods.
The tradition of Quimper faïence production continues today. But much like the comparison of a Model T with a current Ford Motor Company product, today’s Quimper is very different from vintage Quimper. In many fields of collecting there is a line of demarcation; for Quimper pottery that line is World War II. Modern techniques and machinery introduced in the days after World War II resulted in the creation of a different product. Vintage Quimper refers to pieces made prior to that time period; later production falls into the collectible genre.
Here at www.oldquimper.com, we extol the virtues of vintage Quimper pottery and invite you to come along as we further explore old Quimper...The Town, The People, and The Pottery. If you've just joined us, since 1999 we've been using these pages to share the beauty and intrigue of vintage Quimper pottery and, at the same time, do some "traveling" in the Brittany region...and, indeed, over the years, we have visited some of the most picturesque towns of Brittany...each one delightfully different.
Each month, this depiction of King Gradlon by Quimper-born artist Pierre Toulhoat (1923-2014) will herald in a new article about Quimper...The Town, The People and The Pottery.
For several months, we've been writing about the specialty markets that played such an important part in the lives of Bretons in past decades...actually going back for centuries. Markets for fruits and vegetables, markets for livestock, even markets for Quimper pottery. We looked at how the various markets, the products themselves as well as the related activities were represented as decorative motifs used by the potteries in Quimper.
The most recent topic was fish and fishing...an important product and activity in Brittany and we related how the potteries celebrated fish and other sea creatures...both as form and décor along...illustrating the article with images of fish markets and fishmongers at work.
This arabesque-bordered Porquier-Beau platter shows the lighter side of fishing...entitled "petits pêcheurs Elliant", it is marked in Porquier albums as #20 of Alfred Beau's watercolors.
...Brittany's proximity to the ocean and its numerous rivers and streams abound with aquatic life and while the two youngsters on the PB platter were hoping to catch a fish to bring home for dinner, many a Quimper pottery collector would be more excited about "catching" a fish like this Henriot jardinière...
...or this colorful platter featuring an eel "swimming" amongst the flowers at the Musée de la Faïence. It's a Porquier-Beau example...old...dating from circa 1875 and an uncommon piece, so the break on the left has minimal effect on its desirability.
Children may have had the luxury of fishing leisurely, but for adults, it was a more serious affair. The commercial catching of what lies beneath the seas resulted in colorful scenes that also found their way onto Quimper faïence, grès or terre vernissée.
These two Quimper figural groups were produced at Henriot after a mold sculpted by Mathurin Méheut. They depict shrimpers...a man and a woman...posing in front of their net that has been set up to dry. One figural has a monochrome glaze in white...often favored by sculptors for its concentrated emphasis on the form; the other is a "luxury edition" with additional gold highlights.
This vintage photo postcard features a petite bretonne with a much smaller net gathering shrimp from the Odet...one of the rivers that runs through town.
An HR Quimper plate with shrimp in the center surrounded by native Breton flowers.
Perhaps this is her partner...on a HR Quimper platter ! In this case, the motif is based on an Alfred Beau watercolor...the result of the Henriot pottery's purchase of Porquier materials after the latter pottery had ceased operations.
Another crustacean delicacy for which Brittany is justifiably famous is lobster...
A petite bretonne selling lobsters...Marchande de homards, Paramé. This Porquier-Beau plate was hand-painted with an Alfred Beau motif based on watercolor #56. Paramé. The village of Paramé was once separate, but is now a neighborhood of Saint-Malo.
Another Beau motif...a lobster spread across the yellow-bordered table service that was an early result of his collaboration with the Porquier pottery.
In the early 1930s, Charles Maillard designed a lobster-themed service for Henriot. This is the serving dish; the set also included individual plates and lobster-handled forks.
During the Occupation of World War II, the Henriot pottery was ordered to produce commemorative pieces...this plate...entitled "War Christmas" in German dates from 1943 and was intended for a member of a specific submarine base. In the center, shields of Brittany and the base are held aloft by a distinctive Breton blue lobster.
In the early 1950s, Guy Trévaux reprised the Maillard form, giving it a black background glaze and a variety of shellfish motifs.
The collecting of lobsters, crabs and other shellfish was an arduous task...in the Mathurin Méheut illustration above a storm is approaching, necessitating the hauling of the wooden traps up the rocky coastal cliffs for safety.
Once safely harvested, the shellfish served as inspiration...this plate from Méheut's Service de la Mer for Henriot features a variety of what the traps could have contained...
Another Service de la Mer plate with a Méheut shellfish motif.
Mussels and a scallop are joined by an insect on this Porquier-Beau plate...
But if a Christmas or New Year's Eve dinner celebration is any judge...the shellfish of choice in Brittany is the oyster...
This is the cover of a vintage menu from the celebrated Paris restaurant Prunier. The artwork is by none other than René-Yves Creston and is entitled Lavage du Naissain, Ile de Cuhan (Morbihan).
Creston's illustrations on vintage Prunier menus follow the various steps in raising oysters; the Breton above is washing the "baby" oysters...known as naissain in French and "spat" in English.
On this menu illustration...entitled Grattage des Tuiles, La Trinité (Morbihan)...Creston documents the process of scratching the surface of clay roof tiles used to provide a base on which the oysters can mature.
Creston's Mise des Civières à Terre...roughly "put the stretchers in the ground"...features a couple of sturdy Bretonnes carrying the oyster platforms to where they will be installed.
All this activity eventually results in oysters for consumption...which in turn, gives the Quimper potters an opportunity to create dedicated pieces for serving them.
Individual plates for serving oysters, this pair are from the HB pottery circa 1930.
This HB oyster plate dates from circa 1955. The decorative motif is an updated and simpler version of the pottery's earlier broderie designs.
Two Henriot oyster plates; the first dates from the 1920s and the second is from the 1950s.
Paul Fouillen puts his own original spin on the serving of oysters with this circa 1930 plate.
From the 1950s, a colorful plate for serving oysters à la Keraluc.
The absolute epitome of Quimper faIence designed for serving oysters ! I "discovered" it, while volunteering at the Musée de la Faïence for the once-a-year occasion when the public is invited to bring their pieces for an expert identification and evaluation. It is HR Quimper, circa 1915, a complete matched set, all original and in pristine condition !
That's it for this issue...our exploration of Brittany...its towns, its people and its pottery...will continue in our next webisode. We publish a new issue on or about the first of each month...with a double issue for July/August. If you would like an email reminder when a new issue comes out, please contact us at email@example.com. ...and be sure to check your computer settings...because sometimes unless you change them, we end up in your SPAM folder !